Blog Archives

Playing polyphony on the lute

In the previous blog I looked at historical evidence for fingering chords and some scale passages. But lute music is usually polyphonic, so how is the polyphony notated in lute tablature, and how can we best interpret it? Tablature was apparently invented at around the same time that lutenists started playing all the parts of a composition with their fingers rather than just one or two parts with a plectrum.

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All fingers and thumbs: some thoughts on left-hand fingering

Many lute players today have played the guitar before starting to play the lute, and while it was obvious that right-hand technique would have to be different for the lute, to cope with double strings, lack of nails, and possibly even “thumb-inside” – it has generally been assumed that the left hand was already well trained and needed no real consideration.

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Making things, making mistakes, and perfection

Having now spent most of a lifetime making things, I reflect that I’ve been lucky to do so. In our culture we tend to distinguish people who “work with their hands” from people who “work with their brains”. Our education system has enshrined this for hundreds of years, and even now many people are fond of the idea that some children are “academic” and should go to university and study traditional subjects,

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Octave stringing: ‘irregular to the rules of music?’

If you asked a modern lute player – any time from the revival of the lute in the early 20th century to the present day – whether their bass courses were tuned in octaves, they would probably say that they were tuned in unisons because none other than the great John Dowland himself had said that tuning in octaves was “irregular to the rules of music”.

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Body frets: Who needs them?

…those that be exercised in the same art, stop the strings justly … as cunningly as though they had frets.

Nowadays everybody uses tied gut frets as far as possible on the neck (usually up to the 8th fret), and wooden frets up to fret 12, but in the past it was normal to use no frets at all beyond the 8th.

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Corants by John Sturt and Jacques Gaultier

The ML lute book, (c.1610-40) is a major source for the music of John Sturt (fl.1612-1625) and he may even have been the main scribe (apart from the formation of the letter “e” the writing of tablature, final flourishes and text are very similar to the scribe of Berlin 40461 who apparently signed his name at the end of this corant).  

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Dowland’s ‘Tremolo’ Fantasia: What’s wrong with it?

Dowland’s famous “tremolo” fantasia is familiar from many performances, starting with Julian Bream in the 1970s and continuing to be a favourite piece amongst modern lutenists.

This piece appears in the Collected Lute Music of John Dowland (London: Faber. 3rd edition, 1981; edited by Diana Poulton and Basil Lam;

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A tastar de corde, recercar, and calata by Joanambrosio Dalza

It is now over 500 years since the publication (on the last day of  December 1508) of  Dalza’s Intabulatura de lauto.  It was the fourth lute book published by Petrucci, the first two being the two volumes of Spinacino and the third the (lost) book of Giovanni Maria Alemani.  

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Almains by John and Robert Dowland

The Margaret Board lute book, written c.1620 and unknown until it was offered for sale in 1970, is a fascinating source, not least because it contains a substantial quantity of John Dowland’s handwriting.  He wrote a theoretical table showing the Gam ut on f.1v. and two pieces: an Almande by Robert Dowland on f.12.v.

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Was Dowland a composer of lute music?

Practically the entire corpus of English lute music exists only in manuscript. It was customary for a composer to include an instrumental piece in a printed book of songs, but apart from those few pieces we have only William Barley’s Newe Booke of Tabliture (1596), Thomas Robinson’s Schoole of Musicke (1603),

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