This week we’re looking at another stringed instrument with frets: the lute. As is the case with many medieval instruments, it came to Europe from the Arab world, where its closest relative is the oud.
The lute has a very long history. There are examples of lutes (or a very similar instrument) depicted in Egyptian art over 5,000 years ago and the carving at the top of the post dates from the first century AD. Although the lute was popular in the Middle Ages, it was during the Renaissance that it came into its own.
Like the other stringed instruments we’ve seen, it had a body and a neck. The strings were attached to tuning pegs, which were at an angle to the neck. It could be played with a plectrum, or it could be plucked with the fingers. There were frets on the fingerboard, although there was some variety in the number of them.
By Masaccio – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67530858
The body was made from thin strips of wood glued together and the sound board was glued to the front. It usually had two intricately carved holes, one behind the bridge and one just beyond the reach of the player’s fingers at the bottom of the neck. As you’ll see in one of the videos, the player could form notes by pressing strings against the soundboard itself.
The lute could have anywhere between four and ten gut strings. When there were more than five, they were strung in pairs. This was taken to extremes in the Renaissance with fifteen strings or more.
Again, like other stringed instruments it was very quiet and suitable for playing indoors only.
This video includes one of my favourite medieval tunes: the Trotto. There’s also a bit more information about the medieval lute and its construction.
There’s only one tune in this video, but it’s quite fun.
This video has no medieval music in it, in fact the music is baroque as is the lute, but I couldn’t write about the lute and not include something played by Elizabeth Kenny.
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca