Music Instruments: History of the Lute



A lute is a large and beautiful stringed instrument with a long neck and fretted fingerboard. It was used greatly at one time but is now obsolete.

In mediaeval Latin the lute is called Testudo and the guitar Cithara, both inaccurate identifications of ancient Greek instruments of very different construction.

The lute is of Oriental origin, and its Arabic name is Al’ud – from which its European names are derived by the omission of the initial vowel of the definite article Al.

The Portuguese Alaude alone retains it. The lute became known throughout the West in the time of the Crusades.

We class the Russian Kobsa as a lute: while the Balalaika of the same country is of the guitar kind. As in the viol de gamba and violoncello, the formal difference between a lute and a guitar is to be found in the back, which in the lute is pear shaped and in the guitar is flat. The lute is without ribs, which are essential to the framing of the guitar.

The invention of stringed instruments with fingerboards, or the neck serving as a fingerboard, precedes the earliest historical monuments. The long necked Egyptian Nefer was certainly depicted in the fourth dynasty; and wall painting of the time of Moses, preserved in the British Museum, shows that it then had frets. We observe a similar instrument in Assyrian monuments, and the Hebrew Nebel has been supposed to be one. Strangely enough the Greeks had it not. The Arabs derived the lute from Persia, and with the instrument a finesse in the division of the octave into smaller parts than our semitones, rendered possible by the use of frets, and still an Asiatic peculiarity; the bet authorities assuring us that the modern Arabian ud and tambura are thus adjusted.

It is usual to speak of these fractions as 1/3 of a tone. Kiesewetter, however (Musique des Arabes, Leipzig, 1842, pp. 32, 33), gives the Persian-Arab scale as a division of seventeen in the octave; twelve of the intervals being the Pythagorian limma (not quite our equal semitone), and five of the dimension of the comma, an interval, though small, quite recognizable by a trained ear.

Carl Engel (Musical Instruments, 1874, p. 60) states that the Arabs became acquainted with the Persian lute before their conquest of the country, and names an Arab musician who, sent to the Persian king to learn singing and performance on the lute, brought it to Mekka in the 6th century. The strings of the Arab lute are of twisted silk, an Asiatic, especially Chinese, material for strings. The same, bound round the neck, has served for the frets. The Egyptian lute, named oud or e oud, of which there is a specimen at South Kensington, and an excellent woodent in Lane’s Modern Egyptians, chap. V., has seven pairs of gut strings, and is, moreover, played with a plectrum of eagle’s or vulture’s quill.

The Western lute was a Mediaeval and a Renaissance instrument. It flourished during the creative period of Gothic architecture and later, its star beginning to pale as the violin quartet arose, and setting altogether when the pianoforte came into general use.

The were publications for the lute as late as 1740 – six sonatas by Falkenhagen, Nuremberg; and, 1760, Gellert’s Odes by Beyer. Handel used the instrument in ‘Deidamia,’ 1741.

The pear shaped or vaulted body of the lute was built up of staves of pine or cedar. The belly was of pine, and had one or more sound bars for support and to assist the resonance. It graduated in thickness towards the edges and was pierced with from one to three sound holes in decorative knots or rose patterns. Great pains were evidently taken in choosing and making this very essential part of the instrument.

Attached to the body is a neck of moderate length covered by a finger board divided by frets of brass or catgut into a measured scale.

The strings were entirely of catgut until towards the end of the 17th century, when silver spun bass strings were introduced. There would appear the comparison of old lutes to have been much diversity in the stringing and tuning, and there is a broad division in the large lutes between those notes, generally in pairs of unisons, which lie over the finger board and frets, and the diapason notes that are not stopped, and serve only to determine the key or modulation. When off the fingerboard these deeper strings were attached to pegs elevated by a second and higher neck. These extended instruments became afterwards known as theorboes, and in time virtually banished the older single necked lutes.

Mersenne’s engraving of Lute and Theorbo gives nine frets besides the nut, to the lute twenty one strings to the theorbo twenty three strings (eight to the upper neck).

The fingers of the right hand, without a plectrum, touched the strings pizzicato in melody or chords. The tender charm and coloring of the lute player’s tone can scarcely be imagined.

The frets of the fingerboard followed a division by half tones, and in the old lutes were eight to each pair of strings.

It must have been very troublesome to keep a lute in order. Mace, in his often quoted work, recommends that a lute should be kept in a bed which is in constant use, and goes on to say that once in a year or two, if you have not very good luck, you will be constrained to have the belly taken off as it will have sunk from the stretch of the strings, ‘which is a great strength.’ Matteson said a lutenist of eighty years old had certainly spent sixty in tuning his instrument, and that the cost of Paris of keeping a horse or a lute was about the same. Baron replied that the horse would soon be like one of Pharaoh’s lean kine.

In Italian lutes of early date the tuning pegs were disposed diagonally across the head in two rows, the projections for tuning being at the back. They were afterwards inserted at the side of the head as in a violin, the head being bent back at an obtuse or even a right angel to the neck. Ultimately metal screws replaced the pegs, but only when large single strings were put on instead of double strings.