A Brief History of the Lute
Part One

The European lute derives both in name and form from the Arab instrument known as al ‘Ud, which means literally ‘the wood’ (either because it had a soundboard of wood as distinct from a parchment skin stretched over the body, or because the body itself was built up from wooden strips rather than made from a hollow gourd). The Arab ‘Ud was introduced into Europe by the Moors during their conquest and occupation of Spain (711-1492). Pictorial evidence shows Moorish ‘Ud players, and 9th and 10th century accounts tell of visits of famous players such as Ziryab to the court of the Andalusian emir ‘Abd al Rahman II (822-52). This ivory box dates from 968 the reign of al-Mugira the son of Abd al Rahman III in Andalusia and shows one of the earliest representations of an ‘Ud. It is being played standing up and in the detail you can see that the player is using a substantial plectrum. The figures are also wearing their hair in a style apparently also introduced by Zyriab, who seems to have been something of an arbiter of taste in Andalusia. He even founded a music school in Cordoba.

Cantigas luteplayer

Cantigas luteplayer
Ivory box (15cm high) in Louvre Museum, Paris.

Byzantine luteplayer
Byzantine ivory carving (9th - 10th century) part of four panels.
Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt No. Kg. SU. 215

Byzantine luteplayer
Detail of an ivory box (Spain 12th century)
National Museum, Venice

The ‘Ud was not confined to Muslims, however, as is shown by illustrations to the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso el Sabio (1221-84) which include players in distinctive Christian costume.

Cantigas luteplayer

Also a book of chess endgame problems also commissioned by Alfonso X “el Sabio” in 1283 shows a lute with a more western-looking pegbox. The chess game is being played between a woman in arab costume on the left with henna decorated fingers and a woman in Christian costume on the right. The luteplayer appears to be wearing Christian costume.

Chess book luteplayer

An interesting diagrammatic drawing of a five course fretted 'ud of just after this time from the book “Kitab al-adwar” by Safi al Din 'Abd al-Mu'min b. Fakr al-Urmawi can be seen here.

However from pictorial and written evidence it is clear that by 1350 what we must now call lutes, since there is no longer a connection with Arab musicians, had spread very widely throughout Europe, even though trading and cultural links with Moorish Spain were not well developed. For instance this wonderful embroidery of a lute-playing angel on the English Steeple Aston cope, one of the first depictions of a lute in England, circa 1300

Steeple Aston cope

We need to look elsewhere for a route that would lead to the eventual domination of European lute making by numerous German families who came originally from around the Lech valley region and Bavaria. Bletschacher (1978) has argued that this was due largely to the royal visits of Friedrich II with his magnificent Moorish Sicilian retinue to the towns in this valley between 1218 and 1237. The valley was a main north-south trading route across the Alps and the necessary raw materials grow there in abundance so it would have been a natural focus for any such development to occur. Especially following the capture of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians helping the second Crusade which so greatly increased their trading activities with the Near East.

The ‘Ud is still in use although it no longer has frets and over the centuries has undergone structural changes analogous to those of the lute, which mean that it is not the same now as either the original ‘Ud or the medieval lute.

As no lutes from before the 16th century have survived, information must be gathered from pictures, sculpture and written descriptions. These indicate that the lute has usually had its strings in pairs, and that at first there were only four such 'courses' From the start, lutes were made in widely different sizes, and therefore of different pitches.

Pera Sera luteplayer

Click here to see a reconstruction of this type of lute.

Leon luteplayer

Boethius luteplayer

Both pictorial and written evidence points to the use of different sized lutes for treble and ground duet performance. (see Polk, 1992)

During the 15th century a fifth course was added. In 1426 Masaccio shows two five course lutes in his altarpiece,

Masaccio luteplayer
(Virgin and Child, National Gallery, London).

And at the same date, 1426, Luca della Robbia carved this 5 course lute on the Cantoria in Florence.

5 Course lute by Lucia della Robbia

Click here to see a reconstruction of this type of lute.

Later, c.1481-3, Tinctoris mentions a sixth course and there are even tablatures from this period calling for a seven course lute, though no pictures from so early show one.

The earliest extant account of structural details for the European lute is in a manuscript of about 1440 written by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle.(see Harwood, 1960).

