Singing English Lute Songs

This article is loosely based on the paper with the same title that Robert Spencer used to hand out to his students. Having had the privilege of attending many of his classes devoted to the performance of English lute songs, I have come to find much practical advice in his teachings. I hope to share some with you. Added to Robert Spencer’s practical advice are some more philosophical thoughts by Anthony Rooley on performing this repertoire. Mixed in with the wisdom of these two experienced lute players are ideas picked up from books – a small bibliography can be found at the end of the article – and a few observations by myself. I do not have the intention to speak for anybody but myself, so if you find fault with what you read here, blame me, not any of the authors mentioned.

Although the title of this article, ‘Singing English Lute Songs’, suggest it is intended for singers only, it is my conviction that for a good performance of English lute songs singer and lutenist must work as a unity. Ideally, perhaps, they are one and the same person, but even if they are two, they must both be fully aware of all the aspects of the performance as discussed below.


The English lute song repertoire started with the publication of John Dowland’s First Booke of Songes in 1597 and ended with John Attey’s First Booke of Ayres in 1622. These 25 years saw the publication of about 30 books with around 20 songs each. Of course, there are manuscripts with songs from before Dowland’s first book, and the habit of singing to the lute didn’t stop in 1622, but this article is written with this specific repertoire in mind.

Lute songs were written for generally one to four voices with a lute accompaniment written out in tablature. On the title pages of the books it is often written that they can be performed on various instruments, notably viols, or that a viol can be added to reinforce the bass line. The music is printed in a manner that when the book is laid flat on a table and all singers and players are gathered around that table, everybody can read their own parts.

The turn of the century sees a rise in the market for sheet music in England, as making music in a homely setting is a past-time for the growing number of people with both money and time on their hands. Some of the songs are specifically written for the theatre or the court, on lyrics written by people from the court, even. Because, notwithstanding the elementary pleasure derived from making music together, the first and foremost element in a lute song is its lyrics. This is poetry, set to a melody and furnished with a lute accompaniment, but the text is what it is all about.

Contemporary Comments on Singing

Voice production was not an issue Elizabethans were much concerned with. Learning to sing was equated with learning to sight-read. A rare writer has something more to say on the subject.

Here is what William Bathe wrote in 1596, after drawing attention to enunciation, articulation and metrical regularity:

“Practice to have the breath long to continue, and the tongue at libertie to runne … Practice to have your voice cleere … ”

(William Bathe, A Briefe Introduction to the Skill of Song, London, 1596)

And other than indicating he did not think much of most church singers, Thomas Morley had but little precise to offer beyond advocating clear enunciation and passionate, affective singing:

“… to returne to the expressing of the ditty, the matter is now come to that state that though a song be never so well made & and never so aptlie applied to the words, yet shal you hardlie find singers to espresse it as it ought to be, for most of our church men, (so they can crie louder in ye quier then their fellowes) care for no more, whereas by the contrarie, they ought to studie how to vowell and sing cleane, expressing their wordes with devotion and passion, whereby to draw the hearer as it were in chaines of gold to the eares … ”

(Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, London, 1597)

This is what John Dowland wrote on the subject:

“Let every Singer conforme his voyce to the words, that as much as he can he make the Concent sad when the words are sad; & merry, when they are merry … Let a Singer take heed, least he begin too loud braying like an Asse … For God is not pleased with loude cryes, but with lovely sounds … The uncomely gaping of the mouth, and ungracefull motion of the body, is a signe of a mad Singer. ”

(John Dowland, Andreas Ornithoparcus His Micrologus or … the Art of Singing, London, 1609)

Charles Butler, a chorister in the 1580s, so speaking from personal experience, wrote:

“Singers … (that the Ditti, which is half the grace of the Song, may bee known and understood) … [ should] sing as plainly as they woolde speak: pronouncing every Syllable and letter (specially the Vouels) distinctly and treatably … For thowgh the Singers can soomtime content themselvs with the Musik of the Note; yet the Hearers ar not so wel satisfyed without the Ditti, if it bee good.”

(Charles Butler, The Principles of Musik, London, 1636)

The few words written on singing by Elizabethans can be summarised as follows:
1. Take care of clarity of enunciation, vowels and consonants, so that the words are clearly heard.
2. Be passionate in your expression to affect the listener emotionally. This is affective singing.

