16th century lute music


Instrumental music in the 16th century is renaissance music. All over Europe book printing had begun, and soon music was being printed, too. Independent instrumental music, not connected to vocal music, was a new thing, so many new musical forms were being developed.

All 16th century music, except for preludes and dance music, has its roots in vocal music. In order to understand instrumental music, it is therefore necessary to know the vocal music of the period. There are national differences; you can distinguish a French, Italian, German, Spanish and English style. So knowing where a piece was written, will influence your interpretation. Of course there were many mutual influences and border line cases; not every piece can be clearly identified as being written in one style only. There are several instrumental forms, and each form underwent a development in each of the different national styles. Again, there is mutual influence and there are border line cases.

The lute

In the 16th century, the lute had a prominent place in musical society. Much of the 16th century instrumental music is written for the instrument, and much of it is of very high quality. As it was part of a good education to master the instrument, there was a large demand for new music. In the 17th century this social role of the lute was taken over by the cembalo.

In the 16th century the lute underwent changes that had their effects on the music written for it. You could also say that the development in musical style had its influence on the construction of the instrument. In the middle ages the lute was imported from Arabia and slowly westernised. An average medieval lute would have had up to five pairs of strings and was played with a pick. It was mainly used as a melodic instrument. Around 1500 the pick was replaced by figueta, the alternating thumb-first finger technique. Figueta makes a natural difference between heavy and light notes; it accentuates the rhythm in the music by making the notes unequal. From the very first prints of Spinacino (1507) onwards, this is clearly indicated in most tabulatures. Only towards 1600 does an alternating finger technique, with the thumb on the bass strings, take over. This goes together with the expansion of the number of strings: from six around 1500 to eight around 1600, and more soon after that. The addition of bass strings also had an influence on the sound of the lute. To play polyphony on a lute, every string must sound clear and light. This is easier on an instrument with fewer strings. Early 16th century lute music includes more polyphony than later music, where chordal passages make use of the increased sonority by the added bass strings.

Lute music in different countries

Italy is ahead in the development of instrumental music; the first Italian lute music is printed between 1507 and 1511 (Francesco Spinacino, Joan Ambrosio Dalza and Francesco Bossinensis). From the second quarter of the 16th century many more ‘Libro d’Intabulaturo’ are published. Some of the famous composers and lute players are Francesco da Milano, Julio Abondante and Giovanni Maria da Crema. In the second half of the 16th century, too, much lute music is published in Italy, from composers like Vincenzo Galilei, Joan Pacolini and Giovanni Antonio Terzi.
In France, the first book with lute music is published by Pierre Attaingnant in 1529. In the second half of the 16th century most of the French lute and cittern music is published by Pierre Phalèse in Leuven and Le Roy and Ballard in Paris. French 16th century lute music consists less of abstract instrumental forms like preludes and recercares, and more of intabulations, song settings and dance music. The famous lute players Albert de Rippe, Guillaume Morlaye and Adrian Le Roy also worked in France, the latter two also published guitar music.
In Germany it is more or less the same: mostly arrangements of vocal music and dance music. Some German lute players from the first half of the century are Hans Judenkünig, Hans Gerle and Hans Newsidler. In the second half of the 16th century lute music by amongst others Melchior Newsidler, Sebastian Ochsenkun and Matthaeus Waissel is published.
Hungary had its own famous lute player, Valentin Bakfark, who wrote very good music, especially intabulations and fantasias.
In Spain, seven books with music for Vihuela were published: Luis Milán (1536), Luis de Narváez (1538), Alonso Mudarra (1546), Enriquez de Valderrábano (1547), Diego Pisador (1552), Miguel de Fuenllana (1554) and Esteban Daza (1567). Some of this music found its way into the lute books of for example Pierre Phalèse.
There is not much English instrumental music from the beginning of the 16th century, but around 1600 is the golden age of English lute music and lute song. The most famous name connected to this repertoire is John Dowland.

Instrumental forms

Much of the instrumental music can be played on different instruments. There is music written for ensembles of similar instruments (a consort), for contrasting instruments (a broken consort) and for solo keyboard or lute.
Instrumental music in the 16th century can be divided into seven forms:
1. vocal music played on instruments, this includes intabulations of chansons, madrigals, lieder, motets and masses;
2. settings of existing melodies;
3. variation sets, including variations on repeating ground basses and chordal sequences;
4. recercares, fantasias, tientos and canzones;
5. preludes, preambles, toccatas;
6. dance music;
7. lute songs.

1. Vocal music played on instruments

Firstly, vocal, polyphonic music was also performed on instruments. Because on a lute more than one voice can be played at the same time, complete compositions were intabulated, that is, written in tabulature to be played upon a lute. Sometimes voices are left out or in difficult passages the counterpoint is changed. Almost always ornaments like divisions and written out thrills are added. Also, long note are often played repeatedly. Apart from a love for ornamentation, this was also done to make voices sound longer and make the polyphony easier to follow.

2. Settings of existing melodies

Settings of existing melodies are especially common for organ These are often melodies taken from Gregorian chant or psalms, around which counterpoint is added. You can find this back in the psalm settings for lute by Nicolaas Vallet (1620). It is likely that this compositional form is a result of an improvisational tradition.

