Blog Archives

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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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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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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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,

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Frets – Double vs Single

Most people today use rather thick single frets, but it seems in the past it was common to use thin double frets – can we learn anything from this? Lute iconography rarely shows enough detail to be sure whether the frets are single or double.

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Coloured Strings

When we look at paintings of lutes from the 16th to 18th century we see quite a variety of coloured strings. Natural gut colour is common, but some strings, particularly basses, are a dark reddish-brown colour. Others are bright red, or blue, or black. It is possible that there is no particular significance to these different colours (other than string identification,

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Patience

When I was about 11 years or so old, I remember when relatives came to visit and I showed them my collection of butterflies and moths. They were amazed that someone so young could have amassed so much knowledge about things which were obscure to most adults, but they also almost invariably used a magic word –

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