When a person says the word “lute” nowadays, they actually are talking about four different instruments – the medieval lute, the Renaissance lute, the archlute/theorbo, or the baroque lute. And that doesn’t take into account all the non-Western instruments that have the same oval, rounded-back shape, which can be traced back before ancient Egypt!
In fact, both the instrument and its name were derived from the Middle Eastern oud (whose name means “wood”), which was introduced into Europe by the Moors during their occupation of Spain in the 8th century and by the Crusaders, who brought it back with them after their travels in the East.
The earliest lutes had four courses (pairs) of strings, but by the middle of the 15th century a single top string had been added as well. By 1500, the number of course had increased to six. At first the instrument was played with a plectrum like the oud, usually made of a feather, but by the end of the 15th century it was played with the fingers. Almost from the start, lute music was not notated conventionally but in a special system called “tablature,” which basically showed the player where to put their left-hand fingers. Three basic systems were used during the Renaissance – French (which was also used by the English), Italian and German – and another system was used during the baroque period.
During the Renaissance, the lute was as popular as the guitar is nowadays, although its fragility and the fact that both its strings and frets needed to be replaced regularly did get complained about. One writer, for example, lamented that it cost as much to keep up a lute as it did a horse, and another complained that if one spent 40 years playing the instrument, 20 years of that were spent tuning it! Thousands of pieces were composed, but most fall into three basic types: abstract pieces, often called fantasies or ricercars; arrangements of vocal pieces; and dances. These ranged from simple dances meant for amateurs to very sophisticated fantasies that could only be performed by the most accomplished players, and many of them are of such high quality that they are played regularly today by classical guitarists as well as lutenists. There are also hundreds of songs and even some music for lute ensembles. During this time, models were introduced that had between seven and 10 courses, and instruments were made in sizes ranging from tiny sopranos to basses with 90-centimeter string lengths. The most popular size, however, was the tenor lute, which is still the most popular size today.
By the beginning of the 17th century, 10-course instruments were common, and composers frequently experimented with different tunings. This was particularly true in France, where the instrument, in addition to solo playing, was often used in ballets or to accompany singers. Two new types of lutes developed this period, both featuring very long neck extensions and a large number of added bass strings: the archlute and the theorbo or chittarone, which were primarily intended for accompanying singers or instrumentalists. These instruments, which can be up to six feet long, were especially popular in Italy, and have become increasingly common today, where modern players often have to contend with problems never imagined by their forbears, such as how to safely transport them on an airplane or in a car!
In contrast, the baroque lute, while it still used a neck extension, was closer in size to the Renaissance type, although it had many more strings – 11 or 13 courses were most common – and was tuned differently than either the Renaissance lute or theorbo. Most of the music from this period is in the form of dances, and much of it was heavily ornamented.
Some of the greatest composers for the Renaissance lute were Italian and German, such as Francesco da Milano and John Dowland. In the early 17th century, most of the great composers, who were also players, were French, such as Denis Gaultier and Charles Mouton. And most of the great baroque composers were German, especially Silvius Leopold Weiss. Bach used the lute in several of his major works and also wrote a number of smaller pieces, but some people believe they were actually meant to be played on a keyboard instrument called the Lautenwerk. During this time, there were also a number of concertos and chamber pieces written for the lute.
By the end of the 18th century, the lute had been passed over in favor of the guitar and was forgotten for almost a century until it was revived by Englishman Arnold Dolmetsch early in the 20th century. But it was the efforts of two women – the American Suzanne Bloch and the English Diana Poulton – that was really responsible for stirring up interest in the instrument again, through their frequent performances and their founding of the American and English Lute Societies.
Lutes will probably never be as popular as guitars; they’re harder to make, cost more, and are more difficult to maintain. And their very soft volume means they’ll probably never be a regular part of a jazz or rock band. But since the late 1960s there has been a steady increase of interest in the instrument. There are Lute Societies in every major European country, a fair number of accomplished professional players who tour and record regularly, and more and more composers are writing for the instrument.