A Renaissance lute is a stringed instrument with a deep pear-shaped body and a wide neck. It was played between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this time, stringed instruments dominated until the keyboard came to the forefront around 1700. Music for the lute is written in tablature, for fingering rather than notes. Beginners can rent a lute to try before committing to purchasing this expensive but beautiful instrument.
The Renaissance lute has a deep curved body made of strips of wood glued together to form an oblong bowl shape. The front is flat, and the rosette where the sound comes out is covered with highly decorative fretwork. A lute’s neck is broad and its pegbox is bent back at a right angle from the neck. The Renaissance instrument's string length varied from about 17 inches (44 cm) to 35 inches (90 cm) long. Despite its size, the lute is relatively light and easy to handle.
Renaissance-era strings were made of gut, but modern ones can be nylon. They are arranged in courses of two strings each, though the highest-pitched is only one string, called a chanterelle. The courses are usually pitched several tones apart, up to an octave. Numbering the courses starts with the chanterelle, called the first course, and then the next is the second, and so on. A Renaissance lute typically has between six and ten courses.
Most music for lutes is in tablature similar to guitar music, a specific form of notation written as fingering and not notes. For a Renaissance lute, the notation would have as many lines as there were courses. Italians generally used numbers and the French and English letters to indicate where each finger was placed. The spaces between the lines were sometimes used to make notations as well. Duration of notes was indicated by a flag above the tablature markings.
A vast amount of music was written for the Renaissance lute, and it dominated performances until the keyboard became popular in the eighteenth century. In the early part of the 16th century, Italian Francesco Canova de Milano (1497-1543) wrote lute music that influenced compositions for the next century. John Dowland (1563-1626) and William Byrd (1543-1623) were two esteemed English lute composers. Some purists insist that modern Renaissance lute strings should be gut instead of nylon to create a more authentic sound when playing the old pieces.
Anyone thinking of taking up the lute would be wise to find an experienced teacher first. Most students start with a six to eight-course Renaissance lute because this particular instrument has an extensive variety of music available and is not too difficult for a beginner. Most players commission a lute from a luthier, or stringed instrument maker, which can be expensive. As with many other instruments, it can be rented so the musician can get a feel for it.