The player of a lute is called a lutenist, lutanist or lutist and a maker of lutes (or any string instrument) is called a luthier.
Description of the instrument
Lutes are made almost entirely of wood. The soundboard is a thin flat plate of resonant wood (usually spruce), teardrop-shaped. In all lutes the soundboard has a single (sometimes triple) decorated soundhole under the strings, called the rose. The soundhole is not open, but rather covered with a grille in the form of an intertwining vine or a decorative knot, carved directly out of the wood of the soundboard. The back or the shell is assembled from thin strips of wood called ribs joined (with glue) edge to edge to form a deep rounded body for the instrument. There are braces inside to give the instrument strength; see the photo among the external links below. The neck is made of light wood, with a veneer of hardwood (usually ebony) to provide durability for the fretboard beneath the strings. Unlike most modern stringed instruments, the fretboard is mounted flush with the top. The pegbox for lutes before the Baroque era was angled back from the neck at almost 90° (see image), presumably to help hold the low-tension strings firmly against the nut. The tuning pegs are simple pegs of hardwood, somewhat tapered, that are held in place by friction in holes drilled through the pegbox. There are no gears or other aids for tuning the instrument.
The frets are made of loops of gut tied around the neck. They fray with use, and must be replaced from time to time. A few additional partial frets of wood are usually glued to the body of the instrument, to allow stopping the highest-pitched courses up to a full octave higher than the open string (see image). Strings were historically made of gut (or extremely rarely of metal), and are still made of gut or a synthetic substitute, with metal windings on the lower-pitched strings.
The lute's strings are arranged in courses, usually of two strings each, though the highest-pitched course usually consists of only a single string, called the chantarelle, in later Baroque lutes 2 upper courses are single. The courses are numbered sequentially, counting from the highest pitched, so that the chantarelle is the first course, the next pair of strings is the second course, etc. Thus an 8-course lute will usually have 15 strings, and a 13-course lute will have 24.
The courses are tuned in unison for high or intermediate pitches, but for lower pitches one of the two strings is tuned an octave higher. (The course at which this split starts changed over the history of the lute.) The two strings of a course are virtually always stopped and plucked together, as if a single string, but in extremely rare cases a piece calls for the two strings of a course to be stopped and/or plucked separately. The tuning of a lute is a somewhat complicated issue, and is described in a separate section of its own, below. The result of this design is an instrument extremely light for its size.
History and evolution of the lute
The origins of the lute are obscure. Various types of lutes were in use in ancient Egyptian, Hittite, Greek, Roman, Bulgar, Ghandarese, Turkic, Chinese, Armenian/Cilician cultures. The Lute developed its familiar forms in Persia, Armenia, Byzantium and the Arab lands in the early 7th century.
As early as the 6th century the Bulgars brought the short-necked variety of the instrument to the Balkans, and in the 9th century Moors brought it to Spain/Catalonia. The long-necked Pandora/Quitra had been common Mediterranean lute previously. The Quitra didn't become extinct however, but continued its evolution, its descendants being Chitarra Italiana, Chitarrone and Colascione.
In about the year 1500 many Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese lutenists adopted vihuela de mano, a viol-shaped instrument tuned like the lute, but both instruments continued in coexistence. This instrument also found its way to parts of Italy that were under Spanish domination (especially Sicily and the papal states under the Borgia pope Alexander VI), where it was known as the viola da mano.
The most important point of transfer of the lute from Muslim to Christian European culture might have been Sicily, where it was brought either by Byzantine or later by Saracen musicians. Because these singer-lutenists were used at court following the Christian conquest of the island, it became the most-often depicted instrument in ceiling paintings in the Palermo’s royal Cappella Palatina, dedicated by the Norman King Roger II in 1140. By the 14th century, lutes had disseminated throughout Italy. Probably due to the cultural influence of the Hohenstaufen kings and emperor, based in Palermo, the lute had also made significant inroads into the German-speaking lands by the 14th century.
Medieval lutes were 4- or 5-course instuments, plucked using a quill for a plectrum. There were several sizes, and by the end of the Renaissance, seven different sizes (up to the great octave bass) are documented. Song accompaniment was probably the lute's primary function in the Middle Ages. Very little music securely attributable to the lute survives from the era before 1500. Medieval and early-Renaissance song accompaniments were probably mostly improvised, hence the lack of written records.
In the last few decades of the 15th century, in order to play Renaissance polyphony on a single instrument, lutenists gradually abandoned the quill in favor of plucking the instrument with the fingertips. The number of courses grew to six and beyond. The lute was the premier solo instrument of the 16th century, but continued to be used to accompany singers as well.
