1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lute

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LUTE (Arabic al'ūd, “the wood”; Fr. luth; Ital. liuto; Span. laud; Ger. Laute; Dut. luit), an ancient stringed musical instrument, derived in form as well as name from the Arabs. The complete family consisted of the pandura, tanbur or mandoline as treble, the lute as alto or tenor, the barbiton or theorbo as bass, and the chitarrone as double bass. The Arab instrument, with convex sound-body, pointing to the resonance board or membrane having been originally placed upon a gourd, was strung with silk and played with a plectrum of shell or quill. It was adopted by the Arabs from Persia. Instruments with vaulted backs are all undoubtedly of Eastern origin; the distinct type, resembling the longitudinal section of a pear, is more specially traced in ancient India, Persia and the countries influenced by their civilization. This type of instrument includes many families which became known during the middle ages of western Europe, being introduced into southern Europe and Spain by the Moors, into southern Russia by the Persians of the Sassanian period, into Greece from the confines of the Byzantine Empire. As long as the strings were plucked by fingers or plectrum the large pear-shaped instrument may be identified as the archetype of the lute. When the bow, obtained from Persia, was applied to the instrument by the Arabs, a fresh family was formed, which was afterwards known in Europe as rebab and later rebec. The largest member of the ancient lute family — the bass lute or theorbo — has been identified with the barbiton.

Britannica Rebab Pear-shaped Rebab from Goshen.jpg
Fig. 1. — Post-Mycenaean terra-cotta figure, with ancient lute (1000 B.C.) from the cemetery at Goshen.

Until recently the existence of these ancient stringed instruments was presumed on the evidence of the early medieval European instruments and of the meagre writings extant, such as those of Fārābī.[1] But a chain of plastic evidence can now be offered, beginning with the Greek post-Mycenaean age (c. 1000 B.C.). A statuette of a female musician playing upon a large lute with only an embryonic neck, on which nevertheless the left hand is stopping strings, was unearthed in Egypt in a tomb of the XXth Dynasty in the cemetery of Goshen by the members of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt,[2] under the direction of Professor Flinders Petrie, to whose courtesy we owe the photograph (fig. 1) here reproduced. It is difficult to form a conclusive opinion as to the number of strings the artist intended to represent, owing to the decorative figures following the direction of the strings, but, judging from the position of the right hand plucking a string, there may have been seven. Among a number of terra-cotta figures of musicians, brought to light during the excavations in a Tell at Suza and dating from the 8th century B.C.,[3] although there is no instrument that might be identified with the alto lute, the treble lute or tanbur is represented with a long, curved neck and a head bent back to increase the tension, and there is also an instrument having a smaller and more elongated body than the lute. On one of the friezes from Afghanistan presented to the British Museum by Major-General Cunningham, which formed the risers of steps leading to the tope at Jumal Garhi, dating from the 1st century A.D are represented scenes of music and dancing. Here the archetype of the lute appears several times; it had four strings, and the head was bent back at right angles to the neck. In the 6th century A.D illustrations of this early lute are no longer rare, more especially on Persian silver-work of the Sassanian period[4] and in the paintings of the Buddhist cave-temples of Ajanta.[5] Several representations of the barbiton are extant from the classical Roman period.

The modern Egyptian 'ūd is the direct descendant of the Arabic lute, and, according to Lane, is strung with seven pairs of catgut strings played by a plectrum. A specimen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, given by the khedive, has four pairs only, which appears to have been the old stringing of the instrument. When frets (cross-lines dividing the neck or finger-board to show the fingering) are employed they are of catgut disposed according to the Arabic scale of seventeen intervals in the octave, consisting of twelve limmas. an interval rather less than our equal semitone, and five commas, which are very small but quite recognizable differences of pitch.

The lute family is separated from the guitars, also of Eastern origin, by the formation of the sound body, which is in all lutes pear-shaped, without the sides or ribs necessary to the structure of the flat-backed guitar and cither. Observing this distinction, we include with the lute the little Neapolitan mandoline of 2 ft. long and the large double-necked Roman chitarrone, not infrequently 6 ft. long. Mandolines are partly strung with wire, and are played with a plectrum, indispensable for metal or short strings. Perhaps the earliest lutes were so played, but the large lutes and theorbos strung with catgut have been invariably touched by the fingers only, the length permitting this more sympathetic means of producing the tone.

Britannica Lute.png
Fig. 2. — Lute, by Venere Padua.

