French baroque lute

French baroque luteThe renaissance lute was the unrivalled king of all instruments from roughly 1500 to 1630. It had grown from having 6 main courses (pairs of strings) to having an increasing number of extra bass courses, tuned down the musical scale so they didn’t have to be fretted, making the 7, 8, 9 and eventually 10 course lute by 1600. During this time, the main 6 courses of the lute had a standard tuning, known as ‘viel ton’, relatively speaking the same as a modern guitar but with the third course a semitone down.


During the 17th century, the shape, sound and music of the lute radically changed, and the main thrust of the change came from French lutenists and luthiers. First the design of the lute underwent experimentation from 1600 to 1630. By the 1640s, the necks of French lutes up to the body had 2 extra frets – from 8 to 10 – gained by removing the neck of the lute and replacing it with a longer one. This also had the effect of lowering the pitch, as the longer the same string, the lower the note. Then, in the 1620s, French lutenists experimented with tuning. By 1650, D minor tuning and its close variants, which first appeared in 1638, had become the norm for French lute players: now the top 6 courses were tuned, 1st to 6th, f'-d'-a-f-d-A. The four basses then followed down the scale: G-F-E-D. When this made playing in some keys awkward, minor tuning modifications were made to some courses to fit the key. Soon an 11th course of C followed, then up to 13 courses by 1720. To accommodate these changes, bass riders were built on the pegbox to create lower bass pitches (see picture) and treble riders to avoid the sharp angle at the nut to protect the delicate first string. This new tuning, overall lower pitch and extra bass range created a completely different instrument to the renaissance lute, with old ways of playing now impossible: a new sonic world had opened up.


French baroque luteFrench music had now taken over from English and Italian music as the most influential in Europe. In lute playing and composition, foremost were Ennemond Gaultier, known as "le vieux Gaultier", ‘the old Gaultier’; his cousin, Denis Gaultier; and Charles Mouton (pictured above). And, since French players had developed this new way of tuning and playing, the D minor lute was called the ‘French lute’ in England. Only Italian players retained renaissance tuning; but with a new composition style and with long neck extensions for extra basses to create the archlute, a change which began in Italy as early as the 1590s.


French lute style became hugely influential. The style brisé was an arpeggiated way of playing where the tune was deliberately somewhat hidden by breaking up chords into their individual notes. French musicians on other instruments then used the technique, calling it style luthé – lute style. German lutenists used the French lute to develop a more melodic style, Sylvius Leopold Weiss being its greatest exponent, and this continued to flourish in Germany long after the ‘French lute’ had ceased to be popular in France. In Scotland, lutenists used the French lute to play both French music and, much moreso, traditional Scottish tunes. Thanks to the surviving late 17th century Balcarres lute book, we have some of the earliest versions of these traditional cultural treasures arranged by a variety of lutenists.


French baroque lute playing Saraband de Mesangeau by Ennemond Gaultier. All his music was published posthumously, so cannot be dated. He lived c. 1575-1651.