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):


Two Concerts at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall is undoubtedly my favourite London venue. It’s tucked away just round the corner from the increasingly gaudy Oxford Street, a place that exemplifies the devastating effect overcrowding, motor vehicles and chain stores can have on an area of otherwise incredible architectural beauty. Wigmore Hall is a sanctuary from all the bustle. Tardis-like, its modest entrance conceals a remarkable interior. When you first walk into the hall your eyes wander around the room, taking in the alabaster and marble walls, the plush red seats and carpet. Soon enough your eyes are drawn upwards to the cupola above the stage, where they become fixed on the most extraordinary mural. It is impossible to find a picture that does it justice, but this will give you an idea if you’ve never been:


The sound is astonishing and the ticket prices exceptionally reasonable (especially for those of us under 35 — £5 tickets!).

Last week I finished reading Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music, in which Wigmore Hall plays a somewhat important role. I was really quite excited to visit the place where the Maggiore Quartet had performed, where Michael and Julia’s romance was rekindled and severed and then– well, we never do find out… It is, I suppose, how Harry Potter fans feel when visiting King’s Cross station. Though I had been to Wigmore Hall before, it felt like I was returning to a different place, somewhere even more magical. Life is wonderful like that: the way two things, begun independently, unexpectedly come together, even if just for a brief time…

The first concert I saw was L’Arpeggiata performing arias from Luigi Rossi’s operas Orfeo and Il palazzo incantato (as well as some Cazzati and Allegri). Not exactly well-known stuff. In fact, I can’t seem to find any recording of Il palazzo incantato. I was desperate to hear it again as it was such exhilarating music, especially the way L’Arpeggiata play it. Director Christine Pluhar’s tendency to play this music ‘freely’, let’s say, has at times been too radical: the crossover Handel-does-jazz stuff is forgettable. (Though occassionally it sort of works.) However, when they get it right — that is, when they are just an early music group and steer clear of the dreaded crossover genre — it is some of the most invigorating music you’ll ever hear:

Compare the above with other versions and the difference is plain. Here’s Anthony Rooley conducting the Concert of Musicke:

Not very exciting, is it? What a limp dance at the end! And what a difference the cornett makes!

Classical music often risks becoming a museum culture, perhaps now more than ever. There is a fine line between something being a dead tradition, upon which it is exiled to museums and history books, and it being a living tradition. A lot of ensembles seem to play early music in a somewhat lifeless way; L’Arpeggiata do not. I would in fact suggest that early music can sound quite contemporary. It is closer to popular tastes than most classical music, allowing greater autonomy for performers, greater scope for interpretation, using more intimidate ensembles, a more familiar understanding of dynamics, modality, and much of it is dance-able, in a way. It’s far better for classical music evangelisation than concertos for turntable or orchestral representations of nightclub music. Here are L’Arpeggiata again, this time performing Lasciate Averno from Rossi’s Orfeo. How could this fail to win anyone over? What overwhelming beauty! That melody! To hear this performed was the most wonderful consolation. Everything about it is right; nothing feels more meaningful than hearing and playing music like this.

The second concert was a piano recital. Imogen Cooper performed a Haydn piano sonata and Beethoven’s 7 Bagatelles in the first half, but I was primarily interested in the second half: Thomas Ades’ Darknesse visible (an ‘explosion’ of John Dowland’s song In Darkness Let Me Dwell) and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 Op. 110. I love both Beethoven and Haydn of course, but much of the piano repertoire does little for me. I have a stubborn prejudice against the instrument; I often just hear a lot of plonking and miss the expressive, less mechanical sounds of other instruments. But especially since listening to Igor Levit’s album, I have found a new appreciation for the Beethoven piano sonatas. Cooper gave a great performance so I’m very glad I went.

The Ades was particularly interesting. The second half began with a surprise: from behind us we suddenly heard Dowland’s song. The lutenist and countertenor had obviously snuck into the back of the hall unbeknownst to most of the audience. Then just as the last note faded out, Imogen Cooper whammed down on the piano. It was very cleverly done.

Dowland’s original song:

And Ades arrangement:

Let’s end with the Beethoven piano sonata:

Taking the Recorder Seriously

The recorder is often regarded as little more than a kid’s toy with a piercing sound and little serious musical value. Even many who know that there is more to the recorder than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — that is to say, those who are aware that the recorder had an important role in Renaissance and Baroque music — still seem to regard it as a less serious instrument, or something of a novelty. I certainly know this was my bias, especially thinking back to the squawks one made in primary school recorder clubs. But the history and repertoire is much richer than one generally imagines.


Some basics: recorders come in various types, the main ones being, from high to low, sopranino, descant (or soprano), treble (or alto), tenor, bass and contrabass. The descant is the one everyone learns Three Blind Mice on. The treble recorder is what most of the classical repertoire was written for. The tenor is a bit more obscure, and very few extant works exist for the bass recorder from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

The recorder is played by covering the holes with your fingers and blowing into the mouthpiece. (The tenor sometimes has keys to compensate for the longer length, and the bass always does). This distinguishes it from the flute which is played held sideways. For a long while in the 17th and 18th century the term ‘flute’ in fact referred to recorders and the modern ordinary flute was referred to as a ‘transverse’ flute. Other languages had similarly confusing distinctions.

A comparison between the penny whistle (fig. 1), very similar in its construction to the recorder, and an organ pipe (fig. 2). Of course this comparison only applies for pipe organs; reed organs are somewhat different. From John Stainer’s Complete Organ Method.

