THE RENAISSANCE LUTE IN ENGLAND

by

Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt

Cadet to Don Jeremy James Scurlock

 

"...music is not only an ornament, but also necessary for a Courtier. "

--- Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1528

The Lute

Music played an important role in the life of the people of the Renaissance. It enlivened their festivals, set the mood of their courts, accompanied the lifting of their voices to God and provided atmosphere for their markets and fairs. The musician was an honored member of the ruler's court and a welcomed visitor to the country inn. Musicians and musical instruments were held in such high regard that many a Renaissance painting featured both and noblemen and women went to great lengths to include their musical instruments in their portraits.

The lute is an instrument with a long history and has been found throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. Lute-like instruments were played in Mesopotamia as early as 2000 B.C. and in Egypt as early as 1500 B.C. But it did not find its way to Europe until after A.D. 900. By the end of the Middle Ages lutes were used in instrumental ensembles and as an accompanying instrument for singers. The lute was well matched with the human voice and, yet, melded well with other instruments. It became the central instrument around which chamber music was written and was held in high regard because of its soft and intimate resonance. It also stood well on its own as a solo instrument.

The stringed instruments were pre-eminent during the Renaissance. Of these the lute occupied a position of dominance and was second only to the human voice itself in the amount of music written for it. It had a distinctively rounded back with a shape somewhat similar to a half pear and was of incredibly light construction. The belly was normally constructed of pinewood and cut to as little as a sixteenth of an inch in thickness. Sycamore, cedar, yew or cypress ribs formed the framework over which the pear-shaped back was molded and glued.

Lutes lack a bridge and the number of strings vary from country to country and style to style. By the beginning of the 16th century, lutes of six strings were the most popular. The strings were meant to be plucked rather than strummed. Musicians of the Renaissance would "strike" the strings using the soft part of the tip of the finger or thumb rather than the nail and the plucking involved as little movement as possible. The small finger was normally kept in contact with the flat belly of the lute so as to discourage hand sweeps across the strings. The strings were allowed to resonate freely and damping of the sound was to be avoided.

The strings themselves were constructed of various materials. The gut strings that were sometimes used for the upper registers were made of sheep gut. Metal strings were also used. Steel strings were preferred for the higher strings and brass ones were used for the lower ones. Overspun strings, similar to those used on modern guitars, were not used until the mid-17th century. By the early 16th century the stringing and tuning of the lute had become fairly standardized. The tuning of a lute was generally as follows: G, c, f, a, d', and g'. In comparison to the modern guitar, the lute's pitch is a third higher.

According to Vicenzo Galilei, lute composer and father of the famous astronomer, the best lutes of the late 16th century were made in England. It only made sense in that it was to be in that country that the lute was to enjoy its greatest success. The popularity of the lute began to wane in the 17th century when it lost ground to the much more easily played guitar.

Early Lute Composition

"My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
The end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done."

--- Sir Thomas Wyatt, "My Lute Awake", c.1533

Serious Renaissance lute composition began, as did so many other things in the Renaissance, in Italy. Petrucci, the inventor of the method for printing music with movable type, published the first book of lute music in Venice in 1507. These books contained dances, suites, duets, solos and free improvisatory pieces attesting to the early diversity of this form of the art. Francesco de Milano became the banner carrier of Italian lute composition and ensured Italy's continued dominance in the field until the 1550's. By the end of the century three schools had developed: the French, the Italian and the English. By that time the type of music had diversified even further including a great number of vocal pieces as well as "fancies" and preludes.

The death of the tired and worn Henry VII in 1509 brought to the throne of England his boisterous, talented and controversial son Henry VIII. The new king encouraged the arts and sciences. His kingdom was open to scholars and philosophers and the king himself enjoyed a deserved reputation as a man of learning. Henry also played the lute and harpsichord with some skill, according to contemporaries, and enjoyed a happy talent for composition. Although organ music appears to have had the most attention within the court, the lute was also very popular. Many of the tunes of the time were based on folk music, such as the lute composition credited to Henry VIII based on the Flemish folk song "T'Andernacken op dem Rhein" and the popular Elizabethan tune "Kemp's Jigge".

Lute compositions were of varying types. Allemandes were dances that originated in Germany and passed to France through Alsace. The branle was popular in the 16th and 17th century and was known as the "brawl" or "round" in England. The pace varied from glow and solemn to gliding, skipping and jumping steps. The galliarde was a regular after-dance for the slower and more stately pavane. It was known for its bold and wanton steps that centered on leaps and leg thrusts. Danced bareheaded, it often was used to imitate wooing.

Other compositions included the slow and proud pavane, also known as the "peacock dance", which wag strutted in such a way as to imitate the mantle and spread of feathers in the peacock's tail. The 16th century French often paired the pavane with the galliarde. The toy was a piece of music written to be played with and enjoyed and was sometimes called, logically enough, a "recreation". The fantasie or fancy was a free flowing composition bearing some structures found in the fugue. It was fanciful and employed counterpoint.

