The Lute Society: Old Renaissance Lute Tutor Books

The old renaissance lute tutor books

by Chris Goodwin, first printed in Lute News 88.

Ask for music lessons today and you have a pretty good idea of what you are letting yourself in for. You will start your new instrument with very simple studies, built around just one or two notes or chords, then you will proceed via scales, exercises and simple pieces composed around specific practice points, to easier pieces of 'real music', all nicely printed in a succession of published, graded albums, with plenty of confidence-building material. Your final destination is to be able to play great works by revered Classical composers, interpreting them according to their own detailed tempo and expression markings. Such was the reverence for those great masters that, within living memory, some strict 'old school' instrument teachers would not allow pupils to play any actual music at all, until they could play scales and exercises satisfactorily. (The noted lutenist Paul O'Dette said in an interview that as a youth he gave up the violin and took up the lute, in frustration at such a violin teacher.)

Four or five centuries ago things seem to have been rather different. Very few lute 'exercises' and no tables of scales (correction please, if I am wrong!-Ed.) have come down to us. Genuinely easy pieces in books of 'lessons' are relatively few, and all too often the gradient of progress is a little on the steep side. Expression or other markings in the works of the great masters more or less non-existent, though ornament signs become more common in the 17th century, when explanatory tables began to appear. In any case, the purpose of learning an instrument was thought of differently. Weighty treatises such as Galilei's Fronimo (1568, 1584) or Morley Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music (1597) taught one, respectively, how to arrange and how to write music-not just how to play other people's music, as a 'mere blind cantor', to use Dowland's phrase. The lute and the keyboards were the main instruments on which a single musician could realise polyphony, so here was another reason for learning to play: to learn music theory by intabulating and playing vocal works, so that eventually you could learn to write fantasias and motets yourself (see John Griffiths, Taner vihuela segun Juan Bermudo (Zaragoza, 2002)).

All in all, there is less detailed instruction as to how you actually play the lute than we would like in the old tutor books. This was partly a matter of economics. Thomas Mace, in Musick's Monument (1676) lamented that:

there was never any thing more constantly to be observed among masters, than to be very sparing in their communications . . . either with parting with their lessons, or imparting much of their skill to their scholars; more then to shew them the ordinary way how to play such and such lessons . . . they die and all their skill and experience dies with them . . . they keep all to themselves, communicating nothing but upon a pecuniary account.

The secrets of lute playing were trade secrets and could only be imparted to paying private pupils, if at all. Moreover paper, books and printing were phenomenally expensive; a copy of Dowland's Second Book of Songes (1600) cost almost the same as a cheap lute (see Lute News 80) so to print scales and exercises might have seemed foolish. Printed lute music tended to be difficult; the masterpieces that you studied towards, not easy little beginner's pieces that you jotted down, and could probably learn by ear anyway. Printed music was something special; at the end of your dinner party, you or lovely daughter fetched forth lute and printed music book, and impressed your guests with a (difficult) piece or two from the book, which you or she had been secretly practising for weeks . . .

If you had music lessons, it seems to have been common for the lute teacher to visit every day, and we have at least two manuscript sources containing the lessons the teacher dictated: the Capirola lute book (Venetian, c.1517, facsimile from SPES, translation in The Lute 1983/2) and more particularly The Burwell Lute Tutor written in longhand by a lute pupil (facsimile: Boethius, now available from Ruxbury Publications; transcription: Galpin Society Journal, 1958). The Folger Dowland Manuscript (facsimile: the Lute Society) contains jottings which might have been made in a lute lesson, and at least one piece, 'Lady Hunsdon's Puff' written from memory and in haste-there are some obvious mistakes-by the master in the pupil's book. A single loose leaf with a few easy pieces written on either side recently found in Westminster Abbey library (see Lute Society tablature sheet B5) may reflect another common practice: the pupil or the teacher copied out lessons from the teacher's book for the pupil's further study and practice. The Dallis lute manuscript, dated 1583, contains an inscription saying that it belongs to someone just beginning lessons with Dr Dallis of Cambridge; the early pieces are suitably easy. The Mulliner keyboard manuscript (early 1560s), which contains some gittern tablature, is probably likewise a student's workbook.

