Are lutenists less HIP than they used to be?

First we had “authenticity”, then we had “historically informed performance” (HIP). What do we have now?

This is a book-length topic, of course, so I can only make a few remarks which relate specifically to the lute.

A bit of history – from the pioneering work of Dolmetsch and others in the early 20th century, through to the 1970s, there was a huge increase in the number of people who were interested in exploring the lute, mostly as an alternative to playing lute music on the guitar. Awareness of hitherto unknown composers grew, and it became apparent that there was a whole new world of music to be explored. For many it was a welcome relief from the traditional worship of 19th century romanticism on the one hand, and the mostly incomprehensible alien brave new world of atonal, 12-tone and aleatoric music on the other. Many people were attracted to the lute who came from other musical worlds, particularly folk music.

During the 1970s there were huge developments in the historical research which underpinned the whole enterprise, and consequently many changes in the characteristics of the lutes which were being played, the playing techniques, and the understanding of musical styles.


By about 1980, modern lutes were closely based on historical originals, and it was no longer assumed that the lute was – and could be played as – some strange kind of guitar, but had a repertoire and technique of its own. It was also realised that the lute was not one instrument, but a whole family of instruments which evolved a great deal over the three centuries during which significant amounts of music was written for it. Matching the instrument to the music was not just a fad – it was a matter of necessity, because of the different stringing configurations and tunings which were required by the music.

There were some anxieties, however…


It was realised that modern strings were different from the gut strings which were used originally, yet there were no satisfactory gut strings available. Mostly this resulted in denial – the old guys must have had decent strings (one way or another) and their stringmaking secrets have been lost, so we might as well carry on as we are and not worry about it. Another – less explicit – idea was that thanks to an advertisement by Playford (1664) which appears to talk about metalwound strings, maybe they were invented much earlier so maybe we can play much earlier music with our wound strings without violating the idea of historical accuracy, and in any case we can certainly play any music written after 1664 using our metalwound strings with a clear conscience. The historical evidence is very much against both of these ideas, in fact the evidence that such strings were ever used on lutes is extremely thin. Today, after some initial success, research on what the old strings might have been like has largely stalled, as has any serious attempt to reproduce them. So we’re pretty much back where we started on this one.


Another area of anxiety was all those ornament signs in the tablature, whose meanings are not clearly explained anywhere. The first reaction (and it persists to a remarkable extent) is to ignore them. Very few modern recordings of lute music include more than a few mordents or cadential trills, with the exception of baroque music, where the situation has improved. The harpischord music of François Couperin is inconceivable without his carefully notated ornamentation, so what is so different about the lute? Well, lute ornamentation is not so carefully notated (if at all), so it’s a different situation than it is with Couperin. But it’s clear that lute players used a lot of ornamentation, not just trills and so on but melodic improvisation of repeats, etc. The modern reaction to this problem has been largely either to ignore it or claim that because we have no definitive explanation of the notation we don’t need to do it at all.


Going back to the 1970s, most people played the lute like the guitar – with the thumb outside the fingers (“thumb out” or “TO”). Paintings which showed 16th century players doing something different (“thumb in” or TI”) were discarded as being improbable – surely no-one played the lute like that? Perhaps the painter didn’t care to show such unimportant details, or the players depicted were just people who didn’t know how to play, etc. Finally it was accepted that it was possible to play the lute TI, and it was not just possible, but positively desirable, with great improvements in speed and tone colour. It quickly became the dominant technique amongst modern lutenists.

Now we have a different problem. Paintings from around 1600 onwards show not only TO, but a playing position much closer to the bridge. Again we have people saying that the old guys couldn’t possibly have played like that, it would make a horrible sound, perhaps the painter didn’t care for the details or the people didn’t know how to play. Sound familiar?


Having realised that there were many different lutes at different periods of history, we made a lot of progress in classifying the different kinds of lutes and what we should call them (if only for our own convenience). Robert Spencer published a seminal article on the subject in Early Music (October 1976) which still forms the basis of our understanding. But it is clear (from iconography and historical writings) that it is more complicated than that – there are lots of instruments which don’t fit neatly into our classification and many types for which there are no surviving examples. History is not a neat story, however much we might want it to be.

However, as with all the issues discussed above, the current tendency is to use this uncertainty as an excuse to do anything at all and still claim it as “historical”. This is simply dishonest and undermines all the careful research of the last century. Personally I am quite happy for people to play any music on any instrument and in any way they please (Bach on penny whistle, anyone?) – but let’s be honest about what we’re doing. The trouble with “the lute” now is – particularly in the context of continuo instruments – there’s no easy way to say this – there are lots of lute-shaped 14-string guitars out there which claim to be “historical instruments” when they are nothing of the sort.


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