Lute

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The lute is a plucked string instrument that entered Europe during the Middle Ages as a descendent of the Arab ‘ūd (oud), introduced during the Moorish occupation of Spain from the early 8th century AD. It flourished, especially from the 15th century, reached a peak during the 16th and 17th centuries, and became almost obsolete during the late 18th. It has enjoyed a revival during the last half century with the explosion in interest in music played with “authentic instruments” and has regained most of the ground it lost to its sibling, the guitar, in modern performances of music of its heyday.

The lute has a half pear-shaped resonating body with a flat top containing a sound-hole. The neck has a fretted finger-board, has no bridge, and ends at a peg-box bent back up to 90 degrees. The strings are unison paired (one note is sounded by two strings tuned together) except, sometimes, the highest, or melody, string. The tuning and the number of strings have varied with the era, locale and possibly the trustworthiness of contemporary accounts. There have usually been 4 or 5 pairs, however large lutes (arch-lute chitarrone, theorbo) which do the job of the modern double bass) have extra bass strings that do not pass over the finger-board, and have sometimes been provided with their own neck and peg-box.

Musical notation for lutes differs from the normal staff notation - a “tablature” system of horizontal lines represents the actual strings on the instrument instead of the degrees of pitch.

Most serious solo music of the 16th century and into the 17th was written for the lute. Not until the rise of the virtuoso violinists in the late 17th century, and the development of keyboard instruments, culminating in the piano, was its place threatened, although J. S. Bach wrote notable music for the instrument, and his contemporary, S. L. Weiss, was a prodigious composer and virtuoso lutenist, much of whose music is on recordings today.

The lute enjoyed its greatest period of creativity in the distinctively English lute song of the late 16th, early 17th centuries, when, married to the incomparable richness of the English language of the day, it formed the base on which much of western music’s great art-song tradition has flourished.

  • The lute family includes independent instruments such as the guitar and banjo and Indian sitar and adaptations of the lute itself, such as the mandolin, the abovementioned bass members of the family and various instruments that have come and gone. Hybrid forms have been tried, including the lute-guitar, the harp-lute and others.

References:

“Oxford Companion to Music”

“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”

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