The lute: myths, musicians and instruments

Gramophone14th Jun 2019

Elizabeth Kenny takes us on an illustrated history of the instrument

Lute and harp players. Israhel van Meckenem (c.1445-1503). There are many reasons to love this image: pointy hat, pointy shoes, pointy medieval harp. The man is showing off his right hand technique: at this time the lute was played with a plectrum or quill, switching between single line melodies and chords. Or perhaps the technique is an excuse to show off his fashionable sleeves…either way, his hazardous seating arrangement suggests playing the right notes might not be top priority, and his tights don’t
Man drawing a lute by Albrecht Dürer, (1471-1528) woodcut, 1525. Painter, engraver, printer, landscape artist and theorist, Dürer, was every inch the Renaissance man. This picture shows more serious side: the lute at the centre not only of musical life but also of mathematical, and scientific inquiry. The neck is a little thicker now, as 6 pairs of strings to accommodate as opposed only 4 or 5 on the previous image. The semi-circular back invokes he planets whose unheard music was echoed by the resonating
Lute player addressing a couple. Jacques de Gheyn II. c.1595-6. Lutes provided on-stage music and contributed to dramatic effects in plays and courtly entertainments. This player addresses - or annoys - a couple, in a commedia-dell-arte mask, while suggestively tuning. But aside from the Carry-On style innuendo, it’s a good illustration of the right hand fingers plucking parallel to the strings (the hang-over from the plectrum style) and the little finger resting on the soundboard. (Bridgeman Images)
This what was came out of that Galilei-inspired Ancient Greece-meets-New Science-and-Technology moment around 1600: the Chitarrone (also known as Tiorba, or Theorbo). The humble bass lute was modified to meet the dramatic and vocal needs of large-scale entertainments and opera in Florence, Venice and Rome: the top two strings were tuned down an octave as sheep gut couldn’t be stretched to high pitch, and a second neck extension was added for the long, open bass strings.
Jacques Callot (1592-1635), The Lute Player, c.1622. These long necks looked bizarre to some….as it’s an engraving, this one is backwards, so the player looks as if he’s left-handed. Big hat matches the long neck, and perhaps it will keep the rain off… (Credit: Bridgeman Images)
During the seventeenth century a number of women players, both professional and amateur, came to the fore. Arabella Hunt was a contemporary of Henry Purcell, and a favourite of Princess, later Queen Anne. and her sister Mary. (see Olivia Colman’s amazing portrayal of Anne decades later, in The Favourite). Queen Mary sent for Hunt and Mr Gosling, accompanied by Purcell, but seemed to prefer Hunt’s self-accompanied lute to the more serious stuff on offer, asking for her to sing “Cold and Raw” to her lute o
Allegory of Music 1649 Laurent de la Hyre (1606-56). I chose another woman for the cover of my new CD Ars Longa (Linn/Outhere CKD603). She may be allegorical but that tuning hand and confident right arm mean business, and it’s a beautiful portrait of a French theorbo to boot. The soundboard is nicely dark and discoloured in places: she’s been playing for years, probably for longer than the bird behind her has been singing…
Italian guitar after Sellas, by Martin Haycock. And what of the guitar? Another question I’m asked is: was the lute the guitar’s ancestor? More like cousins, as they shared Middle Eastern origins, becoming the gitterne and the lute during the fifteenth century and developing along separate but related lines thereafter. Here’s a beautiful image of a copy of a Venetian, highly- decorated baroque (seventeenth century) guitar after Matteo Sellas, made by my friend and lute maker extraordinaire, Martin Haycoc

'I’ve been a lute player for nearly three decades. When I first encountered the instrument I thought it was 'the' lute, and had no idea that there would be so many shapes, sizes and tunings to get to grips with. But now I love that each one has its place in history and a different sound to match the many types of music that lute players played then, and still do now. This gallery represents a few of my favourite finds.' Elizabeth Kenny.

To launch the gallery, click the first image above 

Elizabeth Kenny begins a solo UK tour tomorrow, June 15, at Orford Church. For further dates click here. Her new recording, ‘Ars longa: Old and new music for theorbo’, released by Linn, is available from June 21.

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