I have just been reading the lute section in Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (1676), one of the few extant English language lute instruction books. (IMSLP link to the facsimile.) Unfortunately for us, lute technique was generally passed down from tutor to student, with books costing nearly as much as a cheap lute (source). Mace’s book comes late in the history of the lute. The Golden Age of English lute music (and arguably of all English music) had long since passed.
Mace lists the the ‘false and ignorant out-cries against the lute’ in his time:
First, That it is the Hardest Instrument in the World.
Secondly, That it will take up the Time of an Apprenticeship to play well upon It.
Thirdly, That it makes Young People grow awry.
Fourthly, That it is a very Chargeable Instrument to keep; so that one had as good keep a Horse as a Lute, for Cost.
Fifthly, That it is a Womans Instrument.
Sixthly, and Lastly, (which is the most Childish of all the rest) It is out of Fashion.
Mace then rebuts each one of these points quite well, but little good it did. ‘Thus having (I hope) to full satisfaction explained the Matter,’ he wrote, ‘I doubt not but the Lute henceforward will be more look’d after and esteemed than of late years it has been’. Come the middle of the eighteenth century, the lute was all but extinct.
Of equal interest to me is his discussion of technique, particularly as I have now switched to nail-less playing on the guitar, which makes right-hand technique on the lute more relevant. Most of his very detailed instructions are not of general interest, but his comments on nails might be:
… take notice, that you Strike not your Strings with your Nails, as some do, who maintain it the Best way of Play, but I do not; and for This Reason; because the Nail cannot draw so sweet a Sound from a Lute, as the nibble end of the Flesh can do.
I confess in a Consort, it might do well enough, where the Mellowness (which is the most Excellent Satisfaction from a Lute) is lost in the Crowd; but Alone, I could never receive so good Content from the Nail, as from the Flesh: However (This being my Opinion) let Others do, as seems Best to Themselves.
Nail-playing lutenists were by far in the minority. Over a century earlier the vihuelist (the vihuela is an ancestor of the modern guitar and was a Spanish alternative to the lute) Miguel de Fuenllana also wrote that nails produced an imperfect sound compared to flesh. The most notable exception is Alessandro Piccinini, a seventeenth-century Italian lutenist who advocated the use of nails. We can, however, assume quite a few lutenists did play with nails, even if the top lutenists weren’t generally among them. The great eighteenth-century lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss apparently witnessed many people playing with nails (which he disapproved of).
I am scratching my head trying to think of a lutenist contemporary to Mace. There was a brief flourish of lute music in the early eighteenth century, but Mace’s despair over the state of lute music in his time seems to have been well-founded. The best I can do is the French lutenist Robert de Visée (1655-1733), who came along a bit later and wrote some excellent solo theorbo music. Can you believe this wonderful video has over 700,000 views? (Also, it looks like he might be using nails. The camera keeps jumping around, but his nails do look suspiciously long.)