For a change I have decided to devote one of these lessons to a baroque lute piece: this is an anonymous Gigue from a manuscript in Leipzig, published as piece 4 in the lute society’s ‘Diverse Collection of Easy Pieces for the Baroque Lute’, edited by Wilfred Foxe. The anthology is intended for 13 course lute, but this piece needs only 11 courses. In the UK most players start on a renaissance lute and only tackle a baroque lute after many years of playing, if at all. However, many of our continental colleagues begin on the baroque instrument, and these two groups of ‘beginners’ have quite different capabilities and needs.
For those coming from the renaissance lute, a common problem is the closeness of the right hand spacing, which can make it difficult to get good string contact and therefore a good sound during textures like those of the opening line. The little vertical dashes are original instructions to use the right hand thumb: note that it comes all the way up to the second course in bar 5, since this functions as the bass line at that point. On this sort of lute the right hand thumb should be outside the fingers: note that it needs to be sufficiently far outside to avoid collisions during a close texture like that in the first line. A ‘thumb opposite’ technique will not work! Keep the plucking fingers as relaxed as possible: if the top joint ‘gives’ a little when you pluck the string you will achieve a better contact with the string and therefore a better sound. A tense finger will tend to present its very tip and/or the nail end to the string, and thus produce a harsh sound. Tense fingers are also more susceptible to ‘hooking’ the strings from below, especially if one is trying to stretch across many courses. Playing the first line of this piece really slowly is an excellent way to focus on the thumb out technique, and to refine one’s sound, especially that produced by the fingers - the thumb tends to be easier to control. Whilst you work on the sound, I suggest leaving out the ornaments, so you can concentrate on the right hand work.
Once the sound is under control, focus your attention on the left hand: keep your fingers relaxed and close to the strings so their movement is efficient and tidy. A particular trip point for renaissance lute players is having to cross between the 1st and 2nd strings sooner than one expects, because they are only a third apart: the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings have exactly the same intervals as a renaissance lute, so passages on these strings will feel more familiar. A 3-string barré in bar 4 will save you some left hand contortions, but the fingerboard on most baroque lutes is quite curved, so make sure that your barré follows this curve. The little comma ornaments should be a trill, best started from the upper note (i.e., the one above the written tablature letter). A short simple trill will suffice to start with: make sure that you don’t start the trill early - it is a very common bad habit to start ornaments well before the beat - and keep the trilling finger light and relaxed. Aim to put longer trills on longer notes, e.g., in bar 6. The curved line in the last chord of the A section indicates an appoggiatura from below, which will create a nice dissonance with the open first string, until you resolve it by hammering on the written 2nd course note. Fingers playing ornaments need to land as close behind their fret as possible, otherwise the ornaments will be hard work. Make sure also that your frets are in good condition.
The main difficulty of the baroque lute for all beginners is locating the bass courses accurately. I suggest you devise a few little warm-up exercises for the thumb, to get the feel of the spacing before you begin to play a piece. Some suggestions:
In all of these exercises make sure that the thumb plays a rest stroke, and catches both strings of the course sufficiently to hear both the fundamental and the octave with a good balance. Another critical point, best learned on exercises rather than pieces, is that the thumb moves to the next needed bass note as early as possible. Don’t wait until a bass note is due then make a frantic grab for a distant string; place the thumb on the next needed bass as soon as it has left the previous bass string. In a piece, you may find that you can pre-place the thumb several beats ahead of a bass note being needed, and just rest the thumb there. It will stabilise the hand, and set you up for accurately finding your basses. You will find several points in the present piece where pre-placing the thumb is enormously helpful - for example, bars 11, 13 and 16, where the thumb is unoccupied during at least the previous crotchet, and can already be moving to its next destination. This means your thumb will lead a somewhat independent life from the fingers at times, often preparing bass notes well in advance. This may feel a bit strange at first, but is one of the crucial techniques for taming the bass register. The same technique is equally effective (and necessary) on an archlute or theorbo.