Early Guitar Cousins: The Lute
The lute’s history is tied up with the Mozarabic traditions in Spain. It dates at least as far back as the eighth century when the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula. The term “lute” itself comes from an older Arabic instrument, the oud. The oud has a documented history going back even before the Persian Empire into Mesopotamia. The Arabic term for the lute is عود, which is often transliterated into English as oud, ʿud, or al-ʿūd. The lute we know today developed over the course of many hundreds of years and eventually became distinct from the oud around the thirteenth century.
From the Oud to the Lute
It was during the rise of the Renaissance, however, that the four-course instrument previously played with a plectrum became a six-course instrument plucked by the fingers of the right hand. While previously the oud and early lute were instruments for accompanying a vocalist, during the Renaissance the lute became a continuo instrument. For this reason, lutes during the Renaissance began adding more (and lower) courses of strings. Subsequently the necks of these instruments grew longer and longer to accommodate these lower strings.
Diversity of Lutes
During the Baroque period the lute in Germany had as many as 13 courses. This style of lute was common with the lute music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Also during this time, however, the lute once again became a popular instrument for vocal accompaniment. This was especially true in France with the court of Louis XIV. Putting all these pieces together we can see a great diversity in lutes and in music written for lutes. Lutes differed in France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. And music for the lute included continuo music, vocal music, and solo instrumental music written for these various lute instruments.
This diversity of instruments also meant that there was a diversity in tuning. The most popular tuning from the Renaissance was, from low to high: G, C, F, A, D. Guitarists today can approximate this tuning by tuning the third string down one half-step to F# and placing a capo on the third fret.
Not only is there diversity in the tuning of the instruments but there is also a great diversity among tablature, or notation systems for the lute. The most common forms are French, Spanish, and Italian.
French tablature uses six lines on the staff, similar to modern guitar notation, but uses letters rather than numbers to denote open string and frets. The top line is the highest-sounding string, and the bottom line the lowest. In this system, “a” is the open string, “b” is the first fret, “c” the third, and so on. (This goes all the way up to the ninth fret, which is “k”—the letter “j” is not used in this system.) Above the top line different stems were used to denote various rhythms. And these rhythms differ from modern standard notation. Fingerings for the right hand appeared as dots above the numbers. Ornament symbols also appeared above the top line.
While only six lines are present on the staff, sometimes additional notes would be placed below the bottom line. These represent lower courses of open, unfretted strings called “diapasons.” A set of slashes indicates which string to play. For instance, the sixth string was “a,” the seventh string was “/a,” and the eighth string would be “//a,” and so on.
Italian tablature is closer to modern guitar tablature because it uses numbers rather than letters. However, unlike modern TAB, Italian tablature in most versions has the lowest sounding string on the top line, not the bottom. (Do keep in mind, that there were also “inverted” Italian tablatures, however.) Like French tablature, rhythmic stems (sometimes also with noteheads, but with the same rhythmic values) are present above the top line of the staff in Italian tablature.
While there are too many composers to name because of this huge diversity, the name almost universally associated with the lute is John Dowland. Dowland wrote hundreds of compositions for the instrument and many of those have become classics on the classical guitar as well.