The surviving treasure of European lute music represents the largest body of instrumental music composed before 1800, amounting to over 30,000 individual pieces preserved in manuscripts and printed books intended specifically for the lutenist, as well as in books of worship, dance manuals, histories, theoretical works, broadsides, tutors, collections for voice and other instruments, and iconographical sources. The importance of this instrument and its impact on the history of European culture cannot be overemphasized. The first books of instrumental music ever published were the lute books published by Petrucci (1507) and (1508), which were also among the first music books of any kind. In 1501, Ottaviano Petrucci inaugurated the first series of printed part music in the history of Western music with the Harmonice musicesodhecaton A, an anthology containing mainly French secular songs. During the following fifteen years he produced some three dozen more books of songs, Masses, motets, frottolas, lute music, and laude, all in accurate and clear readings.

Throughout the Renaissance, the lute was considered to have the closest affinity with the ancient Greek instruments. By the end of the sixteenth century, the lute and chitarrone were considered by musicians and poets as substitutes for the Orphic lyre, as well as a link to antiquity

The lute was not viewed as a solo instrument until Johannes Tinctoris (1435-1511) when there was a shift from monody to polyphony. Most of the literature about the lute comes after the 1500's. Before then, the lutes were played in consorts with haut cornets, shaums, sackbuts, slide trumpets, basses, harps, citterns, percussion and psaltry.



The early lute was played almost always with a quill held between i and m, or p and i. It was held sometimes braced against a table. The last mention of the plectrum style is around 1513.

Vincenzo de Capirola, (1474-c1548) Italy, wrote one of the earliest lute books, and confirms the rule that alternating p and i to cover the whole range of the instrument is used when playing melodic passages.

In the early 1600's a gradual style to thumb under technique was adopted by many lutenists, reported in Valentin Barkfark's book of 1553.



The new technique was used extensively in the Baroque period as the lute developed more courses, the bass line became more active and the music had more harmonic changes.

Effects of thumb under : easier to play diminutions p-i, strong beats can be emphazised with p, except in triplets where pip-pip are used. By 1632, this practice was torn by Alexander Piccinini and as thumb out technique developed, p plays rest-stroke specially on large course lutes.

1600's-no nails 1700's some players use nails.

Lute Society of America- Downloads

For tunning rules see: Tuning Conventions in the Lute




Important Italians:

Giovanni Maria da Crema (1540-?)

Vincenzo de Capirola (1474-c1548)

Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543) "il divino"
He was Beatriz and Isabella d'Este's favorite lutenist at Mantua and in 1519 he entered the service of Pope Leo X, remaining in Rome as musician to Adrian VI and Clement the VII.

Vicenzo Galilei (1520-1591) " Dialogo de la Musica Antica y Moderna"

Alexander Piccinini
(1560-1638) "Intabolatura del Lauto"
played with nails and talks about shaping nails- there are four books of his music published.

Simone Molinaro (1565-1615) Lute book

Cesare Barbetta (1540- 1603)


Music for the Lute

Tabulations of vocal music-Intabolaturas
pavana, passe mezzo, saltarello, galliard bassdance, padovana, piva spinardo.

Toccata- Intonaciones- Preambles

Variations-ornamentation on repeats, augmentation and diminutions, variations on a ground, tunes slightly changed but recognizable and continuous ans non-continuous variations.

Ballad (settings of popular songs)

Fantasias and Ricercare-
The earliest and best representative of this genre was Francesco da Milano who wrote many for 6 string lutes.
1. Development of several points of imitation
2. Sections are similar
3. Contrasting chordal and contrapuntal sections
4.Strong harmonic progressions, especially in cadential sections (plagal).
5. Clear phrasing but improvisation occurs affecting the rhythm (in linear passages more than in chordal contrapuntal sections)



Francesco Canova da Milano- title page and and Ricercar #11





The earliest source of information from Germany is the Königstainer Liederbuch (1470-3)

Many treatises for amateur musicians appeared in Germany during the Rennaisance. Most of them were written in German as opposed to Latin. In German music for lute, three types of music are represented: Intabulations of secular and sacred music in three voices, dances like tanz or nacht tanz (German dance), passe mezzo, pavanne, galliards, saltarello (all based on foreign imports) and preambles.


German Composers


Arnold Sclick (1480-1525) wrote the first printed collection of keyboard music in 1512. This collection contained 140 organ pieces, 14 songs with lute and 3 lute pieces. "Tablaturen Etlicher Lobesang Lidlein"

Hanz Judenkünig(1455/60-1526) wrote the first lute books with vocal tabulation "Introduction"of 1515 and "Ein Schone Kuntsliche Underweisung" contains dances and preludes in a pseudo-polyphonic style, many based on popular tunes of 1523. Both books were self-tutors with exercises in graded difficulty. The invention of the complex tablature used in early German lute books is attributed to him.

