The Lute 

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I know the lute, Oft have I sung to thee: We are both out of tune... Go break this lute upon my coach's wheel as the last music that I e'er shall make; Not as my husband's gift, but my farewell in all earth's joys...

Thomas Heywood,
A Woman Killed with Kindness

Have you Seen but a White Lily Grow
(soprano voice with lute accompaniment)
I Care not for these Ladies
(bass voice with lute accompaniment)
canario - dance tune by Fabrito Carioso
(fifth verse by lute)
Io Vorrie Pur Fuggir - Italian Counterpoint
(26mb mpg video)

During the Renaissance the lute held the highest respect of all musical instruments. The repertoire for this courtly instrument is vast. Delicacy, expressiveness and nuance of performance were made possible when the use of a plectrum to pluck the strings was replaced by use of the fingers. The lute was an ideal accompaniment for voice and other soft instruments, and the most eloquent of all solo instruments. In paintings and other art works the lute is often associated with Apollo, angels, or Orpheus, and it is often mentioned at climactic points in tragedies.

On the other hand, the lute also played a prominent role in comedy. The heroines of Dekker's The Honest Whore and Marston's The Dutch Courtesan are "professional" lutenists. Shakespeare describes Katharina's ill-fated lute lesson in The Taming of the Shrew: I did but tell her she mistook her frets, and bowed her hand to teach her fingering; When with a most impatient, devilish spirit, 'Frets, call you these?' quoth she, 'I'll fume with them.' And with that word she struck me on the head, And through the instrument my pate made way, And there I stood amazed for a while, As on a pillory, looking through the lute; While she did call me rascal fiddler And twangling Jack, with twenty such vile terms, As had she studied to misuse me so.
 

Although the greatest repertoire for the lute is from England, the best makers were Germans who lived in Italy. The delicacy and expressiveness of Renaissance lute music is mirrored in the light construction of the instrument. Its belly is made of pine, often only one-sixteenth inch thick, with a carved sound-hole or rose in the middle. Some lute bodies will allow light to pass through. Wooden bars glued underneath the belly strengthen it and add to the resonance. The pear shaped back is constructed from several ribs, shaped and bent over a mold, and then glued together edge to edge. These ribs may be made of sycamore, cedar, yew, or cypress, and often are no more than one-thirty-second of an inch in thickness. Stringing is light since the body is not able to withstand twelve or more strings at high tension. Plucking is done with the soft part of the fingers and thumb, not the nails. The best lute players use little motion of either hand.
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Beverley Minster - click to enlarge The lute goes out of tune easily, which prompted Mattheson to complain that a lutenist spends most of his life tuning rather than actually playing the instrument. During the Baroque period, the lute was replaced by various keyboard instruments which could more easily accomodate the new virtuoso solo and continuo style playing typical of that period. 

What is the cause, my Dear-Renowned Lute That are of late so Silent and so Mute? The World is grown so Slight, full of New Fangles And takes their chief Delight in Jingle-Jangles.

Thomas Mace, Musick's Monument (1676)
Musica Antiqua's lute has eight courses consisting of fifteen strings. It was built by James Mackie of Minneapolis and is made of cherry with a spruce top and rosewood finger board. Audience members looking at the lute are always amazed at its light weight.

Musica Antiqua Instruments

Additional Resources:

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Lute notation by Melchior Neusidler of Nurenberg
(1531-1590?)
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