The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 40

Courant L'Onesta

  • Lesson 40 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce
  • 63 from ‘114 Early to Intermediate Pieces for Renaissance Lute’
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Courant L'Onesta

This lesson focuses on piece no. 63 from ‘114 Early to Intermediate Pieces for Renaissance Lute’, and is a somewhat longer piece than we usually have space for. It is written for a 10 course lute with basses tuned to F, E flat and C; the 9th course (D) is not used. If you have a lute with 7 courses I suggest tuning the 7th course to E flat, and putting the F and C basses up an octave. If you have an 8 course instrument, E flat and C are probably the most useful bass notes; the F can either be fretted or put up an octave.

This lovely tuneful Courant is an example of stile brisé or ‘broken style’, though less fragmented than many. The mostly 2-part texture of the opening bars quickly gives way to a more conversational style where treble and bass answer each other. In practice, one creates a polyphonic texture in these question and answer bars too, by holding notes so that they ring on and overlap the answering phrase. To make this ‘dialogue’ clear I have added copious hold marks. The result should be graceful, and elegantly legato. Left-hand fingerings need to be chosen to allow the requisite holds: I have marked a few critical ones.

Right hand

10 course lutes are best played thumb-out. The stretches across to the lowest basses can be considerable, and it simply works best to leave the thumb down in the bass register most of the time. This means that the middle finger of the right hand takes the place of the thumb in playing the strong beats in the treble. As always, the index finger takes the weak notes. In triple time this can be a little complicated; the middle finger will be expected to take notes on the first beat, the index finger will be expected to take the light notes on the 2nd beat, but what of the third beat notes? They occupy a sort of halfway house, needing to be fairly light because they are the ends of the bars, but needing enough weight to function as firmly directional upbeats. They should be stronger than the 2nd beats. This means that the middle finger will often be the best choice for the 3rd beat notes, which means there will be a lot of repetition of the middle finger when there are 3 melodic notes in a bar. Where there are only two - for example, in bars 5 and 6, the index finger can be used for the last note of the bar. Repeated bass notes will require the repetition of the thumb, as in, for example, bars 5 and 6, but runs in the bass should alternate thumb and index where possible - as in bar 54, for example.

When repeating a finger - or the thumb - there is always the danger that the shape of the line is lost, and that successive notes come out identically weighted. This can lead to a very vertical result, with far too many accents. It is essential to think in terms of longer lines and longer phrases: for example, the piece opens with a four-bar phrase, answered by another four-bar phrase, so the complete ‘question and answer’ unit spread over eight bars should be clearly audible to the listener. I hear the next section as 2 bars, 2 bars, and then 4 bars. You may disagree, but whatever you feel is correct should be audibly conveyed to your listener. On no account should you play each bar with the same weight, otherwise the result will be quite lifeless.

Structure and phrasing

Many players in the early stages of learning the lute find longer pieces daunting, but dances like this can be easily broken down into sections. The structure of this piece is a very clear AA’BB’, so I suggest learning the plain A and B sections first (beginning at bars 1 and 33), and moving onto the decorated A’ and B’ sections when you feel ready. The phrasing that you establish in the plain sections should still be clearly audible in the decorated sections. Keep the decorated treble lines light and airy.

Pay careful attention to the ends of phrases, which mostly involve a single broken chord and often a low bass note. Be careful not to hit the bass notes too hard, especially the 10th course, which can often be at the limit of many peoples’ reach.