Elizabethan Lute: The Golden Age

"Dowland to thee is dear; whose heavenly touch Upon the lute, doth ravish human sense."

--- Richard Barnfield, If Music and Sweet Poetry Agree

The lute reached its peak during the reign of Elizabeth I with the works of John Dowland, William Byrd, Thomas Robinson and Anthony Holborne. These talented musicians brought to the lute a genius for playing and composition with which it was never to be blessed again. Musicians during this time were employed by royal and other sovereign courts as well as by the nobility, both high and low. The monetary recompense was normally very good, though few, if any, were able to match the pay received by John Dowland from the King of Denmark. In return for their kind patronage, the composers dedicated many of their works to their patrons, accounting for some of the unusual titles of Elizabethan lute music, such as "Sir Henry Guildforde, His Almaine".

Music in the late 16th century was overwhelmingly secular. While the Queen and her bishops worked hard to save church music in England, it lagged nonetheless behind the development of more worldly music, both vocal and instrumental. The period between 1580 and 1620 has been called the Golden Age of the English lute. During those forty years English musicians and compositions set the pace for the lute in Renaissance Europe. It was from this time period that such well known tunes as "Greensleeves" (first published as "A New Northern Ditte of the Lady Greene Sleeves"), the "Spanish Pavane", "What If a Day" and "My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe" come.

John Dowland (1563-1626) was probably the greatest lutenist and lute composer of the Renaissance. He has been described as a "strange melancholic genius" and enjoyed enormous success during his lifetime (unlike many composers). He was denied a position in the court of Elizabeth I because of his adherence to Roman Catholicism. Therefore, his early years were spent abroad in Germany and Italy at the courts of the Landgraf of Hesse, Duke of Brunswick and the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He published his first book-of music, "The First Book of Ayres", in .1597 and the following year he moved to Denmark where he resided for eight years. Christian IV paid him well, giving him a salary fully equal to that of the Admiral of the Realm. Dowland returned to the land of his birth in 1605. He wrote music for the court of James I until his retirement. Some of his more well known works include "Wilson's Wilde", Queen Elizabeth's Gaillard", "The Right Honorable Robert, Earl of Essex, His Galliard", "Semper Dowland Semper Dolens", "Sir Henry Unpton's Funerall", and "Forlorn Hope Fancy". These works and the "Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, with divers other Pavans, Galiards, and Almands, set forth for the Lute, Viols or Violins, in five parts", are characterized by a wistful melancholy sadness that set the pace for this genre of music.

William Byrd (1543-1623), often called the Shakespeare of Elizabethan music, is well known for his organ music, madrigals and masses, all of which were of the highest quality. Byrd was also a great composer of lute music. Born in Lincolnshire, he was first noted as an organist at Lincoln Cathedral. Byrd wrote instrumental and vocal works and his versatility and virtuosity has earned him the reputation of the greatest Elizabethan and early Stuart musician. Byrd, though he wrote music for the Anglican Church, remained a Catholic and only King James's protection saved him from persecution during the dark days of the famous Gunpowder Plot.

The English lutenist and composer Thomas Robinson is known to have flourished between 1570 and 1612, although the exact years of his lifetime are unknown. His father served the Earl of Salisbury and Robinson himself was in the service of the Earl of Exeter. One of Robinson books, "Schoole of Musicke", was a lute tutorial and served as a standard for the Elizabethan lute. Among his most well known works is "Merry Melancholy".

We known little of the lives of many of the Elizabethan composers and musicians and Anthony Holborne is no exception. Dowland mentions Holborne in his "Varietie of Lute Lessons", which was published in 1610. He is described therein as having been a Gentleman Usher to Queen Elizabeth. Holborne also wrote a book of cittern music in 1597. He died in 1602.

The Golden Age of the Lute was a short period that saw the rapid growth and development of lute compositions and a rapid outpouring of works for the instrument that is unmatched by any other time or place. Building upon the foundations erected by the early Italian lutenists, Dowland, Byrd and the other English composers developed a new school and tradition of lute music known for its vitality, beauty, grace and virtuosity. The English lutenists of late Elizabethan and early Stuart times brought the instrument to its zenith of development in a single generation. After that brief time of glory, the lute fell into disfavor. But, before its loss of popularity, the lute accompanying the human voice, brought a musical revolution to England in the form of the Italian Caccini's new vocal style, "Nuove Musiche".

[This work is dedicated to Her Most Excellent Grace, Baroness (and Duchess) Rebekka die Blonde]

References

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Midgley, Ruth, Musical Instruments of the World, Smeets Offset, B.V., Weert, Holland, 1976.

Munrow, David, Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Oxford University Press, London, England, 1976.

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