3. Variation sets

There are variations on melodies and variations on repeating bass or chordal patterns like grounds in England or passamezzo basses like the Romanesca, the Folia and the Ruggiero in Italy. Of especially the last two forms the written down compositions are probably the result of an improvisational tradition. Very early Italian lute music (Dalza 1508) already has series of dances with the same thematic or harmonic material. After Dalza this does not reappear till around 1550 (e.g. Julio Abondante 1546).
In France dances often have a written repeat with ornaments.
In Spain Milan (1536) writes variations in his Pavanes and Narváez (1538) composes variations (differencias) on songs (villancicos and romances) and Gregorian hymnes.
In England in the first half of the 16th century there are already variations on grounds, but it takes till the second half of the century till the variation form becomes really popular. There are many variations on Italian bass themes, variations on the same thematic material in different dances and variations on well known songs. Furthermore, many dances have an AA’BB’CC’ form, whereby they already have internal variation.
Many of the 16th century variations are diminutions on one of the voices of a polyphonic composition, while the other voices are being played on a chord instrument. The patterns of small notes to fill intervals became stereotype, and were even written down in books on the subject (e.g. Ortiz 1553). Giovanni Antonio Terzi wrote music for two lutes in this way: one lute plays an intabulation of a chanson or madrigal, while the other lute plays virtuoso diminutions on of the voices or through all the voices (a la bastarda).

4. Recercares, fantasias, tientos and canzones

A ricercare, recercare or fantasia (in Spain: tiento) is an instrumental composition that is not based on existing melodies or dance patterns. In the middle of the 16th century they are usually polyphonic and they have much imitations in the voices. But this is not always the case in the beginning of the 16th century.
Ricercares and fantasias are being composed all over Europe, except France, where instrumental music was developed later. The genre undergoes a development within the 16th century. Early recercares by for example Spinacino, Dalza, Bossinensis and Capirola have a more improvisational character. In it lute-specific passages like chord progressions and fragments of scales are mixed with polyphonic sections. Between about 1530 and 1545 ricercares and fantasias get a more formal polyphonic setup with imitations and repeats in other octaves, a balanced composition by using several motives that are treated extensively and fully worked out cadenses. Examples of this type of recercare or fantasia can be found in the works of for example Francesco da Milano and Marco d’Aquila. Their style was strongly influenced by the vocal music of Josquin des Prez and his contemporaries.
From about 1540 onward this polyphonic, imitative style is characteristic of almost all recercares and fantasias.
In Spain all composers for vihuela write fantasias and tientos.
In Hungary Valentin Bakfark composes very intricate fantasias.
In England the first fantasias and fancies are written at the end of the 16th century by John Dowland and his contemporaries. These fantasias are much further developed and often have a very virtuoso last movement after a polyphonic beginning.

Canzones are imitations of polyphonic French chansons. Sometimes these imitations are so good, that there is doubt whether there actually is a vocal example or not, in other words whether it is a canzone or an intabulation.
Canzones often have several sections with polyphonic imitations, usually beginning with a half, quarter, quarter theme. These sections are often contrasting, for example polyphony alternating with chordal passages, or alternating duple and triple time sections. Sometimes canzones have a simple scheme like ABA or AAB.
Canzones are a later invention than fantasias. The first canzones for lute appear in the books of Barberiis (1546 and 1547) and Rotta (1546). But of these canzones it is not clear whether they really are canzones, they might be intabulations. From about 1570 canzones appear more regularly.

5. Preludes, preambles, toccatas

Preludes have always been purely instrumental pieces that use the specific possibilities of the instrument. Like many early recercares and fantasias, preludes often have an improvisational character. Good examples of this are the preludes by Dalza (1508), Judenkünig (1523), Attaingnant (1529) and Gerle (1532 and 1533). Later preludes keep this improvisational character. In the second half of the 16th century there are especially many preludes written in Italy.
Early preludes are sometimes called Tastar de Corde, that is ‘tasting the strings’. These pieces by e.g. Dalza are like written down improvisations to check the tuning of the lute. Later preludes are also called toccatas. In France sometimes the word Entrée is used.

6. Dance music

Much dance music was published in the 16th century. Often this music is nothing more than easy harmonisations of simple melodies or variations on a repeating bass or chordal pattern.
Some much used dances are: bassedanse, tourdion, several types of branles, allemande, courante, pavane, galliarde and passamezzo.
Often dances are grouped by two or three. There are many possibilities, e.g:
pavane and galliarde (England)
allemande and courante
allemande and saltarello
passamezzo and galliarde
passamezzo, galliarde and pavane (Rotta (1546)
passamezzo, pavane and saltarello (Bianchini 1546)
passamezzo, pavane and galliarde (Phalèse 1570)
Most dances in the many lute books appear to be intended for amateurs. Professional dance musicians were most likely able to improvise their music on repeating bass or chordal patterns.
Later dances, especially in England around 1600, have a greater artistic value and can be regarded as purely instrumental music on which nobody will actually dance.
Especially in France and Flanders much dance music was published (Attaingnant, Le Roy and Ballard in Paris and Phalèse in Leuven).
Italian and German lute books often contain some dances, too.
As mentioned before, in England very good compositions were written in dance form (e.g. the pavanes and galliardes by John Dowland).

7. Lute song

All through the 16th century many lute books contain some lute songs too. Many of these are arrangements of vocal, polyphonic pieces of which one voice is sung, while the other voices are being played upon the lute. Often the lute part has embellishments, sometimes one or more voices are left out to make more room for diminutions in the remaining voices.
In Italy they are called frottole (e.g. Bossinensis 1509), canzonettas (e.g. Fallaremo 1584) and madrigals (e.g. the madrigals by Verdelot in the arrangements by Willaert 1536).
In Germany there are lieder (e.g. Schlick 1512), in France chansons (e.g. Attaingnant 1529), psalms (e.g. Morlaye 1554) and later Airs de Cour (Bataille 1611 till 1623 and Boesset 1620 till 1643). In Spain the vihuela composers wrote vilancicos and romances (e.g. Narvaez 1538).
In England, of course, many books with lute songs appeared after John Dowland’s First Book of Ayres in 1597 (30 publications between 1597 and 1622).

David van Ooijen 2001

This article first appeared in Nostalgia, the news letter of the Lute & Early Guitar Society of Japan.