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Writing for the lute

Notation and tuning

The lute family is a large and varied one, with instruments of many different
sizes and tunings (the nearest equivalent in terms of variant tunings now is
the banjo). Most lute songs of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were
written for a renaissance tuning in G.

Here are the open strings, which are known as “courses”:


1st course (single) g, notated above the top line of the treble clef,
though it sounds an octave lower.
2nd course (paired unisons) d
3rd course (paired unisons) a
4th course (paired unisons) f
5th course (paired unisons) c
6th course (paired, an octave apart) g/G
7th course (paired, an octave apart) f/F
8th course (paired, an octave apart) e/E
9th course (paired, an octave apart) d/D
10th course (paired, an octave apart) c/C

The sounding length of the open string is shortened or stopped by pressing


next to the frets which are placed at semitone intervals apart; so, on the first
course g the first fret is Aflat, second A, 3rd Bflat and so on.

If you have access to a guitar, the easiest way to get a feel for the tuning of
the first six strings is to tune your guitar G down to Fsharp. Then the intervals
will be correct, the only difference being that a guitar is a 3 rd lower, in E. The
7th-10th courses (known as diapasons) tended to be used as open strings for
added resonance (more on that in a minute), sometimes stopped at the first
fret for chromatic notes.

This was represented in different forms of tablature, the most common being
French tablature, which told the player where to put their fingers: a being an
open string, b the first fret, c the second and so on. The advantage of this
was that players could play fairly complex music without having to understand
what the actual notes were, the disadvantage was that players often played
complex music without understanding what the notes were!

You may wish to write in tablature (rock guitarists use it all the time…) but
staff notation is also fine. There are two ways to do this:

1. All on treble clef (sounding an octave down) like classical guitar.


2. Treble and bass clef, as with keyboard music, especially if you write in
a texture that tends to separate out bass from treble.

Colour and resonance: where the lute is different from the guitar

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A lot of the character of the sound of the lute comes from the arrangement of
doubling strings: a pair in unison resonate together (and was the source of
many metaphors about strings in harmony vibrating together etc). At this time
period the lute was played with the fingertips rather than the nails, so that a
larger surface area could push the strings into the soundboard to create the
sound. There’s a limit to how hard this push can be before the strings clang
together: the priority was roundness and a full sound rather than absolute
volume. In the same way, strings at the octave were always used together,
the higher octave just adding a bit of brighter colour to the lower. Low gut
strings could be a bit dull, so this enabled the bass to project, especially when
used as an open resonating string.

The wooden pear-shaped construction was designed to interact with what


were often wooden music rooms, either in domestic houses or in wooden
theatres or courtly rooms in a professional context. So to create sound, the
instrument “caught” this acoustic. Modern guitars have this resonance built in,
so things like using open strings and what key you are in are not so crucial.
Older instruments were designed to be uneven in this respect - given that the
“home” key with most open strings is G and Gminor, keys like G, C, F and
Bflat with plenty of open string resonance will sound fuller and richer than
those where the strings are mainly stopped, like the ‘sharp’ keys of A, D,
Eminor, Bminor etc. (Guitarists on the other hand love these keys and ‘home’
for them is Emajor/minor.) Sometimes a muffled stopped sound is desirable,
and songs in these remote keys do exist to create a particular emotional
affect: Dowland used Aminor for particularly dark melancholic songs. So to
summarise: if you want loud sounds find open strings; for interior monologues
find dark stopped chords.

Texture

Some lute songs made use of polyphonic lines, others were more simple and
chordal, and a lot went between the two. Most effective is to create a variety.
Unlike keyboard composers, lute composers didn’t feel they had to stick to the
same number of parts all the way through. Sometimes Dowland has four parts
for a bar or so, then drops to two, then writes big six-part chords for a
cadence, for example. A separation of treble and bass works well. The top
string was known as the chanterelle or “singing” string; often being single, it
means a melody could sing out above lower basses. Closely-spaced chords
on the lower courses tend to sound muted. As lute strings decay quite
quickly, slow moving, spaced out notes will result in quiet music, while faster
moving passagework can produce louder effects.

Finger span and technique

As a general rule, one finger per fret is the normal stretch, so if the first finger
is on the first fret, the fourth will be comfortable on fret four, but could stretch
to fret 5. ‘Bar’ chords are where the first finger stretches over several strings

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at once: this can be any number from 2 to 6, and is useful for big chords
higher up the neck, as well as for sliding chord shapes up and down the neck,
if no open strings are needed.

Many lute pieces and songs have melodic figures played by the thumb and
index finger like plectrum technique. Scales and figures like these tend to run
up and down the fingerboard, as they liked the sound (and the drama!) of a
hand moving up the neck. Whereas guitar players use mixed scales on
different strings, each course of the lute has a more different sound and
character, so moving up and down on the same course is logical, even if it
sometimes means dropping other parts temporarily to get the effect. Tremolo
effects can be done with thumb and index, and big chords strummed with the
thumb or back of the first finger.

Harmonics at the octave sound fine, those and the fifth are very quiet, as a
fingertip doesn’t activate the string in the same way as a nail on a guitar, and
“artificial” harmonics are inaudible!

These are some points about what sounds natural, but the point isn’t to sound
like old music, so do feel free to experiment with other sounds and
techniques, bearing in mind the parameters.

Writing for voice and lute

The principles of word-setting, from guitar-based rock songs to German lieder,


apply equally here: the poem’s metrical structure will be apparent when
reading it aloud, and you can reflect this in musical rhythm or go against it in a
kind of counterpoint. One thing to bear in mind is that earlier texts tend to be
quite dense in meaning, so for the singer anything that helps with their clarity
of meaning will also help the emotional range of the song. Women’s voices
tend to be clearer text-wise in the middle of the range, going high for special
effects rather than sitting in the high register.

Our two voices are mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych and tenor Nicholas
Mulroy.

Anna is a mezzo-soprano which means she has a wide range from dark notes
in the low register (A below middle C) to higher notes such as F an octave
and a half above, though bear in mind that in female voices text is clearest
towards the middle if there are many words to convey.

Nicholas Mulroy’s range is a higher one. Extending upwards is better than


sitting low around middle C-E, especially if you want loud effects.

In terms of balance between voice and lute, again variety is key: a voice
singing uniform mezzo forte will overpower a lute more effectively than one
singing sometimes fortissimo and other times pianissimo. This is because,
once the audience has heard the lute clearly, it’s easier to follow. So some
songs have introductions or solo passages, and others even a capella

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moments. As above, the law of diminishing returns applies to single notes -
they get quieter - so in forte passages bigger chords will support the voice
better.

Elizabeth Kenny