The lute is a plucked string instrument with a fretted neck and a deep round back. It evolved from an instrument originally developed in the Middle East, which was also the ancestor of the superficially similar oud. The words 'lute' and 'oud' are both derived from Arabic al‘ud, "the wood". The player of a lute is called a lutenist, and a maker of lutes (or guitars) is called a luthier.
Description of the instrument
Lutes are made almost entirely of wood. The top (front of the instrument) is a thin flat slice of resonant wood as in a classical guitar, except oval or teardrop-shaped. In all but the oldest or most exotic lutes the top has a single 'hole' under the strings, called the rose; rare instruments may have several roses instead. The hole is not open as on a guitar, but rather covered with a grille in the form of a twining vine or knot, carved directly out of the wood of the top (see image at right). The back is assembled from thin strips of wood called ribs, shaped like the strips of a banana peel and joined edge to edge to form a deep rounded body for the instrument. There are struts inside to give the instrument strength; see the photo among the external links below. The neck is made of light wood, with a veneer of harder wood to provide durability for the fretboard beneath the strings. Unlike most stringed instruments, the fretboard is mounted flush with the top. The tuning head for lutes before the Baroque era was turned back from the neck at almost 90° (see image), presumably to help hold the low-tension strings firmly against the nut. The tuning pegs are simple pegs of wood, somewhat tapered, that are held in place by friction in holes through the peg box. (There are no gears or other aides for tuning the instrument, which fact — along with the large number of strings — makes lutes tedious if not difficult to tune. Thus lutenists share a joke with historical harpists, "We spend half our time tuning and the other half playing out of tune.")
The nut and bridge were historically made of ivory or bone, now more commonly of plastic. The frets are made of loops of gut tied completely around the neck. They fray with use, and must be replaced frequently. A few additional partial frets of wood are usually glued to the body of the instrument, to allow stopping the highest-pitched courses up to a full octave higher than the open string (see image). Strings were historically made of gut (or extremely rarely of metal), and are still made of gut or a synthetic substitute, with metal windings on the lower-pitched strings as on a classical guitar.
The lute's strings are arranged in courses, usually of two strings each, though the highest-pitched course usually consists of only a single string, called the chantrelle (French for "singer"). The courses are numbered sequentially, counting from the highest pitched, so that the chantrelle is the first course, the next pair of strings is the second course, etc. Thus an 8-course lute will usually have 15 strings.
The double-string courses are tuned in unison for high or intermediate pitches, but for lower pitches one of the two strings is tuned an octave higher. (The course at which this split starts changed over the history of the lute.) The two strings of a course are virtually always stopped and plucked together, as if a single string, but in extremely rare cases a piece calls for the two strings of a course to be stopped and/or plucked separately. The tuning of a lute is a somewhat complicated issue, and is described in a separate section of its own, below.
The result of this design is an instrument extremely light for its size. Pegs for a shoulder strap are a modern innovation; historical images show the instrument being played with no support other than the arms. (Some modern players use a simple loop of yarn from the tuning head around the player's neck and back.)
History and evolution of the lute
The lute first appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages, either due to the traffic between Europe and the Middle East resulting from the Crusades or else transferred across the Muslim-Christian cultural divide in Spain. Medieval lutes were small 4- or 5-course instuments plucked using a quill for a plectrum.
With the advent of Renaissance polyphony the quill was discarded in favor of plucking the instrument with the soft pads of the fingers and thumb (not with the nails, as is the modern practice for classical guitar), and the number of courses grew to six and beyond. Renaissance lutes were made in a variety of sizes for consort use: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. The lute was the premier solo instrument of the era, and was also used to accompany a single singer in a very popular form of art music called the lute song.
By the end of the Renaissance the number of courses had grown to ten, and during the Baroque era the number continued to grow until it reached 14. These instruments, with up to 28 strings, required innovations in the structure of the lute. At the end of the lute's evolution the archlute and similar theorbo had a long jib attached to the main tuning head in order to provide a greater resonating length for the bass strings, and since human fingers are not long enough to stop strings across a neck wide enough to hold 14 courses, the bass strings no longer even ran above the fretboard.
Over the course of the Baroque era the lute was increasingly relegated to the role of the continuo, and was eventually superseded in that role by keyboard instruments, after which it fell out of use. (The evolution of the lute-harpsichord and harpsichord, which pluck their strings rather than hammering them like a piano, can be seen as technological innovations to extend the 14-course lute beyond its human limitations.) Works for lute continued to be produced at least as late as Joseph Haydn, but the instrument completely disappeared from common use around that time.
The Spanish vihuela is apparently related to the lute, though it has a body shaped like a miniature guitar, and never grew beyond six courses. The relation between the lute and guitar, if any, is unknown.
The lute in the modern world
The lute enjoyed a revival with the awakening of interest in historical music during the early Twentieth Century, and that revival was further boosted by the early music movement of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Lute performances are not common, but it should be possible to find one or more per year in any medium to large city in regions imbued with the Western musical tradition.
