Medieval Instruments IIII a: Lutes

The Lute: al-‘ud

Not until Arnault Van Zwolle, in 1440, in the first rational blush of the Renaissance, did technical information about musical instruments begin to be disseminated. Before that, and long after, musicians and all other craftsmen held their knowledge close. Part of the magic of any creation is not knowing precisely how it is done and guilds institutionalized and perpetuated that secrecy. Not that it is just about exclusivity: it is also about labor, knowledge, and competence. Anyone who has worked hard at something they are proud of has felt the sting of indifference or, worse, dismissal. “I could have done it if I wanted to.” Or, “Oh, so that’s all there is to it.” The old joke about the doctor charging $50 for a minute’s worth of healing, or the apocryphal story of Giotto drawing a perfect circle to send to the Pope, all demonstrate the disconnect between knowledge and ignorance. All of our modern knowledge of medieval musical instruments has been won through, and in spite of, ignorance. Would that we had a hundred Arnaults to teach us and that we were willing to learn.

The medieval lute, like almost all the important instruments of the age, came from the Middle East. Ideas and products have always radiated from centers of power. After the fall of Rome, that center was Byzantium, which was rapidly eclipsed by the Islamic Caliphates in Iraq and Egypt. The original home of the lute may even have been further East, in India or Central Asia. However, by the time the Spanish peninsula came under the influence of Islam in the 8th century, the lute was the most prestigious musical instrument in the Mediterranean.
The name comes as a direct borrowing from the Arabic, al-‘ud, which means, “the wood.” The traditional explanation is that there was an instrument which preceded it which had a skin face and the lute’s distinction was that its face was made of wood. Unfortunately for the theory, the early representations of lutes I have seen, from India and Central Asia, all seem to have wood faces. And I would be surprised if an instrument the size of the lute would have survived, structurally, with a skin face. It seems more likely, consistent with the iconographical evidence, that the lutes (generically speaking) that existed in the Middle East–Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt–may have had skin faces. But these were small-bodied, mostly long lutes, of the tanbur-tar-saz family. When “the” lute was introduced into the area from the East, it was clearly related, in principle, to the other plucked stringed lutes, differing primarily in size and in having a wooden face. It could have been called “the large;” instead it was named “the wood.”

The third illumination which occurs in the Cantigas is this curious pair of lutenists. The background is plain, their clothes are unremarkable, they are standing (a difficult playing position), and, once again, they are tuning. Perhaps the instrument was so well known it was not considered necessary to emphasize its importance. Even stranger, the instruments have an archaic, or Central Asian look, with their paired, sinuous soundholes. The other, more famous picture is the giant lute paired with a rebab (see Fiddles). This is a beautiful instrument, clearly fretted, but with an improbably long neck, curvilinear sound holes and a starburst at the neck, a highly decorated, wide bridge, and binding around the body. The fan-shaped spacing of the strings, narrowing down to the slender neck, is characteristic of many early representations. It is problematic whether this actually intends something like the modern cobza or is merely an artistic convention. In almost all stringed musical instruments there is a slight widening of the space between strings from the nut to the bridge, and it may have been an attempt to represent that fact, though overemphasized. Notice also the tassel depending from the pegbox.

Two other illustrations occur in far more interesting contexts: real life, in Alfonso’s Book of Games. On the left, nobles are wined and serenaded while they dice. The lutenist is also a noble, with long hair (not typical for Alfonso’s court), and plays an instrument, unremarkable except for three rose-type soundholes and a more delicate bridge with knobbed ends. (Compare the blocky bridges above.)

On the right is a fascinating scene, and not just because it is in the harem. Two well-dressed (under the circumstances) women play chess accompanied by a lutenist. She seems to have black hair but close examination shows it is actually a black fringed head scarf held on by an intricate band. The exquisite lute is, perhaps, the finest portrayal of that instrument in any of Alfonso’s manuscripts. It has a central rose–a six-pointed star–which would become the standard for the next several hundred years, in addition to flame and dot paired holes of archaic style. It appears to have seven strings and the neck is fretted.

The woman on the left wears a diaphonous gown over similar pantaloons held by a fancy, colorful belt. Her hair is covered by a snood or, rather, a decorative (knitted, woven?) cap, since her hair seems to fall down her back. She also wears filigree gold earrings, heavy gold bracelets and an indistinct necklace. She is barefoot but notice, just below the frame, a pair of clogs like Japanese geta (Nice touch). She is clearly a favorite. The other woman wears a simpler, full-sleeved robe with binding. Her head band holds a sheer veil over her hair and she wears a necklace of alternating red and blue stones. (Carnelian and lapis or turquoise have long been favorite protective gems in the Middle East. We don’t have much indication of women’s jewellery in illuminations of this period.)
But the most distinctive feature is their hands. Both are wearing henna: the one on the right a light version over the entire hand, the one on the left a dark, black style on the fingers up to the knuckles, with additional decorative dots. What are the chances we would find this degree of detail in a picture just a few inches square? This artist left us a goldmine! Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

I commissioned my good friend and zen master luthier, Yuris Zeltins, to make a medieval lute for Alfonso X. We had talked and worked for years on various aspects of modern-day ‘ud construction compared to medieval lutes. Yuris’ shop, the Blue Guitar, in San Diego, was a very busy place, repairing instruments from all over the United States, and the world. (Yuris is the luthier of choice to work on the guitars of the Romero family and many other professional musicians.) He was very interested in the project and, after years of prodding, finally produced the instrument below. I have played it for twenty years and it only improves with age. (Which is something I can’t claim.)