By the end of the Renaissance the number of courses had grown to ten, and during the Baroque era the number continued to grow until it reached 14 (and occasionally as much 19). These instruments, with up to 26-35 strings, required innovations in the structure of the lute. At the end of the lute's evolution the archlute, theorbo and torban had long extentions attached to the main tuning head in order to provide a greater resonating length for the bass strings, and since human fingers are not long enough to stop strings across a neck wide enough to hold 14 courses, the bass strings were placed outside the fretboard, and were played "open", i.e. without fretting/stopping them with the left hand.
Over the course of the Baroque era the lute was increasingly relegated to the continuo accompaniment, and was eventually superceded in that role by keyboard instruments. The lute fell out of use after 1800.
The lute in the modern world
The lute enjoyed a revival with the awakening of interest in historical music around 1900 and throughout the century, and that revival was further boosted by the early music movement of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Julian Bream is famous for his lute concerts during that time period, as well as Hans Neemann, Walter Gerwig, Suzanne Bloch and Diana Poulton. Lute performances are now not uncommon, there are many professional lutenists, especially in Europe where employment is to be found. And new compositions for the instrument are being produced.
Lutes built at present are invariably replicas or near copies of those surviving historical instruments that are to be found in museums or private collections. They are custom-built or must be bought second hand in a very limited market. As a result, lutes are generally more expensive than mass-produced modern instruments such as the guitar, though not nearly as expensive as the violin. Unlike in the past there are many types of lutes encountered today: renaissance lutes of 6 to 10 courses in many pitches for solo and ensemble performance of Renaissance works, the archlute of Baroque works, 11-course lutes in d-minor tuning for 17th century French, German and Czech music, 13/14-course d-minor tuned German Baroque Lutes for later High Baroque and Classical music, theorbo for basso continuo parts in Baroque ensembles, gallichons/mandoras, bandoras, orpharions and others.
Also in modern Greece there are several lute-related instruments: laouto, and outi.
The lute repertoire
Notable composers of lute music include:
Francesco Canova da Milano,
Johannes Hieronymus Kapsberger
Robert de Visée,
Johann Sebastian Bach,
Silvius Leopold Weiss,
Wolf Jakob Lauffensteiner,
Joachim Bernhard Hagen,
Modern and Contemporary (see the Index of Contemporary Lute Music by David Parsons and Lynda Sayce)
Johann Nepomuk David--Germany
Vladimir Vavilov-- Russia
Sandor Kallosz-- Hungary and Russia
Stefan Lundgren-- Germany and Sweden
Toyohiko Satoh -- Japan and Netherlands
Ronn McFarlane -- USA
Paulo Galvão-- Portugal
Jozef van Wissems-- Netherlands
Aleksandr Danilevsky France and Russia
Roman Turovsky-Savchuk-- USA and Ukraine
Many historical lute pieces were published, but great many more are found only in manuscripts, perhaps belonging to the composer or perhaps belonging to some amateur lutenist who would copy in unpublished pieces, or have a renowned guest indict a new composition while visiting.
The modern repertoire is largely drawn from historical publications and manuscripts, though quite a few modern compositions do exist. The historical corpus is vast, consisting of over 40,000 pieces, and about half of it exists only in the original manuscripts and has never been published. Much material circulates among lutenists in facsimiles of the manuscripts or as photocopies of handwritten copies. Historical lute music is most commonly written in tablature, though sometimes in ordinary musical notation instead. Several computer programs now exist designed specifically for the editing and printing of lute tablature.
Ottorino Respighi's famous orchestral suites called Ancient Airs and Dances are drawn from various books and articles on 16th- and 17th-century lute music transcribed by the musicologist Oscar Chilesotti, including eight pieces from a German manuscript Da un Codice Lauten-Buch, now in a private library in northern Italy.
Orazio Gentileschi's young lutenist, painted ca 1626, plays a 10-course lute, typical of the time from around 1600 AD through the 1630s. Music stands appear very rarely in paintings of the period — the music is most commonly laid flat on a table, as seen here.
Lutes were made in a large variety of sizes, with varying numbers of strings/courses, and with no permanent standard for tuning. However, the following seems to have been generally true of the Renaissance lute: A 6-course Renaissance tenor lute would be tuned to the same intervals as a tenor viol, with intervals of a perfect fourth between all the courses except the 3rd and 4th, which differed only by a major third. The tenor lute was usually tuned nominally "in g"(there was no pitch standard before the 20th century), named after the pitch of the highest course, yielding the pattern [(G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)] from the lowest course to the highest. (Much renaissance lute music can be played on a guitar by tuning the guitar's third string down by a half tone.)