Hans Gerle (?-1570) German lutenist; also a lute and viol maker. In the 1530s he issued one of the more important German lute tablature books.

Hans Newslider
(1508-1563) German lutenist of Hungarian descent. Lived in Nürnberg from 1530, and published four volumes of lute music, including instructions on playing as well as pieces. These books contain arrangements of sacred and secular vocal pieces, preludes in a polyphonic rather than improvisatory style, and dances of various nationalities.

Mathaüs Waissler (c.1540 - 1602) German lutenist and composer. Waissler worked as headmaster of a school at Schippenbeil near Königsberg from 1573; he published in that year a volume of lute arrangements of vocal pieces, and in 1592 he issued a collection of German dances for lute, which was the last lute tablature to be published in Germany for many years.





The earliest music written in French tablature found prior 1500's is the heart shaped 'Pesaro Manuscript'

The lute in France has a long historical tradition attracting people from all over the world. There were lute schools in towns, many amateur players, publishing houses and much activity surrounding the nobility. The first printed lute book in France was "Dixhuit Basses Dances" 1529 by Pierre Attaignant (1494-1552). The same year he wrote "Très Brève et Familière Introduction" containing sets of popular tunes grouped Bass Dance- Recoupe and Tourdion. Attaignant wrote 70 collections of music containing some 2000 chansons, 20 of the items in the collection are instrumental books for lute, keyboard, flute, recorder, guitar and ensemble music.

Robert Ballard and Adrian Le Roy, two half brothers, established a printing firm in 1551, publishing works of Lully and Couperin in the XVIIc. They were the most prolific and influential arrangers and composers in France in the second part of the XVIc. Between 1557 and 1583 they published some 24 tablature books with instructions for plucked instruments, lute cittern, Rennaisance guitar, mandolin and mandora.

Their most important book, " Instruction for Intabulating all music easily for the Lute," was divided into three parts: how to intabulate vocal works with discussion of the eight modes, explanation of tablatures and rules for playing the lute, and a collection of chansons and other vocal pieces. Le Roy started the "AIRE DE COUR" songs with easy lute accompaniments.




Other Important French Composers

Jean Baptiste Bésard (1557-1625) wrote two important books "Thesaurus Harmonicus" 1603 a collection of 400 pieces of 21 composers. Besard was a Burgundian lawyer, physician and lutenist, educated in Italy. He wrote solo lute music, duets, aires de cour and arranged this material in 10 books according to the genre. John Dowland translated them and published them in England. His book "Novus Partus" (1617) has a very international collection for 3 lutes and two voices and 12 duets.

Antoine Francisque (1570-1605) wrote " The Treasure of Orpheus" where we read the first allusions to Classical Themes. The first XVII c. publication for lute includes fantasias, preludes gavottes courantes and voltes. There are no vocal transcriptions and we sense the beginnings of a change of style.

Nicolas Vallet (1583- 1642) an advocate of thumb out technique, settled in Amsterdam, composing, teaching and performing. In Paris he published "The Secrets of the Muses"1618-19 which contains 109 pieces for solo lute and 7 lute quartets. He also experimented with different scordatura.





Queen Elizabeth I, the first child of Henry the VIII, was considered one of the best-educated scholars and intellectuals of her day, particularly in languages and philosophy. A true Renaissance princess, she devoured books throughout her life and reign, trying to secure one or two hours each day for quiet and contemplative study. Aside from her interest in literature she was quite a good lute player, using her skills to gain power and prestige.

The English Madrigal School

The impetus for writing madrigals came through the influence of Alfonso Ferrabosco, who worked in England in the 1560s and 1570s in Queen Elizabeth's court; he wrote many works in the form, and not only did they prove popular but they inspired some imitation by local composers. The development that caused the explosion of madrigal composition in England, however, was the development of native poetry — especially the sonnet — which was conducive to setting to music in the Italian style. When Nicholas Yonge published Musica Transalpina in 1588, it proved to be immensely popular, and the vogue for madrigal composition in England can be said to truly have started then. The most influential composers of madrigals in England, and the ones whose works have survived best to the present day, were Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes and John Wilbye


Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland

The first lute book in England, Willian Barley's translation "A New Book of Tablature" 1596, containing music for lute bandora and orpharion, comes one hundred years later than in Italy. (Dowland's and Wilbye's music is represented in this book but without their permission).


English Music for Lute

There seems to be no particular reason other than geographical proximity why the English adopted French tablature. Most English music for lute from 1590 to 1610 was for seven and eight course lutes with fretted chromatic notes on the basses (e.g. all of Dowland's Fantasias), this much easier to show in French than in Italian tablatures. This trait was mostly seen in England while the rest of Europe gravitated towards the use of multiple diatonic basses.

