A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Lute

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LUTE (Fr. Luth; Ital. Liuto; Germ. Laute; Spanish Laud; Port. Alaude). A large and beautiful stringed instrument with a long neck and fretted fingerboard; at one time much in use, but now obsolete. In mediæval Latin the lute is called Testudo and the guitar Cithara, both inaccurate identifications of ancient Greek instruments of very different construction. [See Lyre.] The lute is of Oriental origin, and its Arabic name Al'ud—from which its European names are derived by the omission of the initial vowel of the definite [1]article Al. The Portuguese Alaude alone retains it. The lute became known throughout the West in the time of the Crusades. We class the Russian Kobsa as a lute: while the Balalaika of the same country is of the guitar kind. As in the viol di gamba and violoncello, the formal difference between a lute and a guitar is to be found in the back, which in the lute is pear-shaped and in the guitar is flat. The lute is without ribs, which are essential to the framing of the guitar. [See Guitar.]

The invention of stringed instruments with fingerboards, or the neck serving as a fingerboard, precedes the earliest historical monuments. The long-necked Egyptian Nefer was certainly depicted in the 4th dynasty; and wall-painting of the time of Moses, preserved in the British Museum, shows that it then had frets. We observe a similar instrument in Assyrian monuments, and the Hebrew Nebel has been supposed to be one. Strangely enough the Greeks had it not. The Arabs derived the lute from Persia, and with the instrument a finesse in the division of the octave into smaller parts than our semitones, rendered possible by the use of frets, and still an Asiatic peculiarity; the best authorities assuring us that the modern Arabian ud and tambura are thus adjusted. It is usual to speak of these fractions as ⅓ of a tone. Kiesewetter however ('Musique des Arabes,' Leipzig, 1842, pp. 32, 33) gives the Persian-Arab scale as a division of 17 in the octave; 12 of the intervals being the Pythagorean limma (not quite our equal semitone), and 5 of the dimension of the comma, an interval, though small, quite recognisable by a trained ear. [See Comma.] Mr. Engel ('Musical Instruments,' 1874, p. 60) states that the Arabs became acquainted with the Persian lute before their conquest of the country, and names an Arab musician who, sent to the Persian king to learn singing and performance on the lute, brought it to Mekka in the 6th century of our era. The strings of the Arab lute are of twisted silk, an Asiatic, especially Chinese, material for strings. The same, bound round the neck, has served for the frets. [See Frets.] The modern Egyptian lute, named [2]oud or e'oud, of which there is a specimen at South Kensington, and an excellent woodcut in Lane's 'Modern Egyptians,' chap, v., has seven pairs of gut strings, and is moreover played with a plectrum of eagle's or vulture's quill.

The Western lute was a Mediæval and a Renaissance instrument. It flourished during the creative period of Gothic architecture and later, its star beginning to pale as the violin quartet arose, and setting altogether when the pianoforte became in general use. There were publications for the lute as late as 1740–6 Sonatas by Falkenhagen, Nuremberg; and, 1760, Gellert's Odes by Beyer. The great J. S. Bach himself wrote three sets of pieces for the lute. Carl F. Becker has described them in 'Die Hausmusik in Deutschland,' Leipzig 1840. He gives (p. 54) their titles—'Partita al Liuto, composta del Sign. J. S. Bach' (in C minor), 'Pièces pour le Lut, par J. S. Bach'; lastly, 'Fuga del Signore J. S. Bach' (in G minor), of which the subject—

{ \time 4/4 \key g \minor \relative d' { r8 d[ d d] d[ c16 bes] c8[ a] | bes4 ees a, \bar "||" s16 } }

is to be found in a violin sonata by the same composer. These lute pieces were in MS. May we think with Becker that it was not improbable that Bach played the lute?