For lutes with more than six courses the extra courses would be added on the low end. Due to the large number of strings lutes have very wide necks, and it is difficult to stop strings beyond the sixth course, so additional courses were usually tuned to pitches useful as bass notes rather than continuing the regular pattern of fourths, and these lower courses are most often played without stopping. Thus an 8-course tenor Renaissance lute would be tuned to [(D'D) (F'F) (G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)], and a 10-course to [(C'C) (D'D) (Eb'Eb) (F'F) (G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)].
However, none of these patterns were de rigueur, and a modern lutenist will occasionally be seen to retune one or more courses between performance pieces. Manuscripts bear instructions for the player, e.g. 7e choeur en fa = "seventh course in fa" (= F in the standard C scale).
The first part of the seventeenth century was a period of considerable diversity in the tuning of the lute, particularly in France. However, by around 1670 the scheme known today as the "Baroque" or "d-minor" tuning became the norm, at least in France and in northern and central Europe. In this case the first six courses outline a d-minor triad, and an additional five to seven courses are tuned generally scalewise below them. Thus the 13-course lute played by Weiss would have been tuned [(A"A') (B"B') (C'C) (D'D) (E'E) (F'F) (G'G) (A'A') (DD) (FF) (AA) (d) (f)], or with sharps or flats on the lower 7 courses appropriate to the key of the piece.
Modern lutenists tune to a variety of pitch standards, ranging from A = 392 to 470 Hz, depending on the type of instrument they are playing, the repertory, the pitch of other instruments in an ensemble and other performing expediencies. No attempt at a universal pitch standard existed during the period of the lute's historical popularity. The standards varied over time and from place to place.
- A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance by Douglas Alton Smith, published by the Lute Society of America (2002). ISBN 0-9714071-0-X
- The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and its Music by Matthew Spring, published by Oxford University Press (2001).
- Historical Lute Construction by Robert Lundberg, published by the Guild of American Luthiers (2002).
- La musique de luth en France au XVIe siècle by Jean-Michel Vaccaro (1981).
- Articles in Journal of the Lute Society of America (1968-), The Lute (1958-), and other journals published by the various national lute societies.
- Eckhard Neubauer, "Der Bau der Laute und ihre Besaitung nach arabischen, persischen und türkischen Quellen des 9. bis 15. Jahrhunderts," Zeitschrift für Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften, vol. 8 (1993): 279–378.
The art of playing the lute formed a major part of instrumental music making in the Renaissance before keyboard instruments assumed central significance. It was a refined, soft, and at the same time colorful art, in sharp contrast to the agitated times in which it was practiced.
— Karl Schumann 
This style knows nothing of the otherwise usual requirements and prohibitions of voice-leading; it can only be understood in relation to the fingering technique; it frequently applies the sound of open strings and in no way avoids the otherwise so despised parallel 5ths and octaves or unisons. The dissonances and other conflicting sounds which appear so often...strike me as exciting and revealing.
— Carl Orff 
 Quotation taken from the liner notes to the Wergo edition of Orff's Kleines Konzert, with English translations by John Patrick Thomas.
- The lute (laouto) in modern Greece and Crete
- The Lute Society of America A not-for-profit organization founded to promote and share information about the lute among professional and amateur lutenists.
- Wayne Cripps' lute pages Everything about lutes, including lots of pictures.
- Internal bracing of a lute
- The German Lute Society A not-for-profit organization founded to promote and share information about the lute among professional and amateur lutenists.
- The Lute Lieder Site A large library of songs and lieder with baroque lute accompaniment.
- The Baroque Lute Site A large library of baroque lute music, including the history of the instrument during its twilight.
- The Ukrainan Lute Page An extensive study of Torban, a Ukrainian variety of lute/theorbo.
- Hopkinson Smith A link to the website of the famed lutenist Hopkinson Smith containing downloads, schedule, biography, photographs, etc.
- Robert Barto A link to the website of the famed lutenist Robert Barto, containing downloads, biography, photographs, etc.
- Classical Guitar Magazine Monthly magazine covering all aspects of the classical guitar and lute world
- Ronn McFarlane Essays on the history and applications of the lute by a well known modern lutenist
- Butterfield Lutes The web site of John Butterfield, a Seattle-based lutemaker.
Discography (external links)
- Eugen Dombois discography
- Lutz Kirchhof discography
- Ronn McFarlane discography
- Paul O'dette - Portrat
- Piva Lute music of Italy & Spain
- John Dowland - Complete Works
- The Royal Lewters
- Baroque Lute Music, Vol. 1
- - Cretan Music with Lute
- Discography of Hopkinson Smith playing various lutes
- Baroque Lute Master performs Weiss Sonatas