Public Speaking and Theatre Acting

Elizabethans saw a strong connection between the arts of oratory and acting on the one hand and singing on the other. So we should look for period evidence that tells us how to be an good orator or actor, as this will teach us something on how to sing.

The composer William Byrd made the connection between singing and oratory quite clear, as in his eyes learning how to sing will help you to become a better orator:

“Reasons … to perswade every one to learne to sing … 5. It is the best meanes to procure a perfect pronunciation & to make a good Orator.”

(William Byrd, Pslames, Sonets & songs, London, 1588)

And here is what Roger Ascham wrote on the subject:

“… preachers and lawiers … shalnot without … [the use of Singinge] be able to rule their brestes, for every purpose. For where is no distinction in telling glad thinges from fearfull thinges, gentilnes & cruelnes, softenes and vehementes, and such lyke matters, there can be no great perswasion. For the hearers … be muche affectioned, as he is that speaketh. At his wordes be they drawen … If he thundre, they quake: If he chyde, they feare … where a matter is spoken, with an apte voyce, for every affection, the hearers for the moste parte, are moved as the speaker woulde. But when a man is always in one tune, lyke an Humble bee … these shall never greatly moove …”

(Roger Asham, Toxophilus, London, 1545)

Francis Bacon also stressed the parallel between music and rhetoric:

“There be in Musick certain Figures … almost agreeing with the Figures of Rhetorike; And with the Affections of the Minde. ”

(Francis bacon, Sylva Sylvarum, London, 1627)

Accepting the link between music and oration, we should look for clues on what a good orator should be. William Kempe tells us that apart from a good pronunciation, gesture is also part of his art:

“[The scholler] shall observe … the Rhetoricall pronounciation and gesture fit for every word, sentence, and affection.”

(William Kempe, The Education of Children in Learning, London 1588)

This is what Thomas Wright wrote on the technique of persuasion used by orators:

“Cicero expresly teacheth that it is almost impossible for an oratour to stirre up a passion in his auditors, except he be first affected with the same passion himselfe … If we intend to imprint a passion in another, it is requisit first it be stamped in our hearts: for thorow our voices, eyes, and gestures, the world will pierce and thorowly percieve how we are affected. And for this cause the passion which is in our brest must be the fountaine and origen of all externall persuasion will be more potent … The actions of the bodie shold be, in a perfit persuader, an image of the passion in the mind. … And in the substance of externall action for most part oratours and stageplayers agree.”

(Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde in Generall, London, 1604)

All these quotes taken together suggest affective word colouring and facial as well as bodily gestures were part of Elizabethan oratory. We can also find clues on acting. This is what Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:

“ … Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his whole conceit,
That from her working all his visage wanned,
tears in his eyes, distraction in ‘s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing.
For Hecuba!
What‘s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculty of eyes and ears … ”

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ca 1600)

And this is what Hamlet says to one of the actors:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you – trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier had spoken my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, adn as I may say the whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to splt the ears of the groundlings … Pray you avoid it … Be not too tame, neither; but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance; that you o‘erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure …”

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ca 1600)

In Twelfth Night we can find another clue on how to speak in public:

OLIVIA: Open‘t and read it.
FESTE: Look then to be well edified when the fool delivers the madman. (reads) “By the Lord, madam” –
OLIVIA: How now, art thou mad?
FESTE: No, madam, I do but read madness. And your ladyship will have it as it ought to be, you must allow VOX.
OLIVIA: Prithee read i’ thy right wits.
FESTE: So I do, Madonna, but to read his right wits is to read thus.

(William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ca 1601)

From all these quotes we can learn that Elizabethans thought a good actor or orator was realistic in his acting. The actor assumed an emotional mood in order to communicate that emotion to the audience.
The connection between acting, oratory and singing suggest a singer should do the same. Like Feste adopting the VOX of the madman to convey the content of his letter, a singer must likewise colour the words of the song appropriately. A singer must act with the voice as much as the stage actor did.
More evidence pointing in this direction is that some singers were also actors. A singer had to affect the emotion of the listener, just like an actor would. Here is Shakespeare once more:

“Warble, child; make passionate my sense of hearing!”

(William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour Lost, ca 1593/4)

We can think of the child actors here, Shakespeare’s eyrie of children. There is no reason to suppose their acting style would be any different from their singing style.

