Historical pitch

Historical pitch and the lute

A plucked string instrument with a wide open-string range like the lute has a very limited range of possible pitches, especially when the characteristics of the string material are taken into account. It might therefore be supposed that the absolute pitch at which historical lutes were played could be determined within narrow limits by our knowledge of (a) the string lengths of surviving instruments and (b) the breaking strain of gut strings. In fact things are not quite so simple: because very few lutes have survived with their original bridges and necks intact, and because we can only guess at the characteristics of the original gut strings because none have survived.

Another approach would be to assume that lutes were tuned to common pitch standards which also applied to other instruments and try to relate the nominal pitch of the (“mean” or tenor) lute, usually G, to these standards. This depends on the assumption that lutes were played with other instruments – possibly not a common occurrence, as lutes were most often used for accompanying a solo voice, or another lute.

So, uncertainties abound, but all is not lost. At the 1986 Utrecht Lute Symposium Ray Nurse presented a paper which included a table of surviving lutes from Venice and Padua c.1580-1610, grouped by size. What is clear from this table is that these lutes, made by several different makers, came in standard sizes. This in itself suggests a common pitch standard, but these sizes are also systematically related to each other in a way which conforms to their relative pitches. Thus the 44cm size would be tuned a fourth higher than the 58.7cm size (4/3 x 44 = 58.7), a fifth higher than the 66cm size (3/2 x 44 = 66), and so on. Even the smallest lute on the list, at 29.5cm, is roughly half the string length of the 58.7cm size and therefore probably tuned an octave higher. Of course not all these lutes have their original necks, so the original string lengths are often conjectural, but the body sizes very clearly group themselves in a way which allows very little doubt that these were standard sizes governed by strict proportions.

So we can be reasonably certain about the usual sizes of lute and their relative pitches. Nurse suggests that the nominal pitches (top string) are: 29.35cm in a”; 44cm in d”, 58.7cm in a’, 66cm in g’, 78.2cm in e’, 88cm in d’. He goes on to suggest that with Venetian pitch being at least equal to modern pitch (a’=440) and probably about a semitone higher, these lutes would have been tuned about a tone higher than we tend to regard as normal. If true, this has disturbing implications for the sound of our lutes, because the relationship between body size and pitch has a considerable effect on the quality of sound produced. To take an extreme example, think of the difference in tone colour between a violin and viola, the viola being (relatively) much lower pitched for its body size than the violin.

I was initially quite convinced by this suggestion of a high absolute pitch – after all, we have every reason to suppose that gut treble strings were particularly good in the late 16th century, probably better and stronger than modern ones. It was at this time that the use of a double first course became common, and this places even more emphasis on string quality because the two strings have to be thinner than a single first course and well matched in trueness to sound well. Most players these days conveniently ignore the fact that John Dowland, Thomas Robinson and Thomas Mace all used a double first course and one can well understand why. Even with the benefit(?) of modern strings it is very difficult to string a lute with a double first. There are further difficulties in playing it, too: even though the tension of the individual strings is lower than for a single first, the combined tension is still greater so the course feels stiffer; and care must be taken not to clash the strings together when playing strongly.

We could master these difficulties with some effort, however, and in the present context the most important consideration is whether the double first has any implications for pitch. Obviously there is a limit to how thin a gut string can be made, particularly in the days before the splitting horn when a minimum of two whole guts (arranged thin end to thick end to even out the thickness along the length) must have been used. Modern estimates suggest a minimum string diameter of at least .43mm for such a string. What does this suggest about pitch? To take a specific example, if we took a 59cm lute and tuned a .43mm string to g’ at modern pitch it would have a tension of about 42 Newtons (nowadays a good working tension for a single top string tends to be about 40N). If we assume a pitch standard a semitone higher (which seems most likely for Northern Italy at this period) that takes the tension up to 47N. If we further assume that the nominal pitch of the lute should be A rather than G we end up with a totally unmanageable 60N. Now if we have a double first course and therefore double the tension… there’s something wrong here somewhere! But at least we can now be more specific about what could be wrong: we need a thinner string, a lower pitch standard, or a lower nominal pitch for the lute.

For the first, perhaps our estimate is wrong and a .40mm string is possible. For the second, there’s not much we can do about this: lutes were used in various combinations of instruments and voices and the standard lute sizes presumably relate to the standard pitch, which seems to have been about a semitone higher than modern. For the third, we could propose a nominal pitch of G rather than A for the 59cm lute.

This has the unfortunate effect of making the 44cm treble lute in C rather than D (unfortunate because we would like to have a model for the treble in D required by music for lute ensemble), but it has the virtue of providing many surviving examples of a bass in D (lutes around 78cm) whereas there seem to be few candidates among surviving lutes for a bass of around 88cm. Remember we are talking about a high pitch standard, so the stringing problems are still very much with us. We are now proposing to string our 59cm lute with a .40mm top string at a pitch of about modern G, giving a tension of about 40N – fine for a single string, but what about that double top course?

(to be continued…)