Learning to Play the Lute

It’s strange how ordinary learning an instrument becomes. When you first get your hands on a new instrument you are completely enamoured of it, almost to the point of disbelief. I’ve been fortunate enough for this to happen a few times in my life, but none compares to the lute. One can quite reasonably imagine oneself playing, say, a cello. I was certainly mesmerised by the guitar when I started, but I’d seen and heard plenty of guitars before. So while it was indeed mesmerising, it was, at the same time, rather usual. But I struggled to imagine myself ever playing the lute. It is anything but usual. When playing the Renaissance lute there is a four-hundred year gap between you and the repertoire. How can that fail to astonish? Here I sit in my jeans, a laptop in front of me, playing a lute. There are few things more delightful than anachronisms. I remember being elated for an entire afternoon because I’d seen a man casually cycling by on a penny farthing in an otherwise drab modern street. But the lute is not a mere novelty. I was drawn to it because of the enormity of its history. It was the most important instrument in Europe. Among the greatest musicians played and composed for it.

That these musicians and their music are so distant from us can, however, present additional challenges for the beginner. Guitar pedagogy is well established, aided by the fact that the modern classical guitar belongs to a continuous tradition dating back to around the late 18th century. But roughly the same time as the six-string classical guitar was gaining prominence, the lute died out. Modern lutenists therefore have a severed connection to their instrument’s tradition. This means one approaches the lute historically: rediscovering how lutenists played centuries ago and playing it in a very similar way, on very similar instruments. Learning the guitar is not so historical. The modern guitarist plays a somewhat different instrument to his forebears (bigger, higher tension, different timbre, nylon strings), with a different technique (straight right-hand wrist, use of nails) and with evolving repertoire. The lute had a similar, if not greater, evolution up until the mid-eighteenth century. Strings kept getting added, technique changed, repertoire changed.

But unlike the guitarist — most of us play 21st century classical guitars in a 21st century way, building on centuries of tradition — the lutenist learns to play his instrument in a variety of unfamiliar historical ways, rather than simply the modern way. He will play Francesco da Milano on a six-course Renaissance lute, John Dowland on a six- to ten-course Renaissance lute, Silvius Leopold Weiss on an eleven- or thirteen-course Baroque lute (and with a different right-hand technique). A classical guitarist isn’t going to play Fernando Sor on a Lacote guitar. Moreover, the lutenist has to learn essentially dead systems of tablature. These systems are not that difficult (well, except for German tablature), but they can seem cryptic at first. It’s easier, at least for me, to learn a modern instrument simply because it is modern (i.e. familiar).

But don’t let any of this put you off learning a lute, if you are so inclined. There are now several tutor books available (I’m using Diana Poulton’s for the Renaissance lute). And as I began by saying, what initially seems unfamiliar and even daunting about learning an instrument, especially the lute, soon becomes ordinary. Before you know it, you’ll have the lute strapped round you while sight-reading sixteenth-century manuscripts — and you’ll think nothing of it!

That makes it sound like I’m already proficient at playing. I’m not. I have become comfortable with the technique, which is quite unlike the guitar. On a Renaissance lute you play with your thumb inside your hand, like this:

(Not my fingers: source)

When you have spend some time learning to play with the thumb on the outside on the guitar, it is hard to discipline yourself to then do the opposite. The other problem is that the lute is a much lower tension instrument. If I pluck as hard on the lute as I do on guitar the strings will smack against the frets — a horrible brittle sound. Having to pluck paired-strings as opposed to single strings (and without them hitting one another) adds to the difficulty. And that there’s usually at least one extra course (paired string) to contend with.

Learning fundamentals is never much fun, especially when you’ve been through (or are going through) the same process on another instrument. Rather, the temptation is to play that piece you’re within an inch of managing. It’s always much easier to attempt something ambitious than to perfect something basic. But, alas, one has to do the latter: practise the simplest things, and practise them very slowly. The revealing thing about practising slowly is that I often makes exactly the same mistakes as I do playing fast.

So you begin to pay very close attention to your playing. You try different angles of attack, work on economising movement, controlling which joints do and don’t move, adjusting the angle of your hand/wrist. Hand tension is often a problem when starting out — the little finger should not be pressing hard against the soundboard, the right-hand thumb should not be pushing the neck. The end goal is consistency. Not sameness, but rather where your sound is consistent with your intentions. You want to be able to control your tone, and to play the same thing multiple times with equal accuracy. Needless to say, I am far from either of these.