Praetorius,[6] writing when the lute was in universal favour, mentions seven varieties distinguished by size and tuning. The smallest would be larger than a mandoline, and the melody string, the “chanterelle,” often a single string, lower in pitch. Praetorius calls this an octave lute, with the chanterelle C or D. The two discant lutes have respectively B and A, the alto G, the tenor E, the bass D, and the great octave bass G, an octave below the alto lute which may be taken as the model lute cultivated by the amateurs of the time. The bass lutes were theorbos, that is, double-necked lutes, as described below. The accordance of an alto lute was Britannica Lute Alto Tuning.png founded upon that of the original eight-stringed European lute, to which the highest and lowest notes had, in course of time, been added. A later addition was the Britannica Lute Addition.png also on the finger-board, and bass strings, double or single, known as diapasons, which, descending to the deep C of the violoncello, were not stopped with the fingers. The diapasons were tuned as the key of the piece of music required. Fig. 2 represents an Italian instrument made by one of the most celebrated lute makers, Venere of Padua, in 1600; it is 3 ft. 6 in. high, and has six pairs of unisons and eight single diapasons. The finger-board, divided into approximately equal half tones by the frets, as a rule eight in number, was often further divided on the higher notes, for ten, eleven, or, as in the woodcut, even twelve, semitones. The head, bearing the tuning pegs, was placed at an obtuse or a right angle to the neck, to increase the bearing of the strings upon the nut, and be convenient for sudden requirements of tuning during performance, the trouble of keeping a lute in tuneā being proverbial.

The lute was in general use during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 18th it declined; still J. S. Bach wrote a “partita” for it. The latest date we have met with of an engraved publication for the lute is 1760.

The large double-necked lute, with two sets of- tuning pegs, the lower for the finger-board, the higher for the diapason strings, was known as the theorbo; also, and especially in England, as the archlute; and, in a special form, the neck being then very long, as the chitarrone. Theorbo and chitarrone appear together at the close of the 16th century, and their introduction was synchronous with the rise of accompanied monody in music, that is, of the oratorio and the opera. Peri, Caccini and Monteverde used theorbos to accompany their newly-devised recitative, the invention of which in Florence, from the impulse of the Renaissance, is well known. The height of a theorbo varied from 3 ft. 6 in. to 5 ft., the Paduan being always the largest, excepting the Roman 6-ft. long chitarrone. These large lutes had very deep notes, and doubtless great liberties were allowed in tuning, but the strings on the finger-board followed the lute accordance already given, or another quoted by Baron (Untersuchung des Instruments der Lauten, Nuremberg, 1727) as the old theorbo or “violway” (see Mace, Musick's Monument, London, 1676): —

Britannica Lute Theorbo Tuning.png

We find again both these accordances varied and transposed a tone higher, perhaps with thinner strings, or to accommodate local differences of pitch. Praetorius recommends the chanterelles of theorbos being tuned an octave lower on account of the great strain. By such a change, another authority, the Englishman Thomas Mace, says, the life and spruceness of airy lessons were quite lost. The theorbo or archlute had at last to give way to the violoncello and double bass, which are still used to accompany the “recitativo secco” in oratorios and operas. Handel wrote a part for a theorbo in Esther (1720); after that date it appears no more in orchestral scores, but remained in private use until nearly the end of the century.

The lute and the organ share the distinction of being the first instruments for which the oldest instrumental compositions we possess were written. For the lute, however, they were not written in our present notation, but in tablature, “lyrawise,” a system by which as many lines were drawn horizontally as there were pairs of strings on the finger-board, the frets, distributed at intervals of a semitone, being distinguished by the letters of the alphabet, repeated from A, representing the open string, for each line. This was the English and French manner; the Italian was by numbers instead of letters. The signs of time were placed over the stave, and were not repeated unless the mensural values changed. (A. J. H.; K. S.)


  1. See Latin translation by J. G. L. Kosegarten, Alii Ispahenensis Liber . . . Arabice editur adjectaque translatione adnotationibusque illustratus (Greifswald, 1840).
  2. See Hyksos and Israelite Cities, by W. M. Flinders Petrie and J. Garrow Duncan, 1906 (double volume), Brit. Sch. of Arch.
  3. J. de Morgan, Délégation en Perse (Paris, 1900), vol. i. pl. viii. Nos. 8, 7 and 9.
  4. See “The Treasures of the Oxus,” catalogue of the Franks Bequest to the British Museum by Ormonde M. Dalton (London, 1905), pl. xxvi. No. 190; see also J. R. Aspelin, “Les antiquités du nord,” No. 608; also for further references, Kathleen Schlesinger, “Precursors of the Violin Family,” pt. ii. of The Instruments of the Orchestra, pp. 407-408, and appendix B, pp. 492-493; and Gazette archéologique (Paris, 1886), vol. xi. pl. x. and p. 70.
  5. By John Griffiths (London, 1896), vol. ii. pl. 105, cave I. 10, e.
  6. Syntagm. Music. pt. ii., “Organographie” (Wolfenbüttel, 1618), pp. 30 and 58-61.