Six course lutes

Sixteen Century tablature books and manuscripts indicate us that the six-course lute was not only in use throughout the century but well into the next. In spite of the fact that some music for 7 and 8 course instruments started to appear mostly in the second half of the century, the gross of the century's repertoire can be played with only six courses.


As opposed to the numerous surviving examples of 7-couse lutes, we have only but two examples (with the exception of a set of small lutes recently discovered in Germany)* of 6-course instruments in their original dispositions. These are:

The Magno Dieffopruchar, made in Venice sometime in the middle of the XVI century. A beautiful ivory lute owned by the J & A Beare collection in London.

The Georg Gerle at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (SAM 31). Also an ivory lute in unaltered condition made in the fourth quarter of the XVI Century.

Besides these two lutes, a handful of earlier instruments by Laux Mahler, Hans Frei and other less known makers survive in conversions into later style instruments with additional courses (what today some call “Baroque lutes”). In the majority of cases the only part remaining from the originals is the bowl and occasionally the soundboard without original bars. It is probable that in order to adapt the instruments to the new sound tastes of the time, the soundboards of these instruments were thinned down and a larger number of new bars were added. Reports from the XVII Century, as those of Mary Burwell, Constantijn Huygens and Thomas Mace, teach us that those old instruments were very much sought after for conversion and that practically all of them were already altered by that time. This is the main reason for which none of these early instruments survive in original condition.

Since the extant 6-course instruments were both made in the second half of the century and no earlier examples survive, a reconstruction of an earlier style of lute suitable for the core of the repertoire (Capirola, Spinacino, Dall'Aquila, Da Milano, etc.) calls for a certain degree on guess work and speculation mainly with respect to the soundboard thickness pattern and the amount and disposition of the bars glued to the soundboard.

I believe that those earlier lutes should have sound quite different from later instruments mainly for the reason that just a few years before lutenists were still playing with a plectrum and for that technique a somewhat different kind of soundboard was required. Even at the very beginning of the century it is known that there were lutenists still playing without fingers or even alternating both techniques so the logical conclusion would be that those lutes were still in a stage of evolution parallel to the  rapidly changing playing technique.

The seminal article by Ray Nurse at the “Design and structural development of the lute in the renaissance” was key in reaffirming myself into my still developing theories of sound and construction of these early lutes. Before reading his essay, I arrived to essentially the same conclusions as he did but through a much more intuitive approach based mainly on experimentation with different barring systems and the different nuances of sound they produced. His approach is based on logic and exhaustive research and it is of great importance to our understanding of the instruments of that time.

To sum it up briefly, the basic conclusion is that the soundboards of earlier lutes were somewhat thicker than later instruments and had a smaller number of bars. This is all confirmed by the Dieffopruchar 6-course lute mentioned above. Obviously the way different makers implement this basic information into their own instruments will produce great variations in colour and quality of sound.

For some years now I have been making my own version of this kind of early lute based on my interpretation of this information and my own experience. The result is an instrument that has a powerful rich sound quite different from later 6 and 7 course instruments (Gerle, Venere, Harton, etc). I believe that this kind of sound is very much appropriate for the music of the first half of the century and as a player I feel that that repertoire really shines and comes to life with this kind of instrument. This kind of instrument corresponds to No.1  in the list of 6-course models above.

Besides the main subject of soundboard and barring patterns which have a direct influence in sound, there are other morphological characteristics that are not only present in the existing instruments but in the extensive iconography of the 6-course lute as well.  These are the main ones:

Click on the picture to enlarge

Click on the picture to enlarge

-     A thick oval neck (parabolic in cross section)

-     9 to 11 ribs.

-     Heart shaped tuning pegs.

-     The absence of half-binding (edging) on the soundboard.

-     The absence of wooden frets glued to the soundboard.

On the other hand, we have the controversial subject of the apparent fingerboard overlapping well into the neck–body joint that so often seems to appear in depicted lutes of the time. In some cases, this extension seems to be only apparent since the darker part of the soundboard seems to be caused by some (protective?) layers of varnish over the spruce soundboard.  


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But other examples like the ones below seems to show an actual fingerboard extending well into the belly-neck joint:


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Although no definitive answer can be drawn from iconography alone, it is my belief that some of those examples show actual wooden fingerboards while others only varnish. Anyhow, I consider this feature aesthetically pleasant and I incorporate it on my early 6-course model as default.  

It has been my experience that still too many players are quite hesitant or even reluctant to implement those common features (or lack of them for that matter) into their instruments. This is partly due to some inertia in the preservation of many old fashioned ideas about 6-course lute morphology and construction that older luthiers created (due to the lack of information of course) and to a certain extent also the attitude of complete ignorance or disregard of some contemporary makers for the historical evidence.

Models

The Georg Gerle lute (number 3 on the list above) represents a step further into the lute development. It has many features from earlier instruments while incorporating a thinner soundboard with a barring pattern very similar to later 7-course instruments. In fact the only real difference between this lute and some of the later ones by the Venetian-Paduan school (Vendelio Venere, Wendelin Tieffenbrucker, Michael Harton, etc.) is the absence of the so-called bass and treble bars. As can be expected this instrument produces a subtler sound (this does not imply a less projecting or softer sound) that might be more appropriate for the later repertoire and that of English composers like Anthony Holborne and the earlier John Dowland.


The Hans Frei (number 4 on the list above) was built originally as a 6-course lute and later converted into its present state as a 11-course lute. It is a bigger instrument with a pearl shaped outline typical of the “Bologna school” of lute making. This instrument can be tuned in F or even E and is suited for those who enjoy the deeper sound of this bigger lute and have the right hands to play it. It can be made with a string length of 62 to 65 cm

1) My own design of an early 16th Century 6-course lute based on various sources of iconography. 58.5 to 62 cm string length. Ideal for the repertoire of the first half of the XVI century. €3270

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2) Same as above with a reduced string length of 55 to 57 cm and a proportionally smaller body. €3150

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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. €3270 for a plain solid fruitwood neck and pegbox. €3600 with veneered neck and pegbox.

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4) After the Hans Frei at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (c34). String length 63 to 65 cm. A bigger instrument based on an elegant example of a pearl shaped lute of the “Bologna school” of lute making. An instrument to be tuned in F or even E for those who enjoy the deeper sound of these bigger instruments and have the right hands to play them. €3360

Some pictures of a recently made 6-course lute

Click on the pictures to enlarge