The Lute Society: Comparison of Baroque Lute Tutors

A comparison of baroque lute tutors

by Wilfred Foxe, first printed in Lute News 92

Most beginners start on renaissance lute, but there is no logical reason why you should not begin your lute studies on a baroque lute, if its repertoire is your first love. Here, Wilfred Foxe reviews Miguel Yisrael’s new method for baroque lute, and takes the opportunity to compare the other tutor books available.

Continuity in the Western tradition of art music can be traced back to around 1800: to a time when . . . the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were perceived as masterpieces in a new way, as masterpieces that had to be preserved in the permanent repertory. . . Nineteenth-century musicians also reached back to the Baroque period and appropriated the music of Bach and Handel. They did not make the attempt to reconstruct its performing traditions . . . It is therefore not surprising that so much more seems to be written about musical performance from a historical standpoint than from any other . . . Musicians who work within the ‘living’ tradition do not need to write—or talk—about music; they are the doers, not the talkers[.] . . . A musical tradition does not maintain its ‘life’ or continuity by means of books and book-learning. It is transmitted at private lessons not so much by words as by body language, and not so much by precept as by example.

Thus Joseph Kerman [1] outlines the challenge faced by anyone courageous enough to set down their thoughts on how play an instrument whose heyday was passed before 1800, whose doers are long since departed, and all that remains are words rather than body language, and precepts rather than examples. That four such tutor books are available for the baroque lute is a tribute to the appeal of the instrument and its music, although the number of people now seeking to learn may equally well be the cause or the effect of one or more of these methods. The four works under consideration are listed below in chronological order of their publication, a period spanning some seventy years.

  • Franz Julius Giesbert, Schule für die Barock Laute, Schott Music Ltd, Mainz, 1938. (German text)
  • Toyohiko Satoh, Method for the Baroque Lute: Schule für die Barocklaute, TREE Edition, Munich, 1987. (English text)
  • Stefan Lundgren, The Baroque Lute Companion oder Galantheste Methode, die Laute zu tractieren, Lundgren Edition, Munich, 1993. (German and English text)
  • Miguel Yisrael, Method for the Baroque Lute: A Practical Guide for Beginning and Advanced Lutenists, trans. Daniel Ungar, Ut Orpheus Edizioni, Bologna, 2008. (English text)

There is a well-established template for tutor books: they normally comprise a description of the instrument and its history, insight into the techniques required to play it, the rudiments of music, and a selection of pieces steadily progressing in the level of technical proficiency required for their effective performance. All four books broadly follow this template, but the flesh put on this skeleton is as different as the homelands of the authors, who are of German, Japanese, Swedish, and Portuguese origin respectively. As far as presentation is concerned, the more recent ones have a decided advantage over their predecessors and, in this respect, the Yisrael is in a class of its own, containing many illustrations and employing one of the tablature software programmes that have had such a positive effect on desktop music publishing over the last few years.

Each of the books has its particular strengths, and aspects which might be perceived as weaknesses. Indeed, Lundgren’s offering, unlike the others, is focused on the 11-course lute and, whilst this might be perceived as a shortcoming, there is an equally strong pedagogical case for progression from 11 to 13 courses. Perhaps in the future the Companion might develop a supplementary companion. This would be welcomed.

It is by no means an easy task to learn any instrument from written material alone, however well the subject matter is presented and however diligent the student. The best opportunities undoubtedly lie in finding a good teacher who may then provide the body language and the example. Indeed, the absence of critical appraisal of the student’s work by an authoritative teacher is a limiting factor with tutor books for any musical instrument. Nonetheless, all the methods under discussion would benefit from being strengthened by the addition of audible musical examples on CD, DVD, or the internet. Yisrael, in particular, takes the great pains to describe the single biomechanical event required to create an elegant sound on the instrument, the fact that nothing may be heard is a weakness which could have been remedied, given the age in which his book has been produced. By contrast, Satoh, writing well before the digital and internet revolutions, and with the authority of 20 years’ teaching experience, implicitly aims his work at those who have previously played the classical guitar and/or renaissance lute, a path trodden by many who now play the baroque lute. To that end, Satoh sees no need to explain the use of the rest stroke for the thumb and free stroke by the right-hand fingers. Yisrael,[2] on the other hand, informs us:

Those who come to the Baroque lute from the classical guitar know not only that the two instruments belong to distinct families, but that the approach to sound production for these two distant cousins is radically different. . . Even those who have mastered difficult pieces on the guitar must have the humility to start from scratch, and to try to apprehend the distance separating them from the universe of the lute.

These two polarised views mirror the dilemma of playing with the nails as opposed to the fingertips (with or without the support of short nails) both views are to be found in the literature of the lute and the guitar, and both will continue to have their proponents.

Throughout its 81 pages, Satoh’s book demonstrates his experience as a teacher and a player of considerable repute. He is able to use few words to demonstrate concepts having universal relevance to the repertory and its performance. Take for example his explanation of adjusting the tuning.[3]

We know already that the tuning of the baroque lute is based on the d-minor chord. The diapasons, however, must be tuned to the key of the piece to be played. It could involve any course from the 6th to the 13th depending on the key.