There is one more connection between the theatre and singing, as many song composers worked for the theatre. Thomas Campion wrote words and music for court masques. Alfonso Ferrabosco, too, set various songs for masques and theatre. Robert Johnson set many songs for court masques as well as for Shakespeare’s company. Philip Rosseter and Robert Jones were in charge of the Children of the Revels to the Queen and John Daniel had a similar position for the Children of Her Majesty’s Royal Chamber of Bristol.

Clues for Performance within the Music

The lute songs themselves reveal clues that can aid in deciding how to perform them. Let us take a look at a few. John Dowland’s Sorrow, stay will do to provide the examples.

The song opens with a discord in the middle of the first sung note, on the the word sorrow. This compositional device seems to invite the singer to sing expressively on a word that is expressive.

Repetition of words was used for emphasis:

“… if the … Ditti bee not apprehended at the first; yet in the iterating thereof, it may. Such Repetes shoolde bee Emphatical, importing soom special matter: and which, in Divine uses, may helpe bothe to excite and to expresse due zele and Devotion.”

(Charles Butler, The Principles of Musik, London, 1636)

So, repeated words should be sung more intensely, and but rarely as an echo. The increase in tension encourages the singer to be emotionally involved. Think of the repeated sorrow in the opening (again with a discord in the middle of the sung note).

Small rests should be audible intakes of air, so called sighing rests. See the rests seperating arise and I never shall. Or better still, see the crotchet rests before Pity, pity, pity. Making audible sighs here will add a dramatic element to the sense of the words.

Here is what Thomas Morley wrote:

“… when you would expresse sighes, you may use the crotchet or minime rest at the most, but a longer than a minime rest you may not use, because it will rather seem a breth taking then a sigh …”

(Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, London, 1597)

Charles Butler, too, makes a disctinction between breathings and sighs:

“As the Ditti is distinguished with Points, (Period, Colon, Semicolon, and Comma;) so is the Harmoni, answering unto it, with Pauses, and Cadences. Semibrief-rests one or more to answer a to a Period, or to a Colon: which also is of Perfect sens … Minim- and Crotchet-rests, to Semicolons, Commaes, Breathings, and Sighs.”

(Charles Butler, The Principles of Musik, London, 1636)

And think of the French and Italian words for crotchet rest: soupir and sospiro, meaning sigh or gasp. And who better to turn to than Shakespeare to find confirmation that an expressive sigh is an intake of air, rather than an exhalation:

“… sigh a note and sing a note, sometime through the throat, as if you swallowed love with singing love.”

(William Shakespeare, Love’s Labours’ Lost, ca 1593/4)

“A plague of sighning and grief – it blows a man up like a bladder.”

(William Shakespeare, Henry IV part 1, 1596)


When performing lute songs, we should keep in mind the Elizabethan ideal musician: Orpheus. He is the perfect example of a performer who moved his audience. Making music is transmitting the divine, through music, to the audience. Baldesar Castiglione teaches us in Il Cortegiano (1528) that our performance must include decorum, sprezzatura and grazia. With decorum he means we must prepare and study. With sprezzatura is meant we must react to our environment and experience every moment as a new moment; improvise! Grazia, finally, is the divine element in our performance.

To aid us in assuming the right character for each lute song, it is helpful to divide lute songs in different ways. Here are four ways of doing just that. For each song, of course, there will be an interaction between these four ways. Furthermore, these four ways are just a start to help you define the role you have to play when singing the song.

I. You can divide lute songs in twelve characters:
1. Innocent joy,
2. Amorous joy,
3. With intent to seduce,
4. Successfull lover,
5. Jealous lover,
6. Angry lover,
7. Lover’s melancholy,
8. Self-lover’s melancholy,
9. Despair melancholy,
10. Denial of the world melancholy,
11. Platonic love,
12. Devotional love.

Twelve is a good renaissance number, hence twelve characters. Of course, there are many more. The important point is to find a fitting character for the song. Listing several common characters will help in defining the exact attitude to assume when performing the song.

II. Another, and obvious, way of classifying lute songs is by subject:
1. About love (see above),
2. Political (to change something),
3. Historical (the song had a specific function and was written for a specific occasion),
4. Pastoral.

To know about the function or occasion a lute song was written for, we have to read about the background of the specific song.

III. Humanity comes in different personalities, so give a personality to a character.

IV. ‘Know yourself’, so take into account your own personality and feelings towards the lute song.

Performing is the art of characterisation. We must portray a character. There a few technical aids that we must use:
1. Feeling for style,
2. Surety of deliverance,
3. Clarity in communication: movements of eyes, head, hands, arms and body,
4. Feeling for timing (when to give that little bit extra),
5. Variety in intensity,
6. React to changes in mood at the moment itself, within the song and within the performing situation (sprezzatura again),
7. Laugh and sigh convincingly,
8. Use your breath; breath is part of rhetoric.

