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What Is a Baroque Lute?

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  • Written By: Pablo Garcia
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2014
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A baroque lute is a European lute fashioned during the Baroque era, which lasted from between 1600 and 1750. A lute is a stringed instrument with a deep rounded back that is played in the same fashion as a guitar. It figured prominently in Baroque music, especially when used for ballads or songs. It was often accompanied by harpsichord and cello music or could be played alone by a singer. Its unique design made it a very versatile instrument with a wide musical range.

The lute as an instrument is most likely of Arabic origin. Its name evolved from the Arabic “al 'ud,” meaning “wooden one.” Sometime in the Early Middle Ages, the lute arrived in Europe. Instrument makers transformed the Arabic lute by the addition of 14 pairs of bass strings, eight of which are on the neck of the lute and five of which are on the “swan,” a second slanted peg box at the top of the neck.

The sound board of the baroque lute, which contains the opening from which the sound comes out, was made from finely planed spruce. It was then glued to the body of the instrument, roughly the shape of a halved pear. The sounds from the lute came through an elaborate geometric pattern called a "rose," which was carved into the sound board. The strings of the lute were wrapped around tapered pegs that could be twisted to control the pitch of each string, the same as with modern string instruments.

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Baroque music was highly ornate. The word baroque derives from a Portuguese expression meaning “a pearl of irregular shape.” Composers followed the doctrine that music should express the emotions of its creator. Italian Composer Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” was composed during this period.

Composers of the era characterized their work as “moderno,” or modern. This was to distinguish it from earlier Renaissance music, which was thought too stiff and unemotional. Baroque music was characterized by exuberance and deeply personal emotions. It was also known for its use of “counterpoint,” two or more melodies being played simultaneously, and “bass continuo,” the playing the cello and harpsichord together. German composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Silvius Leopold Weiss were among those who wrote pieces for the baroque lute.

Eventually the lute’s popularity and use was replaced by that of the five-string baroque guitar. There is still an interest, however, in the baroque lute. There are societies in the US and Europe devoted to its history and use. There are many courses available on how to make and to play the instrument.

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