Thereafter appear the opening bars of the Weiss Chaconne in G minor, and a similar work in A major. At the start of each tablature system are indications to tune the ninth course to the pitch of Eb, for the G minor work; and, for the A major work, the seventh, eighth, ninth and eleventh, to G#, F#, C#, and B-natural respectively. Beneath the two systems are transcriptions of the two Weiss incipits transcribed for the great staff with key signatures of two flats, and three sharps respectively. Additionally, before the transcription is an indication of the pitches of the diapasons which have to be altered to accommodate the specific keys.

Satoh’s remarks are very concise he states that the instrument is ‘based on the d-minor chord’ he does not state that the Baroque lute is ‘in D minor’ in the way that, for example, Bach’s Chaconne from BWV 1004 is ‘in D minor’; for him, the music has the key and the instrument, a basis requiring alteration to accommodate certain tonalities. Nor does he state that the relationship between a key signature of traditional staff notation accurately reflects the tuning of the diapasons. Although his remarks might well provoke the question ‘how might one discover the key of a work?’ The answer is beyond the scope of the book since, as stated on page 22, ‘the main purpose of the book is the presentation of technical exercises.’ However, the student might well develop a sense of key from the cadential progressions which are provided in a number of tonalities. In Lesson No. 14 the student is not advised of the key. However, in the following one, a variation on a Prelude in F major by Falkenhagen, many of the same harmonic progressions are present and, by implication, a diligent student ought to be able to deduce the similarities and discover the tonality of the preceding exercise. In a similar vein, the Etude in D minor, an arrangement of a piece by Thomas Mace originally for the viol, requires no retuning of the diapasons. Thus in the space of a few pages appear lessons on many levels: for some these are technical exercises, for others there are additional musical qualities which might be extracted from the same, and for others, a sense of key and knowledge of the effect of contrasts between the major and minor-mode contexts will be apparent. All of this may be extracted by the student working alone but for those learning from a teacher or even in a group, the possibilities for learning are significantly extended.

All the books provide a selection of pieces in the tonalities most often favoured by lute players of the period, yet none gives an indication of how a player might deduce the tonality of a work when there is no indication, which is a useful skill particularly now that so many facsimiles are available where no indication is given. Only Giesbert points out that ‘there is no rule that demands that bass strings are always to be tuned diatonically in the scale of the key the piece is in’ (p. 95).

Yisrael’s book comprises input from a number of different individuals and, whilst this has obvious strengths, there are occasions when its downside is evident. For example, on pp. 51-2 appears a list of keys signatures using the suboctave G2 clef; these cover tonalities up to three sharps, and three flats. On p. 51 the major and its relative minor keys are placed side by side; overleaf, however, the major mode sits vertically above its minor counterpart. Whilst this is a small point, all other appearances of music in staff notation have used the F4 and untransposed G2 clefs, and the list of keys presented excludes F minor. Granted, this key is not frequently used in the repertory; however, on p. 237 appears a Sarabande [4] and we are here advised that the ‘tuning’ is F major. At bar 12 of the Sarabande, the music cadences in the key of Ab major with the bass moving through a diminished fourth, if the indication of tonality is taken as read. Few would doubt that the tonality of this work is F minor. In parallel fashion, the indication of tuning for the diapasons and the tonality of a Prelude on page 269 is Eb major. However, there is no suggestion that the sixth course should be raised a semitone to the pitch of Bb and, without doing this, the piece does not conform to the harmonic practice of the period whenever the sixth course is employed. Both of these examples would prove disheartening to the student working alone. With the aid of a teacher, this, and sundry other errors, could be spotted and corrected at sight.

On the same page as the Prelude, is the Sarabande from BWV 995 by J. S. Bach and here the ‘tuning’ is G minor. In reality, it is the music that is in G minor, not the tuning of the lute for, in most instances, the same tuning will support Eb major. The book has been translated into English and, if the word ‘tonality’ is substituted for ‘tuning’, then some of the issues are resolved. However, this is not the only example of text where the translation given differs from the linguistic convention of English musical praxis.

In terms of repertory, the Lundgren and Yisrael books provide significant amounts of music with the former offering 252 pieces and the latter 250; both divide their collections into three progressive degrees of technical difficulty. Giesbert provides 80 pieces, graded into four categories, and it perhaps a surprise to find in his tutor the music of Thomas Arne but nothing from Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Lundgren’s own compositions appear in his book, both in the form of etudes, and variations on chorale melodies. This is worthy of commendation since a large proportion of lute players have conservative tastes and seldom stray from the canon of traditional western harmonies either to play or to listen. Thus, any attempt to extend their vistas is beneficial and Lundgren’s harmonic vocabulary will undoubtedly assist this.

In many ways, Lundgren’s approach to his task is fundamentalist: his instructions for playing are minimal but he gives in facsimile—and in English and German translation—prime source material from the playing instruction contained in the prints of Gaultier, Mouton, Gallot, Le Sage de Richee, and Reusner. He provides only the most basic rudiments of music which are those necessary to play the pieces. Working from this book alone, it would take an extraordinary student to become a competent player but, as a source of material supporting a teacher-pupil relationship, it is peerless.


