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Review of Last Lecture

Members began the evening enjoying the gentle sounds of a lute being tuned.  Things got even better as we gazed upon pictures of people, usually elegant, playing lutes, with the occasional live performance from Adam Busiakiewicz adding to our entertainment.  |The Queen of instruments - the King is the Voice - featured frequently over the centuries, particularly when it was the most popular instrument.  When John Dowland was writing his music and Isaac Oliver the paiter was at his best, courtiers were entertaining the ladies.


Music and art employ overlapping terminology with words like tones and textures, and many great artists of the past were also renowned musicians, including Leonardo.


The lute arrived in Europe from Arabia in the early 13th century and soon took hold of the imagination. Lutes were created for looking at as well as playing and some of the designs for wealthy owners were breathtaking in their beauty and complexity.  Sometimes they went too far and the lute in Stuttgart which is encased in gilded copper looks a lot better than it sounds.  As time went on more strings and frets - where the fingers select the note - were added.  Eventually lutes had 18 strings, occasionally over twenty.  No wonder it is complicated to play.  Originally a plectrum was used, but as more strings were added fingers were used instead, enabling lutanists to play chords.


The angels of Masaccio listen carefully to the music they are playing, and the 'rose' which assists the sound is clearly delineated.  The Ambassadors to Henry VIII in the painting by Holbein not only have their symbols of power and mortality, they also have a lute and the music to be played upon it - a Lutheran hymn.  Adam suggested some deep punning might have been intended.


The myth of Orpheus makes much of his expertise on the queen of instruments -  although originally a lyre in Ancient Greece, by the time of opera it had developed into a lute.  Beautiful ladies, with and without clothes, were serenaded.  Paintings of groups of musicians included a lute player along with the flute; Vermeer portrayed lutes, both being played, usually by solitary young ladies, and waiting to be handled.


Towards the end of its popularity the lute was enlarged, stretched to an amazing elongated neck with more than twenty strings.  This Theorbo, as it is called, provided greater depth of sound and was used to provide the continuum and behind the more agile melodies.  Although, like the lute, the Theorbo is still played, particularly for Renaissance music, it is not a regular orchestral member.


Finally the lute went out of fashion.  Largely because it is an intimate instrument, not making all that much noise, and other inventions came along, like the Violin and later the Piano with their greater resonance.  Then, fortunately, the twentieth century rediscovered it and we were able to enjoy the mastery of Julian Bream and his fellow players.  One problem was that lutes are not robust, and in order to reproduce them in the twentieth century the makers had to study paintings and work things out from scratch.