Welcome all! This is “Music Monday” for February 22nd
Were it not for the New York Times crossword puzzle, I would give no thought whatsoever to the word “lute” or the instrument for which it is named. “Lute” is a common clue answer in the puzzle, and writing it in its designated four boxes has been the extent of my attention, I’m ashamed to say. The lute, however, is much more than a four-letter crossword puzzle clue. It boasts a long, complex history in the evolution of stringed instruments over millennia. The magnificent lute has taken many, many journeys- geographical, physical and musical.
Johannes Vermeer’s Woman with a Lute Near a Window:
Angel in Red With Lute, by Leonardo da Vinci:
The lute has made its way from ancient Egypt, North Africa and Arabia, to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, to the Balkans, and Europe. It has evolved from a long-necked instrument to a short-necked one, from a construction of animal skin to one carved of wood, from plucking with a quill to plucking with fingertips, from an earlier elongated body shape to a rounded one. Like an intelligent creature of Darwinian adaptability, the lute has spent centuries transforming and refashioning itself to various societies and eras, accommodating changing musical tastes and necessities. From Renaissance to Baroque to Classical, from king’s courts to village squares, in the hands of amateurs and professionals, townspeople and peasants and city dwellers, the lute has lent its delicate stringed sounds to virtually every country, culture, and ethnicity on earth. Where there was music, there was lute.
Most music lovers, myself included, are engaged in a collective love affair with the six-string guitar. But lute strings, along with its other physical features, are more distinct and reflect its uniquely sophisticated and refined musicality. Lute strings are arranged in “courses” or, simply, pairs. The highest pitched course is usually a single string called a “chanterelle”, but the others are doubled. So for example, an “eight course” Renaissance lute will have a total of 15 strings; the single chanterelle, plus seven pairs (14). Other distinguishing features of the lute are the pegbox, bent sharply backward almost at a right angle to the neck, and the sound hole which is not an open hole like in a guitar, but carved directly out of the wood and covered with an ornate, decorative grille design.
A Renaissance-style lute:
From Bach Lute Works, Volume 1, this is lutenist Paul O’Dette performing a very beautiful Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1001, IV, Presto:
Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s Lady With a Lute:
If this next painting is any indication, it seems that lute players may have been the rock stars of their day. I burst out laughing when I first saw this, and thought “This is definitely going in the blog post!”. What a debauched, lascivious scene! A lute player and his groupie. By Hendrick Terbrugghen, A Luteplayer Carousing With a Young Woman Holding a Roemer. I’m betting this guy got lucky. What do you think?
We Armenians, and our fellow middle easterners, play a lute relative called the “oud”. I heard plenty of oud growing up, and the instrument shares many similarities with the European versions of the lute, as they likely evolved from a common instrumental ancestor. Although I’m not a huge fan of traditional Armenian music, I must admit that the oud is an exception, in my opinion. I’ve heard some phenomenal Armenian oud players jam on that thing! The late George Mgrdichian was one one of the all time greats, if not the greatest.
From the 19th century Croatian painter Vjekoslav Karas, this is Roman Lady With a Lute:
When I was searching art images for this post, I discovered that a vast majority of them featured a female sitter. A good 80%. I’m thinking that the reason is because the lute’s form – roundish, pear-shaped, with full curvy lines – is more feminine in its contours. Therefore it looks very nice when a woman is holding it.
Woman Playing a Lute, 1520, by Bartolomeo Veneto:
More superb lute technique, this time from Robert Barto. Here he is performing Silvius Leopold Weiss’ Lute Sonata No. 45 in A major: VI:
The next time I encounter a four letter word for “stringed instrument” in a crossword puzzle, I will pay proper respect before I scribble it in. And I will recall this passage from The Lute Society website:
Above all, it was the lute’s ravishing sound which made it so admired. While the essential design of the instrument (six pairs of strings tuned in fourths, with a third in the middle) is similar to that of the modern guitar, the sound is very different: low-tension gut-stringing and the peculiar resonance of its pear-shaped body give the sound of the lute a delicacy and richness which cannot be matched by its brash modern cousin. In a sense it is an instrument closer to nature than the modern guitar.
“closer to nature”. I like that.
The Lute Player by Caravaggio, 1596: