Music Topics


The Lute  derives its name and its shape, from the Arabic instrument known as ‘al ud’ (the wooden one). It came to Europe in the Middle Ages, perhaps brought back from the Crusades, or via Moorish Spain, or Sicily. It originally had five 'courses' or pairs of strings, was played with a quill plectrum and used mainly in consort with other instruments, improvising over a drone or ground, playing dance tunes, or being used to accompany song.

In the late fifteenth century fingerstyle playing was developed which meant that music composed in parts could be played on the instrument. With the addition of a sixth (bass) course, the development of a more elegant, elongated body shape, and the invention of a system of tablature for notating its music, the lute attained a new classical perfection, and the stage was set for a musical craze that was to last over 150 years.

From the end of the sixteenth century the lute developed further. A seventh pair of bass strings was added, then an eighth, then a ninth, eventually getting up to fourteen pairs; the intention being to increase the range of the instrument by adding a lower register. To cope with the extra strings a second, longer neck and pegbox might be added. New tuning schemes were devised. From all these experiments a variety of new instruments were evolved, designated today as 'Baroque' lutes. The biggest, the 'Roman' theorbo or chitarrone, was a loud bass instrument, used mainly for accompaniment, with a long second neck which made it up to six feet long. In France a smaller instrument of either eleven, twelve or thirteen pairs of strings tended to be favoured; the first seven pairs could be stopped with the left hand, and the rest of the strings were played 'open' like harp strings. Overwound strings, invented in the mid-seventeenth century, could be made to produce a very low pitched note with only a short string length, which meant that it was possible to go back to the older, more manageable size of instrument, while still having a large number of bass strings.

The popularity of the lute began to decline in the seventeenth century though there was a late flowering of French and German lute music that meant it was popular for longer in some continental centres. This was likely related to the rise of the orchestra, opera and the commercial concert hall as well as the development and popularity of the piano. By about 1750 the instrument was more or less dead, though one or two offshoots, such as the German 'mandora' persisted.

The lute and its repertoire were never quite forgotten, however, and from the end of the nineteenth century a revival began. In England, the early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch started to make and play lutes, while in Germany lutes (lute-guitar hybrids, really) were widely played by the Wandervogel hiking clubs, attracted by the instrument's associations with pre-industrial, pre-bourgeois past. The early music craze of the 1970s, and the recordings of Julian Bream benefitted the lute greatly, and there has been a subsequent revival both in making and playing the instrument.

Over its long history a huge repertoire was created for the instrument. American scholar Arthur Ness has estimated that 25,000 pieces survive for the Renaissance lute, and probably as many for the Baroque instruments—and that is only the music specially notated in lute tablature. 

[Adapted from Goodwin (2001)]

The Bandora (or pandora) was a wire strung instrument with six or (more usually) seven courses. It seems to have been fairly widely used in consort music in England and perhaps on the continent, as was its smaller sister, the orpharion. The bandora was tuned (lowest to highest courses) fourth - major second - fourth - fourth - major third - fourth. In other words the top five strings are tuned intervalically like a modern guitar with a G and D below, though the sounding pitch was probably a fifth lower. Indeed, in his monograph on the instrument, Nordstrom (1992) describes the bandora as a ‘scalloped-bodied bass guitar’ (p.4). The bandora was invented in London in 1562 by John Rose, an instrument maker who worked with his son (also John); the Roses were also important in the history of the lyra viol. There is a fairly small body of bandora solo music, the most important composes seemingly being the elder Alfonso Ferrabosco and Anthony Holborne. 

The Lyra Viol There was a fashion in 17th century England for polyphonic music (stylistically similar to lute music) to be played on a small bass viol and there is an extensive repertiore (as yet incomletely explored), some of which is suitable for guitar arrangement. The term Lyra Viol is used to describe the instrument and the style of playing and is described in detail in a dissertation I wrote for an Open University degree course that can be found here.

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