Do not forget: all action start in stillness and all sound starts in silence.

Practical Advice


It is the singer’s primary job to communicate the text of the song. That the poem is set to music should help the deliverance of the words, not hinder it. Thomas Campion had a clear opinion on this matter:

“ … Happie is he whose words can move,
Yet sweete notes helpe perswasion.
Mixe your words with Musicke then,
That they the more may enter; …”

(Thomas Campion, The Description of the Speeches and Songs of the Lord’s Masque, London, 1613)

“… Let well-tune’d words amaze
With harmonie divine …”

(Thomas Campion, The Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres, London, ca 1617) (Book 3 , song 12)

He regarded words more important than music, however:

“… reade them, or else heare
How gravely with their tunes they yeeld delight …”

(Thomas Campion, Two Bookes of Ayres, London, ca 1613) (To the Reader)

He even quoted the Roman poet Martial to make his point that the text was the most important element of his songs:

“… Si placet hac cantes, hac quoque; lege legas. [choose which you prefer: either sing or read them].”

(Thomas Campion,Two Bookes of Ayres, London, ca 1613) (To the Reader)

     Punctuating and Reading Aloud

So the singer must read the poem aloud and understand it. This might rethink the punctuation, as this is often inconsistent in the original and not always correct in modern editions. Compare canto and basso parts of Flow my Tears in the original edition with what is printed in the Fellowes/Dart edition to get an idea of different possibilities. Do not follow any of these examples blindly, but make up your own mind. Punctuation should clarify syntax and sense, so make full use of it.
Reading the poem aloud will give you a clue of it’s tempo, which may also depend on on the length of a phrase without breathing. This is not a modern idea, as we can learn from Richard Mulcaster who wrote in 1582:

“charact … which help … to the right and tunable uttering of our words and sentences … The characts … are helps to our breathing, & the distinct utterance of our speche … so theie ar to be used with diligence in the right framing of the tender childes mouth.” The “Coma … in reading warneth us to rest there, and to help our breth a little.” The “Period … warneth us to rest there, and to help our breth at full.” A “Parenhesis … warneth us, that the words inclosed by them, ae to be pronounced with a lower & quikker voice, then the words either before or after them …”

(Richard Mulcaster, The First Part of the Elementarie, London, 1582)

We should speak the text aloud in a rhetorical and persuasive manner, to test the vocal colour required by the song. Remember Thomas Wright’s advice: If we intend to imprint a passion in another, it is requisit first it be stamped in our hearts.


As said before, the tempo of the song should come from a speaking tempo that makes the words understandable and persuasive. Not so fast that, although the singer can show off his virtuosity, the words become unintelligible or the story too fast to follow. Neither so slow that, although the singer may wallow in the beauty of the sound, the connection between the words and hence the meaning of the sentence gets lost.

     Quality of the Voice

As communicating the text is so much more important than vocal virtuosity – lute songs were clearly not written for display of vocal abilitues – any voice will be a good voice for lute songs.


Gestures were part of the performance practice of lute songs, as they were in the theatre and in public speaking, but care should be taken not to overact:

“Concerning the Singers, their first care shoolde bee to sit with a decent erect posture of the Bodi, without allridiculous and uncoomly gesticlations, of hed, or Hands, or any other Parte.”

(Charles Butler, The Principles of Musik, London, 1636)

“… there are some, who to appeare the more deepe, and singular in their iudgement, will admit no Musicke but … where the nature of everie word is precisely exprest in the Note, like the old exploided action in Comdies, when if they did pronounce Memeni [I remember], they would point to the hinder part of their heads, if Video [I see], put thier finger in their eye. But such childish observing of words is altogether ridiculos, and we ought to maintaine as well in Notes, as in action a manly cariage, gracing no word, but that which is eminent, and emphatical.”

(Philip Rosseter, A Booke of Ayres, London, 1601) (To the reader, generally ascribed to Thomas Campion)

Moderation and naturalness for our gestures, then, coming from emotion and thought.