I have nevertheless learnt a few pieces. The very simplest stuff — Mr Dowland’s Midnight, for example. I attempted to record myself but this was a torturous exercise. It is hard enough, starting out on a new instrument, to make it through a piece. It is impossible to do it with the burden of knowing that any mistakes you make will be made permanent. What’s worse, recordings of you playing never sounds like you playing. It’s the same disconcerting sensation as when you hear you own voice. And it’s made even worse by the fact that recordings — usually on a budget device and in an acoustically dry room — will be anything but flattering for you and your instrument. I have wondered whether it’s helpful to have a bit of an ego when first learning an instrument, to be slightly ignorant of just how bad one sounds. In which case, don’t record yourself for at least the first several months.

I’ll write another post in a few days. For now, here’s an intabulation of Josquin’s Adieu mes amour by Italian Renaissance lutenist Francesco Spinacino’s, and performed by Ophira Zakai:



Samuel Barber — Symphony No. 1

What a blistering, glorious, compact symphony this is! I’ve been enamoured of it since hearing a performance at the Barbican a few days ago. This, and Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 10 a week before, has rekindled in me a love of big orchestral music.

Samuel Barber is one of the most successful American composers — but also one of the least American. Unlike composers such as Ives and Copland, who wrote works often infused with distinctively American music — patriotic and civil war songs, ragtime, nineteenth century hymns, jazz — Barber was unabashedly European. And not only European but decidedly conservative, his style rooted in the nineteenth century, and remained so until his death in 1981. He was therefore a popular composer but also a much criticised one.

Barber is still well known, though only for a single piece, Adagio for Strings. I have to admit the piece doesn’t do anything for me, probably because I’ve heard it so often. Quite honestly I suspected I might find Barber’s Symphony No. 1 insipid. It’s not — in fact it has an unrelenting, primal urgency that could almost rival the Rite of Spring.

The symphony is about twenty minutes long and condensed into a single movement. Still, it uses a fairly standard four-movement structure, except for the fact that the recapitulation for each theme is withheld until the end of the symphony. Most of the music is boisterous — bellowing horns, big crescendos, fast strings, stabbing chords, all that good stuff — but the third movement gives way to the kind of beautiful lyricism one might more readily associate with Barber.

Anyway, just listen:

Classical Music’s Diversity Problem

I sometimes wonder if, unbeknownst to me, other musical traditions have their own diversity wars. Do the Chinese lambaste their operatic tradition for not having enough white people? Do Indians feel shame at the lack of sub-Saharan Africans performing Indian classical music? Do Indonesians moan about the underrepresentation of Hispanics in gamelan music? No, I imagine not. How lucky they are.

The reason I bring this up is that I just read an article titled ‘Systemic Discrimination: the Burden of Sameness in American Orchestras’ on the music site I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The author, Douglas Shadle, argues that there is a ‘lack of diversity on concert programs [that] is built into the institutional structure of American classical music organizations, leading to systemic discrimination against women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented musicians.’ Orchestras therefore need to commit to having ‘inclusive’ programming, and audiences should hold them to account if they don’t.

There is a core disagreement between those like myself, who believe that music can be judged aesthetically, and those like Shadle who believe that the quality of a piece of music is inextricably linked to its reception and cultural milieu. He writes:

…the underlying premise here is the false belief that greatness is a quality inherent in a piece of music, rather than a culturally conditioned designation given by someone else.

Ask yourself: do you love Bach’s music because someone told you to like Bach, or do you love it because it is great music?

Shadle later continues the theme:

Drop the singular focus on phony subjective concepts like “great symphonic music” and “the highest level of artistic excellence,” since these in no way conflict with diversity.

This is the pernicious reality of egalitarianism. Merit is substituted for equality and diversity. Therefore, if I see that the first violin walks onto stage and he or she is black, or if I see an ethnic minority or a woman composer being championed, a voice in my head whispers ‘affirmative action’. And I feel horrible for it, as it brings into question the merit of someone who is most likely an extraordinary musician or composer. This is the dangerous egalitarian game we are playing. Surely it can only breed disillusionment and resentment?

I say it is a ‘dangerous game we are playing’ because, contrary to what Shadle suggests, these diversity policies are already in place. One orchestra he singles out for its systemic racism and sexism is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Well, like most orchestras the CSO has an explicit commitment to diversity. From their website: ‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is an Equal Opportunity employer which values and encourages a diverse workforce’. You will find the ‘Equal Opportunities’ stamp on most orchestras’ websites, and if you are applying for a job you may well be asked to fill out an ominously titled ‘Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form’ detailing your ethnicity, gender, and any disabilities you may have.

In a recent Telegraph interview, the great baritone Roderick Williams, who happens to be half Jamaican, made a brief but revealing comment about how his ethnicity has affected his career:

Has my colour stopped me being cast in certain roles? Well, that’s something I’ll never know, because I never hear what gets said on audition panels. But nowadays I imagine that our obsession with diversity means that, if anything, it works in my favour. Quite honestly, I would rather people judged me on the basis of my singing.

How wonderfully sensible. It’ll never catch on.

What is a lute?

