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Saturday morning quotes 4.11: Lute or guitar?

July 26, 2014

Last week’s post that outlined a few broad points concerning new compositions of music for lute sparked a bit of discussion, mostly among guitarists.  While the repertoire for the two instruments may be readily transferred with varying degrees of success, the physical differences, acoustical properties, and methods of tone production between guitar and lute are quite significant.

“Taking a geometrically generated outline, and with the help of proportional cross and longitudinal sections, [lute makers] visualized the complete interior air cavity, mentally adding or subtracting pieces of air, as it were, until they had the desired shape… Understandably, then, the lute’s bowl shape is as subtle and complex as that of a violin’s carved belly and back arching, with many variables in the air mass volume and distribution, each variable producing substantial changes in tone color, of bias in power, projection, and/or balance.”

- Robert Lundberg, “In Tune with the Universe: The Physics and Metaphysics of Galileo’s Lute,”  from Music and Science in the Age of Galileo. Ed. V. Coelho. University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science 51. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992: 221-222.

Nearly all of today’s better-known lutenists started out on guitar, with a few notable exceptions, including Stephen Stubbs and Lynda Sayce.  Robert Barto and Karl-Ernst Schröder recorded an album of guitar duets on the lute’s more modern cousin, and even Paul O’Dette recorded modern guitar duets with Thomas Binkley and the Studio Der Frühen Musik ‎on the LP, L’Agonie Du Languedoc (1976).

There are several thoughtful discussions written by skilled lutenists dissecting the details of their transition from guitar to lute, like that of Richard Sweeny.

The main difference between the two instruments has to do with just how much inconvenience the player is willing to endure.  The guitar is reliable, stable and solidly-built.  The lute is lightweight, unwieldy and unpredictable. The merest whiff of hot or cold air will cause the tuning to go awry.  Humidity or the lack of it can wreak absolute havoc on the thin membrane that is the top. The transparency of tone leaves the player nowhere to hide if there is the least little lapse of control in tone production.

But we still like the guitar and enjoy playing all sorts of music, old and new, that is well-conceived and sensitively written.  It so happens that composer John David Lamb, the author of the quote featured in last week’s blog post, has written such a piece for guitar, and has kindly agreed to make the score available for interested and intrepid guitarists:  Impromptu, by John David Lamb (PDF).

3 Comments
  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    I think I am in the minority amongst guitar/lute players. I was never comfortable holding any guitar in the orthodox classical guitar position- elevated left leg, lower bout of the instrument dumped down in the crotch area, lower back always somewhat twisted, Segovia style right wrist bent and twisted into a stiff, claw-like distortion of the human hand-

    The first time I picked up a lute, it just fell into place! It NEVER felt like it would slip out of my lap like a greased watermelon, as t does for virtually every student or other player I’ve met. Right hand, whether thumb-inside or HISTORIC thumb-out for late R & B lute always ergonomic simplicity itself.

    However, I eventually came back to the guitar- first, a 7-string steel string for faking Orpharion & Bandora tunes; held on the RIGHT thigh like folk, Jazz, Country- anything but Classical positioning. Then I got a nice Classical guitar three years ago, which I hold & play like my Baroque lute. The horrific inconvenience of the guitar has been conquered!

    I use the classical guitar quite a bit these days as a piece of “Gym Equipment” to work out a lot of technical issues- especially the knuckle breaking music of Melchior Neusidler, Paradoxically, my 8 course Renaissance lute by Dan Larson has so much resonance & clarity that I can successfully perform music by Leo Brouwer, Astor Piazzolla, and the late Phil Rosheger.

    I am considering putting on a recital which will be called “Lute on the Guitar- Guitar on the Lute”

  2. Dan Winheld permalink

    “R & B lute”! Ha- I meant of course “Renaissance & Baroque lute” – I’m not nearly good enough to play “Rhythm & Blues” lute!

  3. Erika permalink

    “The transparency of tone leaves the player nowhere to hide if there is the least little lapse of control in tone production.” Spot on!

    I think this is true of many early instruments and for me, this is one of early music’s big attractions.

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