Line drawing of a lute with 5 free strings and 6 strings over a fretted fingerboard. there is a decoration of roses on the face.To proceed to the description of the instrument. The pear-shaped or vaulted body of the lute is built up of staves of pine or cedar. The belly, of pine, has a sound-post beneath the bridge, [App. p.706. "omit the clause between the commas, as the lute is not furnished with a soundpost"] like a violin, and one or more sound-bars for support and to assist the resonance. It is graduated in thickness towards the edges and is pierced with from one to three sound-holes in decorative knots or rose patterns. Great pains were evidently taken in choosing and making this very essential part of the instrument. Attached to the body is a neck of moderate length covered by a finger-board divided by frets of brass or catgut into a measured scale. The strings were entirely of catgut until towards the end of the 17th century, when silver spun bass strings were introduced. There would appear by comparison of old lutes to have been much diversity in the stringing and tuning, and there is a broad division in the large lutes between those notes, generally in pairs of unisons, which lie over the finger-board and frets, and the diapason notes that are not stopped, and serve only to determine the key or modulation. When off the finger-board these deeper strings were attached to pegs elevated by a second and higher neck. These extended instruments became known as theorboes, and in time virtually banished the older single-necked lutes. [See Chitarrone, Theorbo, and Archlute, the bass theorbo.] The fingers of the right hand, without a plectrum, touched the strings pizzicato in melody or chords. The tender charm and colouring of the lute-player's tone can, in these days of exaggerated sonorousness, be scarcely imagined. The frets of the finger-board followed a division by half-tones, and in the old lutes were eight to each pair of strings. Later, as will be presently shewn, they were carried farther in the higher strings. Mace (Musick's Monument; London, 1676, p. 50) said nine was the best number, but there was a limitation to this stopping nearer the bridge, by the proportions of the strings in length, thickness, and weight being unduly disturbed to the detriment of the tone. According to Baron ('Untersuchung des Instruments der Lauten,' Nuremberg, 1727) and an older authority, Praetorius, the lute had originally four open notes (a); in course of time two G's were added (b).

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \cadenzaOn \clef bass c4^"(a)" f a d' \bar "||" g,^"(b)" c f a d' g' \bar "||" }

Melchior Neusiedler of Augsburg, who was living A.D. 1574, added the F below the bass G, making thirteen strings in all, the highest, or Chanterelle, being a single string. This compass Baron calls Gamaut, and the deeper bass strings he calls Brummer or Bombarte, the finer ones Bombärtlein. Brummer was usually applied, and the appellations in German, Italian, and English were as follows:—

G. Quintsaite.—Canto.—Treble.
D. Kleinsangsaite.—Sottana.—Small Mean.
A. Grossangsaite.—Mezzana.—Great Mean.
F. Kleinbrummer.—Tenore.—Counter Tenor.
C. Mittelbrummer.—Bordone.—Tenor.
G. Grossbrummer.—Basso.—Bass.

At page 122 of his work, Baron gives the compass of an 'eleven course' lute thus,

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \cadenzaOn \clef bass c,4 d, e, f, g, a, d f a \clef treble d' f' s }

the two highest (the melody strings) being single, the remainder pairs. His division of the fingerboard has ten frets for the F; eleven for the G; and twelve for each of the highest six. There is thus a compass of 3½ octaves from C below the bass stave to the F on the fifth line of the treble stave. We gather further from him that this tuning would represent 'cammer,' or theatre pitch; for the 'chor,' or church pitch, the chanterelle would be tuned to the treble G, to the greater peril of the strings. Praetorius ('Organographia,' Wolfenbüttel, 1619, p. 49) has G for the chanterelle. There were, at last, thirteen pairs of strings in large lutes, descending at the tuner's pleasure to the deep A or G. Mace (p. 41) explains a large compass of strings as bringing the stopping 'to a natural form and aptitude for the hand.' There were other tunings besides the above D minor. Mace gives a new French tuning in E minor, and a 'flat' tuning which he preferred; referring to that we quote from Baron (b) as the old lute, theorbo, or viol-way: but he wisely remarks (p. 191) 'that tuning upon any instrument which allows the artist most scope, freedom and variety, with most ease and familiarity, to express his conceptions most fully and completely, without limitation or restraint throughout all the keys, must needs be accounted the best.'

It must have been very troublesome to keep a lute in order. Mace, in his often-quoted work, recommends that a lute should be kept in a bed which is in constant use, and goes on to say that once in a year or two, if you have not very good luck, you will be constrained to have the belly taken off as it will have sunk from the stretch of the strings, 'which is a great strength.' Matheson said a lutenist of eighty years old had certainly spent sixty in tuning his instrument, and that the cost in Paris of keeping a horse or a lute was about the same. Baron replied that the horse would soon be like one of Pharaoh's lean kine.