To give some perspective, it’s worth noting that the mechanism of the recorder is actually surprisingly similar to the organ. We know that going back to ancient times there were people who realised the simple fact that two recorders could be played simultaneously by one man (and no, not through one’s nostrils), and the organ basically mechanises and expands this idea. But instead of blowing into the recorders, air is pushed through by bellows. Early organs therefore required great stamina by the poor men tasked to operate the bellows. English organist John Stainer, writing in the late nineteenth century, remarked that ‘those who have any curiosity on the subject will still find in many continental churches, in some dark corner, a man busily engaged in mounting on first one and then another of several sets of feeders [the bottom bit of the bellows], and forcing the air into the bellows by his weight, as if he were under-going punishment at a musical treadmill.’ But even this is later on in the development of the organ. Before this the organ didn’t even have any keys. (Indeed, early keys were stiff things, hence the nickname at the time, ‘organ beater’, or pulsator organorum.) The pipes in this very early organ pictured below, essentially recorders without holes, are operated by pulling back the pieces of wood where the keyboard would nowadays be. This would either close or open up the foot of the pipe controlling the flow of air from the bellows behind.


The recorder itself came to prominence later on, in the sixteenth century, though duct flutes have existed since ancient times. The Renaissance recorder is similar to the modern recorder, but somewhat simpler in design. Renaissance recorders have fingerholes of all the same size, while the Baroque recorder, the design maintained today, has varying fingerhole sizes to facilitate higher notes. Renaissance recorders are also fairly straight and column-like, while Baroque recorders taper down towards the end. This means that Renaissance recorders are generally louder, more limited in range, and warmer sounding, whereas Baroque recorders are quieter but really pierce through when playing mid-high notes, while the lower notes are much harder to play. Naturally, the Baroque repertoire is on the whole much more challenging.

After the Baroque period the recorder seemed to face extinction. It was revived with a concert in England in the late 19th century, but the extent to which the instrument had been forgotten is evidenced by the fact that the player at this concert blocked up the thumb hole — he thought it had been put there by mistake! The mid-twentieth century saw its proper revival with recorder players like Michala Petri giving it its deserved respectability, and modern composers from Britten to Arnold to Part writing serious music for the instrument for the first time in about two centuries. (Of course it was also revived in the classroom, a mixed blessing.) Here’s Paul Hindemith’s ‘Plöner musiktag’ for one descant recorder and two treble recorders:

Still, the quality and quantity of modern recorder music is lacking, especially in proportion to the obvious number off enthusiastic and competent amateur players. There are often wonderful arrangements made of older music, though generally still Baroque or Renaissance — see the Flander’s Recorder Quartet, for example — or composers rearranging their own music for recorder, but seldom very remarkable original compositions. Usually it’s what you can expect from modernist music: lots of instrument-defying extended techniques, all very colourful, but little music.

Indeed, the recorder is capable of quite a few stranger techniques, given that it’s an instrument capable of microtonality (there are often two or more ways to play the same note, each sharper or flatter than the others, and the pitch can be altered also by how hard or soft one blows — or indeed by lifting your knee up to block the bottom hole, an endlessly amusing technique, especially if one alternates the knee), and also of multiphonics (a very fun effect, particularly on the recorder, whereby two notes sound simultaneously by singing one note into the recorder while playing another), among others. Below is an interesting video example. At one point the recorder is taken apart leaving only the mouthpiece. And at another point they are playing the unsightly Paetzold subcontrabass recorder, a blocky stereotypically-modernist beast so unattractive compared to the slender tapered beauty of the standard modern recorder. Still, it makes an impressive sound.

So perhaps its revival is better appreciated as an part of the early music revival as compared to, say, the 20th century revival of the classical guitar, which genuinely made it into a modern instrument. The recorder’s Baroque and Renaissance repertoire is rich and varied. In terms of Baroque composers, Handel and Telemann wrote sonatas for it, Vivaldi wrote recorder concertos, as did Scarlatti, Bach included it in many of his cantatas and two of his Brandenburg concertos, and C.P.E Bach even wrote a work that included bass recorder, one of the few rare instances we have of its use in a pre-20th century work.

Some of the most magnificent examples of recorder music in the Baroque period are found in Bach’s cantatas, a good portion of which specified recorders. His cantata ‘Gottess Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’ is one such example. The cantata is a lesson on preparing for death, e.g. ‘Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise’ (04:44-07:01), or more bluntly, ‘It is the ancient law: human, you must die! Yes, come, Lord Jesus!’ (08:06-11:55) The first movement (00:00-02:36) features two recorders prominently, then the most beautiful writing, I think, comes in the second part of the second movement (04:44-07:01). This is one of my favourite of his cantatas that I’ve heard (admittedly, I’ve still got well over a hundred to go), and it is nearly impossible to imagine how he wrote these gems week in week out.

In Renaissance music the recorder is perhaps not quite as immediately noticeable because of its warmer tone, such that it blends into the consort or orchestra more than the penetrating baroque recorder, as well as the fact that solo forms like the concerto and sonata had yet to be invented in this era of polyphonic equalibrium. It’s also the case that instruments weren’t always specified in scores, though recorders undoubtedly were prominently used among performers and many recorder consorts were set up, including by Henry VIII who even wrote a few tunes for the instrument himself. In terms of great works, you’ll find recorders in a lot of Monteverdi’s music, if you count it as renaissance music. There are a couple of recorders in L’Orfeo, for instance. If you watch this excerpt you’ll hear (and see) the recorders given the theme at about 3:50 and 5:20:

Why not end with this a performance of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor. Though one of the better known recorder works, one still has to be heartened by the fact that nearly 300,000 people have watched this (the recorder’s an alto, for those interested):