     Graces and Division

Lute music in Elizabethan sources has many signs for graces and written-out repeats are often ornamented with divisions. There are no signs for graces in lute songs. This raises the question about adding graces and divisions. Some contemporary sources tell us it did happen:

“… the three voices in the Pinnace sung a song to the Lute with excellent divisions …”

“… this … dittie was sung, with excellent division, by two, that were cunning.”

(The Honorable Entertainement given … at Elvetham, London, 1591)

“… Song was sung by an excellent counter-tenor voice, with rare varietie of division.”

(Thomas Campion, A Relation of the Late Royall Entertainment .. at Cawsome-House, London, 1613)

However, not all liked vocal divisions:

“… so have I … found strange entertainment … by the opposition of … people that shroude themselves under the title of Musitians … some simple Cantors, or vocall singers, who thought they seeme excellent in their blinde Division-making, are meerely ignorant, even in the first elements of Musicke … yet doe these fellowes give their verdict of me behinde my backe, and say, what I doe is after the old manner: but I will speake openly to them, and would have them know that the proudest Cantor of them, dares not oppose himselfe face to face against me.”

(John Dowland, A Pilgrimes Solace, London, 1612)

Printed written-out repeats in lute songs never have graces or divisions added in the vocal parts. Compare that with the practice of printed divisions in written-out repeats in instrumental music of the same period and this would suggest no divisions were expected. On the other hand, there was of course the practice of improvising divisions. But this might apply to instrumental music only, for when words are involved, they should come across unhindered by a display of vocal virtuosity. To quote Morley:

“… singing onely the bare note, as it were a musicke made onelie for instruments, will in deed shew the nature of the musicke, but never carrie the spirit and (as it were) that livelie soule which the dittie giveth.”

(Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, London, 1597)

Written-out vocal divisions started to appear from about 1610 onwards in the Turpyn song book, Giles Earle’s song book and British Library Additional Manuscript 29,481. By that time, declamatory song, in which divisions were used, was replacing the lute song. But even here, some disliked vocal divisions:

“… As a church window, thick with paint,
Lets in a light but dim and faint;
So others, with division, hide
The light of sense, the poet’s pride …
Let those which only warble long
And gargle in their throats a song,
Content themselves with Ut, Re, Mi.
Let words, and sense, be set by thee.”

(Edmund Waller, To Mr Henry Lawes, who had then newly set a song of mine in the year 1635: verse makes heroic virtue live …)

     How to Study

A summary on how to study and perform English lute song has four distinct steps:

1. Read and understand the poem. Translate it to your own language, even if your English is very good and you think you understand all. Elizabethan English is not the same as modern English, so do check with a good dictionary (I use both the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, has all the answers but is both expensive and unwieldy, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on historical principles, a good compromise as it includes historical use of words and comes in only two volumes). Interpunction was not so strictly governed by rules as it is today, so while reading, understanding and translating the text, make your own interpunction. Sometimes you have to know a little about historical persons or events referred to in the text.

2. Read the poem aloud. Declaim it with conviction. You understand the text, but can you convince your audience with just one reading? Can you make them understand all the nuances, every word play and all emotions? Your final tempo of reading aloud will give you the tempo for singing the song. This is an important lesson: let the tempo be governed by the words, not by the music.

3. Read the text aloud in the rhythm of the melody. Can you still make everything clear to your audience? Take care, some composers were better at making the words of the second and consequent verses fit the rhythm of the melody than others. With Campion’s songs, for example, it is often not a problem to fit words and music together. Dowland’s songs, on the other hand, are another matter. They can provide quite a challenge even to match the number of syllables with the number of notes. Repeating parts of the text, or adding notes, can be a solution.

4. Finally, sing the words to the melody and with the accompaniment of the lute. This is the least important step in the studying process. If you studied well, singing the song should be the easy part.


These are just a few of the books I happen to find on my own bookshelves, so this is by no means intended as a comprehensive bibliography on the subject. Nevertheless, it might help you, as it did me, to start reading on the performance of lute songs.

Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1986
Elise Bickford Jorgens, The Well-Tun’d Word, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1982
Winifred Maynard, Elizabethan Lyric Poetry and its Music, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986
Diana Poulton, John Dowland, Faber and Faber, London, 1972
Ian Spink, English Song Dowland to Purcell, Batsford Ltd, London, 1974
Robert Toft, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1993

A final word of warning to the performer of lute songs:

“… all these Songs are mine if you expresse them well, otherwise they are your own.”

(Thomas Campion, The Third and Fourth Booke of Ayres, London, ca 1618)

David van Ooijen 6/2008