The lute is the earliest form of long-necked, fretted, round bellied stringed instrument known to man. It’s a member of the chordophone family, along with lyres, harps, and zithers. Although this plucked string instrument with frets and gut strings, a round back, and a pear-shaped body is ancient, it’s enjoying another resurgence in popularity. You’ll see what I mean by “another” in a minute.
The lute came to Europe from the Far East in the early Middle Ages. It had four or five strings and was used for solo lines in ensembles and was played with a plectrum. By the later 15th century, the lute had six doubled strings (called courses) and a distinctive way of playing with the fingers on the strings (plucking instead of using a plectrum) had developed.
In 1487, music historian Tinctoris mentions earlier lutenists, such as Pietrobono, and by the Renaissance, the plectrum had been completely given up and the lute was played only with the fingers, capable of great delicacy of expression, like a modern guitar. The lute was the most highly regarded of all the instruments.
Lutenists abounded in the 16th century, and the instrument developed a huge repertoire for solos, both original and transcribed from vocal pieces.
A Little Lute History
The earliest evidence of lutes is in Mesopotamia, around 2000 BCE. The instrument had only two strings, but if you considered that music was monophonic (melody only, with no harmonies or accompaniment) against the occasional drone, nothing more was needed.
The lute first appeared in Egypt in the 15th century BCE, where it really came into its own. It’s thought to have come to Egypt through Asia. When the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers, they included singing and dancing girls and their strange accompanying instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change and nearly all of their own ancient native instruments were discarded or adapted in favor of these new ones. The standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; lyres gave way to lutes. Even the delicious drums that seem so indigenous to Egypt’s music came from Asia. Egypt’s music became noisier and more stimulating as a result.
There’s a mural from the 15th century BCE showing a lute with nine frets. The tomb of Tutankhamen (who ruled c1332-c1323 BCE) contains images of instruments, including the lute, being played by slave girls.
The lute soon began to appear all over. The Egyptians borrowed music and lute technology from Mesopotamia and Syria; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. The harp, lyre, double oboe, and the hand-beaten drum were all played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, along with the lute.
In India, a group of girls sent to entertain men in the 1st century CE would have been accompanied by harps and drums, as well as lutes, lyres, and double oboes. Lyres and oboes didn’t catch on, as their tuning would have been foreign (Greek modes never made it to India), but the lute was accepted. (You can read more about the Greek modes in my blog Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes.)
An Iranian Christian leader called Mani (c215-276 CE) demanded that his adherents make music as part of their worship. The teachings of Manichaeism are found in a collection of liturgical hymns, and for a long time, he was considered the inventor of the modern lute, meaning that after Mani, the number of strings and frets didn’t change (much).
Because music has no place in secular Islamic culture, in the 6th century CE, the prophet Mohammed banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He specifically mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Surprisingly, he thought drums were okay for social festivities.
Neo-Platonist Ya’qüb ibn Ishäq al-Kindï (called Alkindus) (c790-c874 CE) mentions the fretted lute and describes sounding intervals of fourths, fifths, octaves, and other intervals simultaneously with the melody (the beginnings of harmony? Or perhaps faux bourdon?). He also described eight rhythmic modes (see my blog Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes for more on this kind of thing).
It’s believed that the lute was introduced to Europe by the Saracens, and there’s an ivory carving dating from 968 CE that provides the oldest piece of evidence of the lute being in Europe.
In the 11th century, jongleurs (a kind of wandering minstrel) in France were expected to play an instrument. These could be a bowed instrument, like thevièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery, or a small organ. Guiraut de Calanson wrote, in “Conseils aux Jongler” in 1210, that an accomplished jongleur had to play the lute.
The lute’s use seems limited to Spain and France until the 13th century. In the 14th century, Juan Ruiz, a Spanish poet known as the archpriest Hita, made a list of all the instruments in Spain, including the lute. By then, the lute was also known in Italy and Germany, and was mentioned by both Dante and Boccaccio, and by Heinrich von Neuenstadt. Even so, it was used sparingly because the mandola (a relative) was preferred. The mandola was also easier to construct and to play.
By the 15th century, the lute pushed the mandola into the background and became one of the most important instruments of the period (resurgence number one). More strings were introduced to the instrument, increasing from five to eleven, with the highest strings reserved for the melody, and the others, arranged in pairs, for the accompaniment.
The lute’s popularity in the 15th and 16th century is probably due to its ability to play chords, which were a new invention. The lute could play a melody and accompany itself at the same time, which meant that a single musician could entertain the crowd.
By the 16th century, the lute was far and away the most influential plucked instrument, much like the piano would be in the 19th and 20th centuries. The lute was an essential part of chamber music, but it was also present in larger ensembles, and was much favored as a solo instrument. It was super popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in France, becoming the central instrument for roving vagabonds, who lived and played outside the law, as had their forebears the Troubadours and Trouvères in the 11th through the 13th century.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, the lute had lost much of its high esteem because music was becoming so complex. In order to adapt, the number of strings increased in the bass, but it still couldn’t compete with the deeper archlute or theorbo (more relatives). By 1727, when E.G. Baron wrote his “Treatise on the Lute,” the instrument was nearly completely out of favor. Lute music stylings were taken over by keyboards, like harpsichordists, organists, and pianists.
Nowadays, no one seems to be composing for the lute. When you hear it played, it’s usually a performance of Renaissance music. But thanks to an uptick of interest in historically informed performance since 1979, lutes are not uncommon at early music concerts (resurgence number two).
