Six course lutes
1) "Da Milano". Original design of an early 16th Century 6-course lute based on various sources of iconography.
60 to 62 cm string length. Ideal for the repertoire of the first half of the XVI century.
2) Same as above with a reduced string length of 54 to 56 cm for (A tuning) and a proportionally smaller body.
3) After Georg Gerle at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (SAM 31).
A later style 6-course lute, excellent for the second half of the century's repertoire. String length 59.8 cm.
€3870 for a plain solid fruitwood neck and pegbox.
€4075 with veneered neck and pegbox.
4) After Magno Dieffopruchar (Tieffenbrucker), Venice c. 1550. J & A Beare private collection in London.
Along with the Georg Gerle, this is one of the two 6-course lutes that have survived. A very elegant instrument of slightly longer string length compared to the Gerle but with a shallower body that makes it somewhat easier to hold.
64 -65 cm string length
5) After Hans Frei (Warwick County Museum No. 162)
This beautiful instrument was originally made as a 6-course lute by the emblematic Hans Frei in the typical “pearl” form of the Bologna school. Sometime in the XVII Century, it was converted into an 11-course lute. It has very refined and elegant lines that seem to pass into the sound it produces. This is a bigger instrument than the ones above intended to be tuned in D or E (depending on the chosen string length).
String length: 67.5 – 72 cm.
Tablature books and manuscripts show that the six-course lute was used not only in the 16th century, but well into the following century. Although some publications for 7- and 8-course instruments began to appear in the last quarter of the 16th century, most of the repertoire of this century can be approached with only a 6-course instrument.
In contrast to the more numerous surviving examples of 7-course lutes, we have only two examples of 6-course instruments that are preserved in quite close to original condition. The main reason for this small number is the fact that most of these instruments were altered to add a larger number of courses in order to adapt them to the musical practice of later times.
These are the two known examples of surviving 6-course lutes:
The Magno Dieffopruchar (Tieffenbrucker), built in Venice in the middle of the 16th century. A beautiful and elegant lute with an ivory body, the neck and pegbox also veneered with ivory. It is now privately owned and belongs to the collection of the J & A Beare Foundation in London. This instrument fully corresponds to the morphological characteristics that are present in the iconography of the lute in the first half of the 16th century. For this reason, and due to the fact that there is no doubts about its authenticity, it is an invaluable instrument that helps us understand the morphology of the lutes of the first half of the century.
The Georg Gerle, made in Innsbruck and kept in the ¨Kunsthistorisches Museum¨ in Vienna (SAM 31). Another ivory lute made in the last quarter of the 16th century. This instrument is considered by some experts to be made in an archaic style since, according to the iconography, it has many typical features of earlier instruments. Personally, I think that the instrument simply reflects the construction style of the region and time from which it came from. We should be aware that the first publication in which the seventh course is used (apart from the anecdotal 3 pieces by Hans Gerle in "Musica Teusch" of 1532) dates from 1574, the year in which Melchior Newsidler's "Teütsch Lautenbuch" was published. Judging by subsequent publications and iconography, in which the 6-course lute remained the protagonist until almost the end of the century, we can conclude that Hans Gerle's instrument is representative of the time and musical practice of its time.
In addition to these two lutes, some earlier instruments by Laux Maler, Hans Frei, and other lesser-known makers that were originally built with 6 courses have survived in the form of conversions in which additional courses were added to adapt them to later styles (especially 11-course lutes). In most cases, all that survives of the originals is the body and occasionally the soundboard without or with only some of the original bars. It is likely that the soundboards were thinned out and new bars added to adapt these lutes to new tonal tastes. Testimonies from the 17th century, such as those of Mary Burwell, Constantijn Huygens, Thomas Mace, and later Ernst Gottlieb Baron, show that the mayority of these old instruments were rebuilt in their time, and those that remained were highly sought after and prized. This is the main reason why none of these early instruments survive in their original condition.
I am firmly convinced that these early 16th century lutes must have had a very different sound than the instruments built later in the century. I base this conviction primarily on the fact that lutenists were still playing with a plectrum a few years earlier, and this technique required a very different type of soundboard (in the style of the Arabic lutes or uds). The end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century can be seen as a transitional period in which some lutenists still played with a plectrum, while others played with their fingertips (and even used both techniques alternately). This change was motivated by the emergence of polyphony, which gradually took hold in instrumental music as well. It would therefore be logical to assume that the lutes of this period also underwent a parallel change in order to adapt to the rapidly changing new musical scene.
Many years ago, when I was still learning the rudiments of lute construction, Ray Nurse's article 'Design and Structural Development of the Lute in the Renaissance' (Proceedings of the International Lute Symposium, Utrecht, 1988) helped confirm my developing theories about the sound and construction of these early lutes. Prior to reading his paper, I had reached essentially the same conclusions, but through a much more intuitive approach based primarily on experimentation with a variety of bar systems and their relationship to the tonal nuances they produced.