Arnaut MS

You can read my longer essay on this design here

Arnaut described both the lute itself and the mould on which it was built, combining the two in the same diagram. His design was unmeasured but instead was worked out in terms of geometrical proportion, including the positions of bridge, soundhole and three transverse bars. Almost 200 years later, Mersenne (1636) described the design and construction of a lute by remarkably similar methods. By his time the number of soundboard bars had doubled, but the placing of three of them, as well as that of the soundhole and bridge, corresponds with that given by Amaut. There can be no doubt that there was a well-established tradition of instrument design by geometrical methods, going back to the ‘Ud at least as far as the 9th and l0th centuries (see Bouterse, 1979). It is perhaps significant that when the lute maker Gaspar Duiffoprugcar (1514-1571) commissioned from Pierre Woeiriot a portrait of himself in 1562, surrounded by his lutes and other instruments, he is shown holding, not any woodworking tool but a pair of dividers in his right hand, implying that the geometry was the most important part of the matter of lutemaking.

Gaspar Duiffoprugcar  1562
AN606134001 The Trustees of the British Museum

However when Arnaut’s design is compared to lutes shown in most paintings of the period it is in fact rather different, being oddly rounded at the top of the body. The very long neck he specifies is almost never shown. Suggesting that, as an enquiring scholar, he may have been given the general principles of design by the lute-maker(s) he consulted, but not the exact relationships which determine the precise shape and which may have been regarded as a craft secret. I discuss a possible solution to this discrepancy in a detailed article here

Medieval lutes usually had two circular roses, one large and more or less halfway between the bridge and the neck, as specified by Arnaut, the other much smaller and higher up the body close to the fingerboard. The large rose was occasionally of the ornate ‘sunken’ variety, often with designs similar to some gothic cathedral windows. This may have been intentional for Arnaut calls the rose in his drawing ‘Fenestrum’. For instance the famous painting of the Nativity (c. 1470) by Piero della Francesca in the London National Gallery show two lutes with this kind of rose. Although the painting has been cleaned to within an inch of obliteration these roses can just be made out.

Piero della Francesca, Nativity
Around 1480 there was even a brief fashion for the upper rose to be in the form of a lancet window.

Mary Queen of Heaven
Interestingly just such a rose has survived in the clavicytherium now in the Royal College of Music, London, which has also been dated to about 1480.(see Wells, 1978)

Click here to see a reconstruction of this type of lute.

The ‘Ud was, and still is, played with a plectrum, and at first the same method was used for the lute. With this technique it was probably mainly a melodic instrument, playing basically a single line of music, albeit highly ornate, with perhaps strummed chords at cadences and other important points. However some of the very early plectra are shown as large and solid looking, so it may also have been used as a percussive rhythm instrument rather like the Rumanian Cobsa, which closely resembles the very early medieval lute, especially in the wide spacing of the strings at the bridge and the shortness of the steeply tapering neck. (see, Lloyd, 1960) This may explain the early drone tunings (see § The tunings of the lute).
During the second half of the l5th century, there was a change to playing with the fingertips, though, as Page (1981) pointed out, the two methods continued for some time side by side. Tinctoris (c.1481-3) wrote of holding the lute 'while the strings are struck by the right hand either with the fingers or with a plectrum', but did not imply that the use of the fingers was a novelty. However, the change was very significant for the lute's future development, for it allowed the playing of several parts at once, and meant that the huge repertoire of vocal part music both sacred and secular became available to lute players. This function was made easier by the invention about this time of special systems of notation known as tablature into which much of this repertoire was transcribed [intabulated]. There were three main kinds of tablature for the lute, developed in Germany, France and Italy respectively. A fourth early system, 'intavolatura alla Napolitana', was also used from time to time. Of the four main types the French may have been the earliest. The German one was probably written during the lifetime of Conrad Paumann (d 1473), the supposed inventor of the system. Although Tinctoris had mentioned a six-course lute, these first tablatures, and indeed the very names by which the strings of the instrument were known, suggest five courses as still the most usual number at this time.

Mary Queen of Heaven

Click here to see a reconstruction of this type of lute.

By about 1500 a sixth course was commonly in use, which extended the range of the open strings by another 4th to two octaves.

Jan van Scorel

Click here to read more details about this painting.

This may have been enabled by improvements in string-making. Gut was used for all the strings and it was usual on the two or three lowest courses to set one of the pair with a thin string tuned an octave higher, to lend some brilliance to the tone of its thick neighbour.

History of the Lute
Part Two
History of the Lute
Part Three
History of the Lute
Part Four
Structure of the Lute
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Robert Spencer’s important article on chitarrone, theorbo and archlute