The lute was originally similar to the vièle (or vielle), which has a pear-shaped body, a shallow bowl, and a neck that comes out of the body without demarcation. The main difference is that the vielle’s strings come from a tailpiece and over a bridge (a 90-degree angle), and the lute has a string-holder that is glued directly to the table (front face) of the lute (a straight line). The lute’s tuning pegs are at right angles to the neck because the peg box is bent toward the player at a 90-degree angle, making the pegs parallel to the table; the vielle’s tuning pegs are perpendicular to the table (like a guitar). The lute is distinctive in its vaulted back and bent-back peg box that holds the tuning pegs.
Early forms of the lute had a soundbox made from a tortoiseshell with a stretched leather table. Strings were gut on a wooden ridge, and placed in a spreading fan pattern. (It must have been pretty!)
In the 13th century, luthiers began to separate the construction of the body and the neck. They also made the back out of staves rather than a single piece of wood, which made the instrument more resonant. It was at this point that the number of strings increased from six to ten and were tuned in pairs, either identically or in octaves.
To improve the grip of the left hand on the stringboard, gut nooses, now known as frets, were tied around the neck, increasing from four to eight frets in due time. The body became larger as the need for louder music grew. Multiple sound holes on the table merged into one single and fairly large hole, usually carved into a decorative rose.
By the Renaissance, lutes were often made of precious materials such as ivory, ebony, or Brazil-wood.
In the 16th century, lutes were lightly constructed, often with six or seven doubled strings (called courses).
The oldest lutes had three to five strings, usually plucked with a little rod, or, rarely, with the fingers. As time progressed, strings were added and finger plucking grew more popular than strumming or plucking with a plectrum. Modern (post-Renaissance) lutes have between 15 and 24 strings, some doubled into courses, and some single strings.
By the 10th century, it was common for the strings to be tuned in fourths like a modern guitar.
Origins of the Name:
In Persian, the name of the instrument is al’ud, which means “the wood.” This evolved into the oud, and then became a lute in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. The instrument is still commonly used in Arabic music.
The Greeks used the same Sumerian noun for the long-necked lute as the word for “bow.” Sadly, the source that gave me this tidbit didn’t say what that word was. (Does anyone speak Sumerian?)
Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the English were playing the lute. The guitar had reached England in the 13th century, before the introduction of the lute, which is kind of backward to the rest of Europe. It doesn’t appear in English carvings or illustrations until the 15th century, but it’s mentioned in the list of instruments at the Feast of Westminster in 1306.
Obviously, the lute made its way to France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Michael Praetorius, in the 16th and 17 centuries (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) for more on this great musicologist ) describes Recht Chorist or the Alt-Laute as the parent to the contemporary lute. Perhaps in Germany, these were names of earlier instruments, but clearly, it wasn’t invented there.
Descendants of the Lute
The following list is alphabetical rather than chronological.
The angelica was a kind of theorbo with 17 diatonically tuned (do-re-me) strings. It's also called the Angelique.
The archlute, as the name implies, is a much larger form of lute. It was made as early as the 16th century but only came to importance in the 17th. It had diapason strings, meant to stay open, that ran beside the finger board, and allowed sympathetic-string ringing, like a harp’s unplucked strings. It had 16 or 17 single strings on two peg boxes.
The chitarrone reduced the size of the body but increased the length of the bridge piece that connected the two peg-boxes. The instrument was a monster, being from five to six-feet long.
The colascione was a European long-necked lute with 24 movable frets and three courses of metal strings. Its body was occasionally made partially of parchment. (You may need to recall that parchment was very thinly tanned animal hides, not a form of paper.)
The long-necked lute was a medieval instrument with strong Moorish associations and might be the same instrument that’s called guiterre moresche. It is described with a long neck and a small body with a movable bridge, and only three strings.
The mandore or mandola were small lutes with short necks and four doubled strings. This instrument is also called the pandurina, mandurina, Mandüchen, and mandolin. It has the characteristically backward-bending head and five or six pairs of strings, which later became single strings (like in the mandolin).
The pandurina was a small-sized mandora with four or five strings and was played with the fingers or a plectrum. Despite its Italian-sounding name, its use was limited to France.
The theorbo’s main head was only slightly bent. Its second peg-box was joined to the first by a short connecting piece.
The theorbo-lute kept the traditional bent-back head of the lute and had an additional peg box beside the main head for additional strings.
Famous Lute Players
You may have heard of the famous English lutenist John Dowland, but there will be others in this list that are more obscure. There’s Francesco de Milano, Michelangelo Galilei (uncle of Gallileo), Henry VIII of England, James IV of Scotland, and Pietrobono, mentioned by Tinctoris in his medieval treatise on music.
Current big names in as lutenists are Munir Nurettin Beken, August Denhard, Lutz Kirchhof, Jakob Lindberg, Paul O’Dette, and Marco Pesci.
There are too many composers for the lute to name even a very small percentage, so I’ll just include the biggest hitters. Guillaume Machaut (see Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377)), Franscesco Landini (biography to come), and John Dowland are probably the most famous, with Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres (after 1601-c1671), Francesco di Milano, Albert de Rippe, and Vincenzo Galilei (Galilleo’s father) making the list.
One of the greatest innovators was a fellow called Denis Gaultier (c1597-1672), who ranked as the highest official in a French province after the governor himself. Gaultier invented his own nomenclature for modes, where Dorian appeared as D major and Sousdorien as A major. (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes for more on that sort of thing). Although dance rhythms appear in his works, he named none of them after dances, unlike the usual practice of the day.
Happily, people are still making music on lutes, and I hope this little article makes you want to go out and hear a concert or twelve.
“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.
“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint).
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
“A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
“The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943.
“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” edited by Russell E. Murray, Jr., Susan Forscher Weiss, and Cynthia J,. Cyrus. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010.