…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. What does this tell us about historical lute technique?
As far as I know, there are hardly any indications of body frets in lute iconography, from any period – with the possible exception of the famous painting (here shown just in detail) by Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535):
As in some other depictions of early 16th century lutes, the 8th fret is very close to the body join and appears to be a wooden fret rather than a gut tied fret. This is also the end of the fingerboard, made from a highly-figured wood. The marks (frets?) on the soundboard seem to correspond to the next three semitones, taking us up to the note a semitone below the octave (which we would call the 11th fret). The fact that the last mark is longer than the others, and the intermediate one is shorter and doesn’t cover as many strings – especially the first string – leads me to conclude that in this case these are just guide marks for the fingers rather than frets. I also note they are thinner than the 8th fret, which I think must be a wooden fret.
In 1568 Jhon Kyngston [sic] published an English translation of a lute tutor book by Adrian Le Roy, probably published in Paris the previous year: “A briefe and easye instru[c]tion to learne the tableture to conducte and dispose thy hande unto the Lute englished by J. Alford Londenor”.
Le Roy, having explained the use of letters to designate frets up to “i” (the 8th fret, which was normally a tied gut fret), says:
“As for the letters that come after the .I. (which we have set last), thei have no frettes, notwithstandyng those that be exercised in the same arte, stoppe the strings justly, where thei should be stopped, that is to saie, where the letters be marked, whiche bee ever above the nomber of eight, as cunnyngly as if thei had frettes.”
He then gives examples of four chords involving tablature letters from k to n:
Trying to play these chords without frets (or even with) represents a bit of a challenge. Playing single notes would be fine, but it seems the old lutenists didn’t restrict themselves in this way. Take, for example, this extract from “Petite folle” by Orlando di Lasso from Melchior Neusidler’s Intabolatura di liuto (Venice, 1566, p.22, bars 22-26):
There is however some evidence for wooden body frets. In his “Necessarie observations…” published in 1610 John Dowland says:
“…all the Lutes which I can remember used eight frets, and so ended at the Semitonium cum Diapente. But yet as Plautus saith, Nature thirsting after knowledge, is alwayes desirous to invent and seeke more, by the wittie conceit (which I have seene, and not altogether to be disalowed) of our most famous countriman M. Mathias Mason Lutenist, and one of the Groomes of his Majesties most honourable Privie Chamber, (as it hath ben told me,) invented three frets more, the which were made of wood, and glued upon the belly, and from thence about some few yeeres after, by the French Nation, the neckes of the lutes were lengthned, and thereby increased two frets more, so as all those Lutes which are most received and disired, are of tenne frets.”
Mathias Mason was appointed as court lutenist in 1580, and promoted to the Privy Chamber in 1603; in 1609 his name disappears from the accounts so he probably died in that year. Notice that Dowland says “three frets more”, not four, as might be expected. This is probably because these frets corresponded to our 9th, 10th and 12th, missing out the 11th – the use of “m” to mean 12th fret in the Marsh Lute Book (p.153) bears out this interpretation. Dowland nevertheless implies that this is a bit of newfangleness of which he might approve but in which he does not personally indulge (“…I have seene, and not altogether to be disalowed”). In fact he uses (the position of) the 11th fret (King of Denmark’s Galliard, P40, bar 25) and even the 14th fret (Mr Langton’s Galliard, P33, bar 53) – but presumably played all notes above the 8th fret (early in his career) and 10th fret (later in his career) without wooden frets. Body frets were used by some, however, as evidenced by Thomas Robinson (The Schoole of Musicke, 1603) who, explaining the use of letters to label the frets in tablature, says “…until you come to i which is the last fret about the neck of the Lute, but you may glue on more frettes in fit place and space (untill you come to n)”.
I don’t think there are many lutenists today who would play the example from Melchior Neusidler quoted above without body frets, mostly because the tone produced by stopping notes directly on the soundboard is so different from the sound produced by stopping on frets.
Why does this seem so difficult for us?
Possibly the gut strings used in the past made it easier in some way, though the problem of trueness of strings was clearly at least as difficult in the past as it is now.
Possibly a much lower string tension would put less severe demands on the left hand and make it a bit easier.
Possibly very thin frets would make a smoother transition from notes stopped on frets and notes stopped solely with the fingers.
Here, then is a another challenge for us, in our attempt to understand the reality of historical lute playing.