In summary, the main conclusion is that the soundboards of early lutes must have been somewhat thicker and had a smaller number of bars than those of later instruments. This is confirmed by the 6-course Dieffopruchar lute mentioned above. Of course, the way contemporary makers implement this basic information in their own instruments will result in significant variations in colour and sound quality.
For several years I have been building a version of this type of early lute, based on a personal interpretation of the available information, my own experience and my idea of the ideal sound for this repertoire. The result is the model "Da Milano" (in homage to the great lutenist nicknamed "the Divine"), which corresponds to number 1 in the list of instruments at the top of this page. It is a lute with a powerful and rich sound, tonally different from the later 6- and 7-course instruments (Gerle, Venere, Harton, etc.). I feel that this type of sound fits very well with the music of the first half of the 16th century, and as an instrumentalist, I feel that this repertoire shines and comes alive when played on this type of lute.
In addition to the fundamental issue of the soundboard and the arrangement, thickness and size of the different bars, which have a direct influence on the sound, there are other morphological features that are found not only in the two existing instruments, but also in most of the extensive iconography of the 6-course lute. These are the most important features:
- Oval-shaped neck of considerable thickness (parabolic in cross-section)
- 9 to 11 ribs.
- The absence of half-binding (edging) on the soundboard. *
-Neck of sufficient length to accommodate 8 frets (in rare examples, the 8th fret appears to be made of wood, but in these cases, it is located above the fingerboard and before the junction between body and neck).
- Absence of wooden frets on the soundboard **.
- Pegs almost exclusively in the shape of a heart or double ball:
With regard to the fingerboards, the iconography provides us with the following four possibilities:
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The Georg Gerle lute (number 3 in the list above) represents a further step in the evolution of the lute during the 16th century. This instrument has many features of earlier instruments, while incorporating a thinner top with a bar pattern very similar to later 7-course instruments. Moreover, the only substantial difference between this lute and some later ones of the Venetian and Paduan school (Vvendelio Venere, Wendelin Tieffenbrucker, Michael Harton, etc.) is the absence of the bass and treble bars under the bridge at the bottom of the instrument. As might be expected, this instrument produces a more subtle and delicate sound than previous instruments (although this does not imply a sound of less volume or projection) which, in my opinion, is more appropriate for the repertoire of the second half of the century.
The last lute in the list is the Hans Frei (commonly referred to as the "Warwick Frei"). It is an instrument of considerably larger dimensions than the lutes described above which in Italy at the time was often referred to as a "liuto grosso". Our contemporary society, tending to categorise all historical evidence into well-defined and standardised compartments (probably under the influence of scientific thinking) has standardised the lute from 59 to 61 cm in length and tuned in SOL as a virtually undisputed standard. This, in part, has been due to the ease of playing it brings to a repertoire that often demands certain extensions that are difficult to achieve with longer rolls. However, this is a far cry from the practice of the period, which is much more heterogeneous and complex. If we pay attention to the iconography, we find that the larger instruments are represented in much greater numbers than the smaller ones that we nowadays consider standard. The larger instruments have been practically relegated to a "consort" function, almost completely stripped of their possibilities as a solo instrument and accompaniment (mainly for singing). However, those performers who invest in adapting their technique to play larger instruments are rewarded with a very unique and attractive sound quality that brings a new and particular sonic dimension to the repertoire. This sonorous quality is especially evident in the lower courses, which provide a richness that is impossible to obtain with shorter string lengths.
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-The fingerboard reaches right to the junction between the neck and the body:
-The fingerboard extends beyond this point into the body of the lute. This seems to be the configuration that appears most frequently in the iconography of the period. This arrangement, like the previous one, would have the advantage of reinforcing the union between the neck and the body. However, it cannot be affirmed that this is its purpose.
-The fingerboard does not reach the junction between the neck and the body and therefore the soundboard extends slightly over the neck.
Madonna and Child with musical angels (c.1510). Master of the Holly Blood. Museo del Prado (Madrid)
* This is the only example of an early XVI century lute that I have found that has what appears to be a a soundboard edging.
-On the other hand, in some examples, what at first sight seems to be an extension of the fingerboard wood, appears to be a layer of some kind of varnish applied on the top of the instrument itself. Some people think that this supposed layer of varnish is intended to protect the delicate soundboard when playing notes that are played beyond the eighth fret (a situation that occurs in very few examples in the repertoire). However, it is common sense that this supposed protection would reach up to the twelfth fret (the eighth fret of the open string) and this does not seem to be the case.
Many of the questions we still have about these early instruments (such as the one above) cannot be solved with the help of iconography alone. Our only hope would be the discovery of an instrument in good condition from this period that could provide us with some answers, although this possibility, after so many centuries, is already very unlikely.
The Concert (1488-90). Lorenzo Costa. London, National Gallery.
In this painting by Lorenzo Costa from the end of the 15th century, we can clearly see some frets (which seem to be made of wood) attached to the soundboard of the lute. This is the only example I could find among the hundreds of examples of 6-course lutes in my collection. I therefore believe that their use was rather anecdotal.
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Some pictures of a recently made 6-course lute
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