When I say to someone that I’m learning to play the lute, I’m often met with a quizzical look. For many, the word ‘lute’ evokes images of ruffs and pointy shoes (neither of which, sadly, came with my lute). Few think of it as an instrument contemporary to composers as late as Bach and Vivaldi. Wandering minstrels more readily came to mind. And most people, naturally, aren’t even sure what a lute looks like exactly. Until recently I certainly wasn’t.

It’s a great shame the lute is not better known, for it was the most important instrument in Europe for at least a couple of centuries. Its portability and attractive sound made it a popular instrument, and its polyphonic capabilities meant it attracted the greatest composers and captivated its listeners.

Come the seventeenth century, however, it was gradually being replaced by keyboard instruments. By 1800 it had practically become extinct. In some countries the decline was faster than others. England’s last great lutenist, Robert Johnson, died in 1634. Thomas Mace later complained about the instrument’s fast decline in his 1676 book Musick’s Monument (though he still held out hope for its eventual revival). He blamed it on ‘false and ignorant out-cries against the lute’. These include ‘that it is the Hardest Instrument in the World’ and, amusingly, ‘that it makes Young People grow awry’. The reasons for the decline of the lute continue to be debated, but a major factor has to simply be that the intimacy of the lute was ill-suited to an era of bigger concert halls and expanding orchestras.

Fortunately, the lute was revived in the second half of the twentieth century. Luthiers re-learnt the lost craft of making lutes. (Indeed, ‘luthier’ originally meant lute-maker, derived from the French word for lute, ‘luth’.) Players rediscovered how to play the instrument, no easy task given that lute technique was a largely unwritten tradition. It wasn’t until the 1970s, for example, that lutenists stopped using guitar-like right-hand technique. Nowadays there are a great many lutenists, professional and amateur, and plenty of literature on the instrument.

Let’s take a tour of the lute. At the top you have the sharply-angled pegbox (nearly a right-angle). Unlike the modern guitar, the lute uses friction pegs: as one turns the peg to raise the pitch of the string, one pushes it in slightly so that the friction between the peg and peg hole stops it from slipping.


The lute I’m hiring (pictured below) has thirteen strings. There are six paired strings called ‘courses’, and a top single-string called the chanterelle (which very occasionally is paired).


This lute is a Renaissance lute, used around the second half of the sixteenth century. Renaissance lutes have anywhere from six to ten courses; Medieval lutes have four or five; and Baroque lutes have between eleven and fourteen (the latter generally being an ‘archlute’). A theorbo has up to nineteen strings (though fourteen is the norm) and is distinct from other lutes for two main reasons: it is often single strung, and uses a ‘re-entrant’ tuning whereby the top two strings are tuned an octave lower. Unlike other lutes, the theorbo was mainly, though by no means exclusively, used for continuo playing.

5-course Medieval lute (source)
13-course Baroque lute (source)

It is an old joke that lutenists spent as much time tuning their instrument as they did playing. It is sometimes claimed that this is why the lute died out. Lutes traditionally use gut strings, which are particularly vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes. However, each of my lute’s thirteen strings uses nylgut — that is, synthetic gut. They have survived both cosy central heating and cold winter days without any trouble. I seldom need to tune every string, and never more than small amounts. It can be fiddly, requiring slight hand motions and a good ear. Occasionally pegs stick or slip, but with practise this happens less frequently. As early instruments go you really can’t complain: a harpsichord needs to be tuned a few times a week and has way more strings than a lute.

Back to our tour of the instrument. If you look closely you’ll notice that the frets aren’t fixed:


In fact, they are gut string tied around the neck. One can adjust them for different intonations (the lute predates the tyranny of equal temperament). Viols and early guitars also use gut frets.

The decorated soundhole of a lute is called a ‘rose’:


The body is rounded, unlike the flat back of many string instruments, helping to give it its unique sound. It is made using ‘ribs’ of wood:


There are various cousins of the lute. Many of these are types of gitterns (essentially early guitars and mandolins). Particularly interesting are the orpharion and bandora. They were common, though perhaps less respectable, alternatives to the lute. What makes them distinctive are their flat backs, undulating sides and, most of all, their wire strings which give the instrument a rather attractive virginal-like quality. You will find very few orpharion videos on YouTube, and half of them are by this chap:

Perhaps the weirdest member of the lute family, if it can be called that, is the lute harpsichord. It’s a harpsichord strung with gut, giving it a much warmer sound. Some, like the one pictured below, even aspire to look like a lute, albeit a rather bulbous one. Apparently it was Bach’s preferred instrument. Here is Elizabeth Farr playing Bach’s lute suites on one:

Some point soon I intend to write about learning to play the lute. For now, here’s Bor Zuljan playing a ricercar by Italian lutenist Giacomo Gorzanis (c. 1520-1579):