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:



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):

Looking back…

This year has resolved itself nicely. On a personal note, only a few months ago I would have assumed this year would end in discontent. The considerable improvement in my state of mind can be attributed to the beautiful things in my life — which, for the sake of this blog, means music. I hope I am not being too self-absorbed. I simply want to affirm what most people reading this already know: what a consolation music can be — how meaningful it is for many of us.

I’ve noticed some changes this year in the way I listen to music. I spend less time sitting at home listening to music and more time going to concerts, playing guitar and composing (however badly). When I first discovered classical music a couple of years ago I was in such an excited rush to hear new music that I approached many composers and their works superficially. Spending more time playing, reflecting, composing, attending performances etc. seems to me more meaningful and lasting than binge-listening online.

When I do listen to music, I close my eyes more often. This is much less trivial than it might sound. I am bombarded with visual stimuli throughout the day and this soon becomes habit-forming. My head in particular has the peculiar habit of jerking about trying to survey the room as if I were doing an impression of a pigeon. On top of that, I’m a terrible fidgeter, pen-chewer and joint-cracker. Closing one’s eyes concentrates the mind to the extent that, with a really good piece of music, I remain quite motionless and totally absorbed.

The highlight of the year has undoubtedly be the discovery of the lute repertoire. I’ve had the privilege of hearing three extraordinary lutenists perform this year (Thomas Dunford, Matthew Wadsworth and Paul O’Dette), then the joy of learning some of this music on guitar, and finally the thrill, just in the last two weeks, of getting my hands on a lute (which I’ll blog about soon).

My favourite concert this year was the early music group L’Arpeggiata performing relatively obscure works by Luigi Rossi (c. 1597-1653). Runners up include The Feinstein Ensemble performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (just two days ago), Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House, Thomas Ades conducting the Beethoven symphonies, and Monteverdi’s Vespers (annoyingly I can’t recall the performers).

I am completely enamoured of this aria from Rossi’s opera Orfeo. L’Arpeggiata performing:

Robert Johnson — Pavan No. 3 in C Minor (Guitar Transcription)

A few weeks ago I rambled on about the guitar repertoire, suggesting that we focus more on the lute and guitar music from around 1500-1750 and away from the Spanish repertoire. I suggested, among others, more Kapsberger, Zamboni and Bacheler. Now I can add another name.

Robert Johnson (c. 1583-1633) — not to be confused with the African-American blues guitarist — was the last great English lutenist. As it happens, he was also the son of the first great lutenist, John Johnson. The two Johnsons essentially bookend at either side the short but fruitful Golden Age of English Lute Music. There are about twenty extant solo lute pieces by Robert Johnson. Most are almains, four are pavans, a few are galliards, and there is only one fantasie. I dare say if more survived he would be a more celebrated composer. 

His Pavan No. 3 isn’t playable on guitar from the original lute tablature, and I don’t believe it has been transcribed for guitar before — so I thought it would be good fun to try. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. (Next several sentences are purely technical, if you want to skip ahead to the video and score.) The pavan was written for 10 courses (paired strings), with the added bass notes extending the range by a fifth. Therefore I transposed the piece from C to D minor and tuned the guitar’s sixth string down to D. This way all the bass notes remain and the piece is transcribed almost note for note. (The only exception I recall is bar 29, where the inner voices of the first chord had to be removed.) Given the reduction from ten to six strings, there are a few big left-hand stretches — the biggest stretch is from the second to seventh fret (bar 12, beat 2) — but it isn’t a fast piece, and most players should have little trouble playing the piece once the fingering has been worked out. 

I like to think I am an able Sibelius user, though I will admit that formatting multiples voices on a single stave was a bit fiddly. If anyone thinks I’ve done something wrong, or scored it weirdly, please tell me and I’ll make any necessary corrections.

Here’s the PDF. Beneath the video are image files. The pavan begins at 2:40, before which is the The Prince’s Almain, also by Johnson.

Johnson Pavan 3-1

Johnson Pavan 3-2

Paul O’Dette at Wigmore Hall

I only found it about it this morning, and impulsively I hopped onto the next train, just managing to get to London in time for this afternoon recital by the great American lutenist Paul O’Dette. The programme consisted entirely of English lute music, including O’Dette’s own arrangements of William Byrd’s keyboard music. It’s a fair representation of the music of the time, often called the ‘golden age’ of English lute music (approx. 1580-1620). Lots of dance music — almaines, pavans and galliards — and popular tunes, alongside Dowland’s two ‘Farewell’ fantasies. The programme is more or less the happier side of the lute, more dance than counterpoint, more extravagance than reflection. None of this is a dismissal of the music — a John Johnson pavan is generally as artful and interesting as a fantasie, though in different ways.

Paul O’Dette played the challenging show-off pieces with apparent ease. The last piece in the programme was Daniel Bacheler’s variations on ‘Monsieur’s Almaine’, a tour de force of tremolo playing and rapid passages. His playing of the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie (P3), a slow, chromatic and contrapuntal piece of incredible beauty, was less convincing. I felt it was too fast, for one, and just not as expressive as, say, Nigel North, who manages to get that warmth and purposeful expression O’Dette somewhat lacks. It probably didn’t help that the piece was repeatedly interrupted by one man’s prolific and unstifled coughing. (This same man, as well as the woman next to him, presumably his wife, was asleep for the first part of the concert, lightly snoring.)

A very pleasant lady next to me said she found the music soothing, which it indeed is, but I also gently pointed out to her that the pieces aren’t so soothing to play, not only because of difficulty, but also because of the remarkable dissonances in pieces like the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie. Though admittedly the lute might need a venue even smaller than Wigmore Hall to be at its most brilliant. I was about twelve rows back, and even there it was beginning to sound a bit distant, despite O’Dette’s loud (and occasionally harsh) playing.

O’Dette is also an excellent writer, so I was glad to see that he wrote his own programme notes. Particularly interesting was the few paragraphs on playing Byrd’s keyboard music on the lute, how much interpretative freedom lutenists gave themselves and some of the technical challenges.

An aside, at one point I saw O’Dette adjust his frets. Lute frets are not fixed; they are gut strings tied around the neck. You can change the intonation this way (the lute is a pre-equal temperament instrument). I have wondered whether lutenists adjust the frets for different pieces, especially for different keys — perhaps he was doing this?