It is very clear that Giesbert puts great effort into teaching and constantly reminds the student of sundry technical details relevant to a piece under discussion. Indeed there is barely a work that has no supportive comment assigned to it. There is more in his book than in any of the others about the rudiments of music, the need to develop a sense of key, use of the figured bass, and various spacings of the same basic harmonies. For him, lute players are part of the greater family of musicians and have more in common with pianists and violinists than is apparent today. His teaching style has an air of Dickensian authority and, in my view, is redolent of some of the work of Reginald Owen Morris,[5] who did so much to shape musical education in the UK. The appearance of Giesbert’s book, however, with its Gothic black printing looks very dated. An English translation [6] is freely available on the internet and this makes his work accessible to the English speaking world. Clearly, since his time, research has informed playing and some of his suggestions may now seem eccentric. Nonetheless, they need not detract from a well-designed and thoughtful work which has already made a significant contribution to the revival of the Baroque lute. Subject to the above caveats, there is no reason why this should not continue.

Although Satoh offers fewer examples than the other books, the breadth of his selection is greater than that of his counterparts. Indeed, with Scheidler’s Variations on Mozart’s Champagne Lied, from the opera Don Giovanni, Satoh places the instrument within the time of the First Viennese School. There is no word, however, on the use of antecedent and consequent phrases either here or in works by, Falkenhagen, Hagen, or Blohm. His approach to teaching rhythmic nuances is commendable, giving three versions of Vieux Gaultier’s Courante in D minor: the first drawn from a prime source, then an intabulation of Perrine’s interpretation of the same work (from the published version in staff notation), and finally what Satoh calls a ‘technical realization’ in which many of the embellishments are written out in full. This is very helpful to a student. The only major criticism of Satoh’s book is there is but a small amount of material which is easy to play and, for this and other reasons, the book is probably best suited to those seeking to convert from the classical guitar and/or renaissance lute. This clearly affords certain advantages to the author since his student group will already have some knowledge of music and will be familiar with both tablature and staff notation. This is an excellent book and, on the basis of the written material contained in the books under discussion, Satoh comes across as a most accomplished and thoughtful teacher.

For any student fortunate enough to find a good teacher, Lundgren’s work will prove extremely useful, since it contains a wealth of music, much of which is still not freely available elsewhere. Moreover, in providing the playing instructions from many of the late 17th century prints, he gives opportunity to see what little material is available to inform the contemporary playing of the Baroque lute. In so doing, he implicitly guides the reader to the position that contemporary realisations of this music are but a construct. Essentially, this is no different from the position of any performer of the music of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven: within certain parameters all interpretations are valid.

Were all the tutor books sitting side by side on the shelf of a music shop, then the Yisrael book would undoubtedly have an edge over the others since its presentation is outstanding. Clearly, a group of people have put a great deal of effort into the production of this book. Undoubtedly, Yisrael is familiar with his predecessors and, to some extent, he has learned from their shortcomings. With so many contributors to a project, however, arises the need to proofread for consistency of message, as well as the more general typographical errors. Yisrael has a persuasive and eloquent written style and writes with such authority it is simply not credible he believes that, for a pitch standard of 415 Hz, the open third course should be tuned to 415 Hz. A statement to this effect, however, is found on p. 70.

Yisrael has put his head further above the parapet than any of the other authors; hence it is not surprising that some of his views may not gain universal support. In the preface to Pièces de luth composées sur différents modes [7] Jacques Gallot advises: ‘Arrester le pouce sur toutes les cordes qui se trouvant dessous pour éviter les mauvais sons’. This is a direction to dampen the lower strings with the right-hand thumb where appropriate to avoid bad sounds. Yisrael provides an explanation of the technique [8] but cites historical support from Mace’s description of ‘tutting’, which is an explanation of a type of staccato playing. In my view, Gallot’s describes ‘what’ and Yisrael instructs concerning ‘how’, and, hence, the reference to Mace’s serves no additional purpose.

It would be helpful for any player to hear a selection of the music provided in Yisrael´s book and I am confident that an accompanying CD would be commercially viable. With the CD might be an errata slip for the tutor book and this would be very welcome. However regrettable it is that the book went to the press without a more comprehensive proofreading, Yisrael’s tutor is a welcome addition to the didactic literature for the Baroque lute and it is heartily recommended.


1 Musicology, Fontana Paperbacks, London, 1985, pp. 195-6
2 See p. 2.
3 See p. 11. Earlier, Satoh introduces the d-minor tuning and points out the existence of other tunings on the Baroque lute. Thus the d-minor tuning for the 13-course instrument is firmly established as the default position.
4 The work underdiscussion is found on the upper part of the page.
5 See Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century, Oxford, 1922; and Figured Harmony at the Keyboard, Parts 1 and 2, Oxford, 1933.
6 David Phillips’ translation is available at
7 (Paris, 1684), facsimile edition, ed. F. Lesure, Minkoff Reprints, Geneva 1978; the quotation appears in the Méthode qu’il faut observer pour jouër proprement du luth, 4.
8 See p. 122.