In Italian lutes of early date the tuning pegs were disposed diagonally across the head in two rows, the projections for tuning being at the back. They were afterwards inserted at the side of the head as in a violin, the head being bent back at an obtuse or even a right angle to the neck. Ultimately metal screws replaced the pegs, but only when large single strings were put on instead of double strings. The lute is now esteemed solely for the great beauty of its form and design. Inlays of various hard woods, tortoiseshell, ivory, and mother of pearl, and sometimes painting on the sound-board, have been employed to decorate them. Through their decorative value many lutes have been preserved: the violin makers have however destroyed more for the sake of the wood, which is prized for repairing old fiddles. Lutes and viols having been made by the same artists, the word luthier in French still designates a maker of violins (compare German Luther).

The lute-player had not our musical notation; systems special to the instrument, and known as Tablature, being long in vogue. Many instruction books were written for the lute, with examples in tablature; the oldest known to exist in this country is the 'Lauttenbuch' of Wolf Heckel (Strasburg, 1562) preserved in the Library of the Sacred Harmonic Society. The next in order of date is in the British Museum, being an English translation by F. K. (London, 1574), of the famous Tutor of Adrien Le Roy, which had appeared in Paris in 1551. There is another in the same library by Thomas Robinson, written in the form of a dialogue (London, 1603). We must not omit the treatise by Thomas Mace (London, 1676) to which we have so frequently referred. Praetorius, in his Organographia, was careful to describe the then (1619) familiar lute. He gives (p. 51) a graduated family of lutes with their quints or chanterelles which show how much variety in size and scale was permitted. They are—(1) Klein Octav (a); (2) Klein Discant (b); (3) Discant (c); (4) Recht Chorist oder Alt (d); (5) Tenor (e); (6) Bass (f); (7) Gross Octav Bass (g).

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \cadenzaOn c''^"(a)" d''^"or" \bar "||" b'^"(b)" \bar "||" a'^"(c)" \bar "||" g'^"(d)" \bar "||" e'^"(e)" \bar "||" \clef bass d'^"(f)" \bar "||" g^"(g)" \bar "||" }

Thus it will be seen that the lute generally known and described here, the 'French' lute of Mace, is the Alto lute. Vincentio Galilei, the father of the astronomer, was the author of a dialogue on the lute (Venice, 1583). Other noteworthy continental publications were by Judenkunig, Vienna, 1523; Gerle, Nuremberg, 1545; Hans Neusiedler, Nuremberg, 1556; Melchior Neusiedler, 1574; Ochsenkhuns, Heidelberg, 1558; Kargel, Strassburg, 1586; Besardus, Cologne, 1603; Campion, Paris, 1710; and Baron, Nuremberg (already quoted from), 1727.

Much valuable information collected about lute makers and the literature of the lute is communicated by Mr. Engel in his admirable catalogue of the South Kensington Museum referred to. The finest lutes were made in Italy; and Bologna, Venice, Padua, and Rome were especially famous for them. There would appear to have been a fusion of German and Italian skill in northern Italy when the Bolognese lutes were reputed to excel over all others. Evelyn in his Diary (May 21, 1645) remarks their high price and that they were chiefly made by Germans. One of the earliest of these was Lucas (or Laux, as he inscribed his name on his instruments) Maler, who was living in Bologna about 1415. There is one of his make at South Kensington, represented in the drawing, a remarkable specimen, notwithstanding that the head is modernised, the stringing altered, and the belly later adorned with painting. According to Thomas Mace, 'pittifull old, batter'd, crack'd things' of Laux Maler would fetch a hundred pounds each, which, considering the altered value of money, rivals the prices paid now-a-days for fine Cremona volins. He (p. 48) quotes the King (Charles II) as having bought one through the famous lutenist Gootiere; and one of the same master's pupils bought another, at that very high price!

[ A. J. H. ]

  1. In the same way El-arz, the cedar, became in English Larch.
  2. Observe the elision of the consonant.