The music of the English lute school survives in 85 manuscripts and 5 printed sources containing 2100 pieces with an additional 1230 concordances.* From the years 1580 to 1615 we find indigenous solo music, and some music with French tittles, although the English favored the Italian musical models.

From 1580 we find the emergence of a national style, but after 1615 English music was influenced by European music especially French, the later period being exemplified by the period labeled transitional tunnings.

Up until 1625 most lutes where tuned in vieil ton, used by those who wrote airs de cour but the march towards technical and virtuosic music demanding more complex chordal structures involved the retuning of one or two courses of the lute up or down a step. This led to the
nouveau-ton tunings as described on the right, mostly used by those writing solo music for lute.

The French composers of the XVII century who experimented with these tunings were: Ennemond Gautier (1575-1651)and his son Dennis Gautier c. (1603-1672)

*A concordance is an alphabetical list of the principal words used in a book or body of work, with their immediate contexts.



The earliest sources (c.1530-1580) written by a single scribe are found in the Willoughby and Thistlehwaite manuscripts, they represent the end of a period of Italian influence and the beginning of the English school of lute

The most important manuscripts from this period are:
The Mynshall Lute Book 1597 written by Richard Mynshall.
The Sampson Book 1610 written by Henry Sampson.

The most important books from this period are:
A Variety of Lute Lessons 1610 by John Dowland
The School of Music 1603 by Robinson ( almost all Robinson)
The XII Wonders of the World 1611 by Maynard (all Maynard and transitional tunings)

The first part of the XVII century was a period of considerable variability in the tuning of the lute, particularly in France.

However, by around 1670 the scheme known today as the "Baroque" or "d-minor" tuning became the norm, at least in France and northern Europe.

In this case the first six courses outline a d-minor triad, and an additional five to seven courses are tuned generally scale wise below them. Thus the 13-course lute played by Weiss would have been tuned [(A"A') (B"B') (C'C) (D'D) (E'E) (F'F) (G'G) (A'A') (DD) (FF) (AA) (d) (f)], or with sharps or flats on the lower 7 courses appropriate to the key of the piece.

For more details about English Lute Sources

English Lute Manuscripts and Scribes 1530-1630 by Julia Craig- McFeely Oxford 2002



The earliest leading figure in England is John Johnson and little is known of his life.
He had a royal appointment in the court of England and left a large number of manuscripts with popular ballads tunes of the quality of John Dowland's music.

The most important lute composer of this era is John Dowland (1553-1626) with an output of over 100 solo pieces for lute, most of them appear in manuscripts. Dowland served most of his life as a lutenist for Cristian the IV of Denmark and later in his career, moved to serve James I of England. Dowland was renowned world wide. The fantasias are his most impressive pieces, using long melodic lines and imitative counterpoint and dramatic intervalic leaps.

Francis Cutting (c1550-1602) was attached to the Howard family, the Earls of Arundel and succeeded John Dowland in Denmark. His music is mostly extant but what remains is of considerable high quality. He had ten children, and his son Thomas Cutting became an acclaimed lutenist.

Anthony Holborne (1599-1602) became a Gentleman Usher to Queen Elizabeth, and although he did not have a musical appointment in the English court, he was called upon to perform. His works appears in manuscripts and in the Barley Book and A Variety of Lute Lessons by Dowland. He worked for Robert Cecil the Earl of Salisbury.

Daniel Bacheler (? )was entrusted to Sir Francis Walsingham at age 14 and by age 16 he was writing serious consort music. In 1594 he is recorded in the household of Earl of Essex and by 1599 he was entrusted with letters between Elizabeth and Essex. He never had a musical appointment in Elizabeth's court but he served as Groom of the Privy Chamber to the Queen, occupying one of the most senior positions among all the grooms. He was extremely gifted at playing the lute. He also wrote over 40 works for the lute.

Robert Johnson (1583-1633) son of John Johnson and an accomplished lutenist, explored extreme registers in the lute and his pieces have a thick texture. Only 20 of his pieces survive.

The most important patron of the lute in England was William Cavendish the Earl of Devonshire (1551-1626) he employed lutenists, Thomas Cutting, John and Robert Dowland, Mr. Maynard, Mr, Pierce and Mr. Louis. His music collection represents the tastes of the nobility of the day and the instrumental music shows a preference for lute songs, viol consort, broken consort, lute and virginals.

Table from English Lute Manuscripts and Scribes 1530-1630 by Julia Craig- McFeely Oxford 2002

After 1620 the lute lost its appeal in England and in Italy, but the Baroque Lute reached its peak in France, during the reign of Louis XIII (1610-1615). At the end of the XVII century, it was basically abandoned in France but it's influence was apparent in works for keyboard.