Really, we should be grateful that the lute was fashionable among those people, namely wealthy amateur ladies and gentlemen, who both needed, and could afford printed books of music, and books of instruction. It is rather to hard to write about lute instructions, nonetheless, because much of the most useful information is scattered here and there in the prefaces of individual printed lute books. So the modern lute revival has had to entail a great deal of piecing these clues together, and general detective work.

For no very obvious reason, the baton of renaissance lute pedagogy seems to have passed from one country to another during the 16th century, from Italy to Germany, to Spain, to France, and finally to England.

The earliest Italian source of instruction is the abovementioned Capirola lute book. The music is not terribly easy, it must be said. A few pages of advice cover such things as tablature notation, how to make a barré chord, and 'secrets' of stringing the lute, given that strings were often fatter at one end than at the other (help!). In the first half of the 16th century Italian lute books printed a page of 'regula per quelli che non sanno cantare', that is, rules for those who don't know how to sing, i.e. to read music. These are basically just brief explanations of tablature, sometimes with explanations of tenuto marks and left-hand fingering dots. Dinko Fabris has written a thorough survery of these in ed. Coehlo Performance on Lute Guitar and Vihuela (Cambridge UP, 1997).

It was in Germany that the first serious attempts at printed instructions were made. Virdung's Musica Getuscht (1511) has a long-winded account of stringing, fretting, and how tablature relates to staff notation (translated in Lute Society Journal (1973)); his acrimonious debate with Arnolt Schlick, author of Tablaturen Etlicher lobgesang (1512), is described in The Lute (2006). The first real printed tutors, aimed at the beginner were Judenkunig's Latin Utilis et compendiaria introductio (c.1515-19) and an expanded German-languge version of the same work Ain schone kunstliche underweisung (1523). Here too, the prefatory instructions are basic and principally concern tablature, and tuning instructions, but the music is genuinely useful practice material, starting with vocal intabulations in just two parts. I have edited all the music (except some Horatian ode accompaniments) from the Latin tutor in the Lute Society's 40 Easy to Early Intermediate Pieces while Eduard Plagge has transcribed the music from the 1523 edition for the Dutch Lute Society (also on sale through the Lute Society).

Next in the lute tuition hall of fame come two residents of Nuremburg, Hans Gerle, who published four books of tablature between 1532 and 1552, and Hans Newsidler who published eight books of tablature between 1536 and 1549. Newsidler's Das Erst Buch is transcribed in a Lute Society edition, it is still excellent, progressively graded, student material. Newsidler and Gerle give instruction on tablature, fretting, tuning, intabu-lation and some other matters; Stephen Haynes has analysed Newsidler's right-hand fingering instructions in Lute News 37; they are often surprising and thought-provoking.

Mid 16th-century Spain produced a series of books for the lute's guitar-shaped (and identically tuned) cousin, the vihuela. The seven books of Milan (1536), Narvaez (1538), Mudarra (1546), Valderrabano (1547), Pisador (1552), Fuenllana (1554) and Daza (1576) have been published in facsimile and a variety of modern editions (see Lute News 71 for an introductory essay and bibliography). Collecting these used to require a very long pocket, but a CD ROM of all 7 books is now available, with another disc planned, containing theoretical treatises, such as Bermudo's abovementioned Declaracion de los instrumentos. Milan's El Maestro in particular had a didactic purpose (see Luis Gasser, Luis Milan on Sixteenth-Century Performance Practice, and the beautiful colour facsimile of El Maestro published by the Sociedad de Vihuela). Between them the vihuelists give useful advice on the different traditions of right-hand technique playing; as well as the first references in music history to certain aspects of performance tempi.

