The English Lutenists

Despite the fact that more lute than keyboard pieces were published--several of them in song-books--there seems little doubt that the instrument was not so popular in England as abroad, even though in John Dowland she was to possess one of the leading lute virtuosi of the time. No surviving works for lute can in fact be dated with assurance earlier than the mid-sixteenth century--not that there was lack of lute-playing earlier: Henry VIII played "well on the lute" as did his three children. The MS works that we do have include a few pieces by Raphe Bowle, dated 1558.

The first tablature printed in England was Le Roy's Instruction de partir toute musique facilement en tablature de luth, which appeared in two or possibly three translations, in 1563(?), 1568, and 1574. Then in 1596, William Barley printed A new Booke of Tabliture for the lute, orpharion, and bandora, which was in part a new, partial translation of Part II of Le Roy's work. The pieces offered by Barley included examples by Francis Cutting, I.D (=John Dowland), P.R. (Philip Rosseter)and others. It was not until 1603 that an original work was produced with similar aims--Thomas Robinson's Schoole of Musicke. The text in this work is followed by thirty-four lute solos and duets, mostly by Robinson.

Pieces for solo lute are included in several of the song-books: Dowland's of 1597, 1600, and 1612, Francis Pilkington's of 1605, John Danyel's of 1606, Robert Dowland's Musicall Banquettof 1610, and John Maynard's of 1611, and lute-parts, often actually reductions of the whole score, are found often in broken-consort books. Finally, in 1610, Robert Dowland, together wuth his father, published Varietie of Lute Lessons, a collection of lute pieces prefaced by "Necessary Observations belonging to the Lute and Lute-playing"--a tanslation from Besard--followed by "Other Necessary Observations belonging to the Lute by Iohn Douland, Batchelar of Musicke."

Apart from Dowland, who thus, surprisingly enough, issued no collections of lute solos and the bulk of whose output remained in manuscript, apart from a few pieces in other men's publications, the chief lutenist-composers were his son Robert, Anthony Holborne, John Johnson, Francis Cutting, Daniel Batchelar, Richard Alison, Philip Rosseter, and Francis Pilkington. Dowland's output consists mainly of dances and is typical of the English lutenist school as a whole, contrasting markedly with Continental production, which preferred arrangements of vocal pieces. A strong sense of rhythm and a flair for fresh-sounding melodies--the latter a general characteristic of English music of the time--are abundantly apparent in his lute music and in that of his compatriots, but his melancholic nature is revealed in a number of fine compositions that employ chromaticism to a greater degree than do other English lutenists. Apart from dances, the lute repertoire consists of In nomines, fantasias, and transcriptions of both sacred and secular vocal music, including some of complete masses. In this last category Byrd is drawn upon more frequently than any other composer, a further indication of the esteem in which he was held.

English music for the lute or for its near relations, the theorbo, guitar, cittern, and pandora, like keyboard and secular vocal music, but not like music for consort, enjoyed but a brief flowering compared to the Continent, where during the whole of the sixteenth century and much of the seventeenth these instruments, especially the lute, were enormously popular. The theorbo, which emerged c.1560 in Italy, can be described as a bass lute; it had single strings at first, but by the middle of the seventeenth century was double-strung, the number of strings being either fourteen or sixteen, the lowest eight or ten tuned to the diatonic notes lying immediately below one or other of the usual lute tunings. These bass strings necessitated not only a larger body than the lute, but also frets spaced at wider intervals, thus making it more difficult to play normal lute music, with the result that the theorbo became more of an accompanying instrument, and as such found a place in ensembles and even the opera orchestra as late as the eighteenth century.

The cittern, which has been aptly called 'the poor man's guitar', was very popular with amateurs of all classes. It has the guitar's flat back, but the lute's rounded sides. It is doublestrung and ranges in size from a small one with four pairs of strings (courses) to one with twelve courses. The pandora was the popular substitute for the theorbo.

The Research Periods   |   IV M: England Through 1635