Back to Home page
Back to 2003 summary

The History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance
by Douglas Alton Smith

A review by Ed Durbrow

The lute was among the most popular of all ancient instruments and without a doubt the most important instrument of the Renaissance. It is curious that a comprehensive history is just now appearing. Luckily, it was worth the wait. Dr. Smith is eminently qualified to pen such a volume having earned a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford and having been deeply involved in lute research since the early nineteen-seventies.

This is a very beautiful book and a remarkable achievement. It is hard bound with nearly 400 pages on high quality paper, amply illustrated with notes appearing at the end of each chapter, three appendices, a huge bibliography, lists of illustrations and musical examples, list of subscribers and index. The illustrations include several color reproductions of museum specimens, as well as monochrome reproductions of more instruments, paintings, frontispieces and tablature from publications, and many musical examples in standard notation. The book cover is color and has a striking portrait of what may be Francesco da Milano on the front.

His writing style is clear and easy to read. Although one senses he is passionate about the subject, he writes in a way that one feels is never compromised by bias, - an academic integrity, if you will. Indeed, he is simply telling the story of the lute, a subject he has exhaustively researched. Speculation was always presented as such and never presented as fact. There were a few words that were new to me but he used them consistently throughout so it wasn't like he was trying to be erudite. Historic context such as war, religion, or technology is often presented as a backdrop to the developments of the lute and its music. The many quotes from ancient accounts give a flavor of the times so one feels one is not just reading about facts but journeying through history by glimpsing into the lives of historical figures.

The book is very logically organized 'The material is presented chronologically up to 1500, then chronologically within several geographical regions during the sixteenth century.' Also included is a chapter on lute construction. In the preface he presents the scope of the project explaining what he had hoped to cover, what it covers and does not cover and why. Less space is devoted to the ancient lute, for instance, because most of the sources are in Arabic and there are very few translations into European languages. Although Dr. Smith is an acknowledged expert on the Baroque lute, having written a pioneering dissertation on Sylvius Leopold Weiss, he decided to stop at the end of the Renaissance because of the tremendous scope of the project. He feared he would not have finished, if he had tried to include the Baroque and Rococo. He covers what is known of the lute from it's probable origin in the orient in the first millennium up through the 15th century in Europe in about 45 pages (which is quite a lot of information actually), but we must bear in mind that no tablature or instruments survive from this period, therefore he can only cite records, accounts and iconography. The bulk of this history is devoted to the 16th century lute, which abounds with primary sources.

In chapter 1, Dr. Smith asserts that the lute's popularity in the Renaissance was due as much to the myths and associations with the Greek lyre as to it's physical attributes. He traces the origins of the Apollonian and Orphic myths and their influence on Renaissance writers. He traces it's probable origin in the orient through the importance the instrument had to the Persians and Arabs.

In chapter 2, he traces the spread of the lute into different parts of Europe in the middle ages quoting historical accounts and comparative studies, for example, of how many appearances in paintings with musical instruments in them depict the lute vs the vielle.

In the chapter on Lute construction, he traces the lute making dynasties of the Germans living in the Lech River Valley and their migration to Venice and other parts of northern Italy and their descendants continuing the business and using the original builders name and label for many decades after their death. The appendices list the inventory of two of the most famous makers. The number of completed and incomplete lutes in one shop alone is mind boggling and is a testament to the popularity the lute attained.

He devotes a chapter each to Italy, central and eastern Europe, France and the lowlands, the vihuela in Spain and and England. In these chapters he starts with a brief history of the lute in that area, charting the stylistic development of the music and important positions and documents. He then presents biographies of the important composers and performers in roughly chronological order, with musical examples from the more important composers. He has something to say about the music of all the players, describing the salient features and how it compares with that of their contemporaries. This is quite an amazing feat for the author, given the huge repertoire.

In the epilogue he gives a brief account of what happened to the lute after the Renaissance. We can only hope that a comparable history of the Baroque lute will be forthcoming sometime in the not too distant future.

There is really nothing negative to be said about this book. Although it is aimed at a wider audience than just lute players, it would be surprising if even the most knowledgeable lute expert didn't learn something new from it. This book, highly readable as a history, will undoubtedly make a great impact as a reference book. I know I will refer to it often in the future.

For more information or purchase go here

Back to Home page
Back to 2003 summary