Around the time music printing was fizzling out in Spain, Adrian Le Roy, in Paris, seems to have conceived the idea of a series of instructional books on the lute, only partially extant, mostly in contemporary English translations. Happily these are now all available in a two-volume facsimile from Fuzeau, Methodes et Traités 19 . . . Luth, which also includes earlier and later treatises and excerpts, such as the stave below, from Phalese's Le Chansons reduictz en tablature (1545) which (at last) gets down to the nitty gritty of lute playing, telling us which fingers to use on given chords.

Le Roy's A Brief and Easy Instruction (1568) teaches lute playing systematically, in twenty-four 'rules' framed as if for someone learning by the book alone; these are followed with some attractive and not-too-difficult pieces. His Brief and plaine Instruction (1574) shows how to intabulate four voice chansons (by Lassus), line by line, for the lute, again with a short anthology of pieces at the end. The 24 rules from the 1568 print were recycled by Barley in his New Booke of Tabliture (1596), which is available in facsimile from Cornetto Verlag.

I have saved till last the most readable sources relevant to the renaissance lute (the baroque lute, and the theorbo are another matter). Thomas Robinson's The Schoole of Musicke (1603), formerly published in a modern edition by CNRS of Paris, and a facsimile from Theatris Orbis Terrarum, opens with a charming dialogue between pupil and teacher, and besides explaining tablature, gives advice on ornamentation, articulation and fingering, and has some fully fingered lessons, including duets, a staple of English renaissance lute teaching. Robert Dowland's Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610), available in facsimile from Schott, gives Dowland's translation of Besard's Necessarie Observations belonging to the lute, which covers the matters of choosing a lute, practising, and right and left-hand fingering, and follows this with John Dowland's own Other necessary observations on choosing strings, fretting and tuning. Mary Burwell's lute tutor, already mentioned, is for baroque lute, but gives a wealth of detail, local colour and lute mythology which is certainly relevant to the earlier period. Last and greatest, Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument (1676) is likewise a baroque source (Mace favoured 'French flat' tuning over D minor tuning) but was self-consciously written to give the most comprehensive possible advice and support to those learning the lute, to try to bolster the lute when it was in decline, and is unmatched in its detail, even on such matters as how to draw a lute string from the packet without damage, and how to tie fret knots.

By this point you may be saying, this sounds like a very long reading list and shopping list. Why not just leave reading the original sources to the authors of modern tutor books, Poulton, Lundgren, Damiani and the rest, and follow their (distilled) instructions? Well, if you are the sort of person who is interested in lute playing, you are probably the sort of person who is curious about history, and wants to come into contact with the original sources yourself.

A good place to start would be Dowland's Varietie of Lute Lessons (though don't expect to play the music at first; it is pretty hard) then ask your family to get you Musick's Monument or the two-volume Fuzeau Methodes et Traités 19 . . . Luth for Christmas or birthday, and then collect more books as you go along, as curiosity takes you.

In fact, even those who have been playing the lute for years will often find a real surprise jumps off the page whenever they dip into the original sources, which reminds us of how diverse the lute tradition really was in history. Two examples: whereas we rest just the little finger of the right hand on the soundboard, Judenkunig says to rest the third finger on the table of the lute. This completely changes the way the right hand is used, if only the thumb and first two fingers are used to pluck the strings; nobody plays like this today. Perhaps this practice was a hangover from plectrum playing, when the third finger was not used at all, and from the practise of playing while standing up, seen in so many mediaeval illuminations; to have both the third and fourth finger on the soundboard must have given extra support.

Meanwhile in the Capirola lute book it says 'the closer the fret is to the strings it makes the strings of the lute sound like a harp ['arpiza'] and the instrument sounds better'. It sounds as if Capirola actually wanted the lute strings to buzz against the frets, to make a sound like that of the gothic harp, where the strings buzz against the so-called 'bray pins' at the base of each harp string. (Can anyone think of any other possible explanation of this passage?) Well, well, well! The old tutor books still have a lot to teach us . . .