Modern lutes are almost always replicas of those surviving historical instruments that are to be found in museums or private collections. They are only rarely found in music stores, and generally must be bought second hand in a very limited market or else ordered custom built from a luthier. As a result, lutes are generally more expensive than mass-produced modern instruments such as the guitar.
The lutes most commonly encountered today are the 8-course tenor lute in g for solo performance of Renaissance works, the archlute for solo performance of Baroque works, and the archlute and theorbo for continuo parts in Baroque ensembles. However, some of the Renaissance material can be performed on a 6-course tenor lute and some very late Renaissance or transitional material requires a 10-course lute, so those instruments are not too uncommon. Other types are sometimes encountered as well, particularly in ensembles.
The lute is a soft-voiced instrument, and thus rarely plays a role in large ensembles such as the modern symphony orchestra.
The lute repertoire
Notable composers of lute music include Francesco da Milano, John Dowland, John Johnson, Denis Gaultier, Johann Sebastian Bach, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Philip Rossiter , Thomas Campion, Frederick the Great, Joseph Haydn.
Many historical lute pieces were published, but many others are found only in manuscripts, perhaps belonging to the composer or perhaps belonging to some amateur lutenist who would copy in unpublished songs, or have a renowned guest indite a new composition while visiting. These lute book s are generally known by name, such as Jane Pickeringes Lute Book, The Straloch Lute Book, The M.L. Lute Book, etc.
The modern repertoire is almost entirely drawn from historical publications and manuscripts, though a few modern compositions do exist. The historical corpus is vast, and much of it exists only in the original manuscripts and has never been published. Much material circulates among lutenists in facsimiles of the manuscripts or as photocopies of handwritten copies. Historical lute music is most commonly written in tablature, though sometimes in ordinary musical notation instead.
The standard repertoire for classical guitar includes many transcriptions or arrangements of Renaissance lute music. These pieces are often transposed to a key that is more congenial for the guitar, due to the differnces in tuning between guitar and lute.
Much of Ottorino Respighi's orchestral Ancient Airs and Dances is based on a manuscript of Renaissance lute music once possesed by the musicologist Chilesotti, which is now lost.
Lutes were made in a large variety of sizes, with varying numbers of courses, and with no universal standard for tuning. However, the following seems to have been generally true of the Renaissance tenor lute, and has been adopted as the modern standard.
A 6-course tenor lute would be tuned to the same intervals as a tenor viol, with intervals of a fourth between all the courses except the 3rd and 4th, which differed only by a major third. The tenor lute was usually tuned "in g", named after the pitch of the highest course, yielding the pattern [(G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)] from the lowest course to the highest. (Lute music can be played on a guitar by tuning the guitar's third string down by a half tone and then putting a capo at the third fret.)
For lutes with more than six courses the extra courses would be added on the low end. Due to the large number of strings lutes have very wide necks, and it is difficult to stop strings beyond the sixth course, so additional courses were usually tuned to pitches useful as bass notes rather than continuing the regular pattern of fourths, and these lower courses are most often played without stopping. Thus an 8-course tenor Renaissance lute would be tuned to [(D'D) (F'F) (G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)], and a 10-course to [(C'C) (D'D) (Eb'Eb) (F'F) (G'G) (Cc) (FF) (AA) (dd) (g)].
However, none of these patterns were de rigueur, and a modern lutenist will occasionally be seen to retune one or more courses between performance pieces. Manuscripts sometimes bear instructions for the player, e.g. 7e choeur en fa = "seventh course in fa" (= F in the standard C scale).
Modern lutenists usually tune to A=415 for performance with viol consorts, or to the modern standard of A=440 otherwise. No such standards existed in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, when instructions sometimes called for tuning a string "as high as you can without breaking it".
[Need information on Baroque tuning.]
The art of playing the lute formed a major part of instrumental music making in the Renaissance before keyboard instruments assumed central significance. It was a refined, soft, and at the same time colorful art, in sharp contrast to the agitated times in which it was practiced.
— Karl Schumann 
This style knows nothing of the otherwise usual requirements and prohibitions of voice-leading; it can only be understood in relation to the fingering technique; it frequently applies the sound of open strings and in no way avoids the otherwise so despised parallel 5ths and octaves or unisons. The dissonances and other conflicting sounds which appear so often...strike me as exciting and revealing.
— Carl Orff 
 Quotation taken from the liner notes to the Wergo edition of Orff's Kleines Konzert, with English translations by John Patrick Thomas.
- Early music
- String instrument
Wayne Cripps' lute pages (Everything about lutes, including lots of pictures.)
- Internal bracing of a lute
Discography (external links)
- Paul O'dette - Portrat
- Piva Lute music of Italy & Spain
- John Dowland - Complete Works
- The Royal Lewters
- Baroque Lute Music, Vol. 1