Skip to content

Saturday morning quote #25: Tinctoris and the lute

November 12, 2011

Johannes Tinctoris

While this blog is mainly directed towards those with at least a general appreciation of early music, there is bound to be the occasional visitor who is not intimately familiar with the lute and its important place in historical music.  To bring those readers up to speed, we offer a description of the lute from Johannes Tinctoris (c. 1435 – 1511), a cleric, composer, and prolific writer on music theory in common practice during the 15th century.

The following description of the lute is from Tinctoris’ treatise, De inventione et usu musice, from the section titled, ‘The lyre commonly called the lute, and the various instruments derived from it’:

The lute is made of wood in the shape of a tortoise-shell, with a hole roughly in the center, and a long neck over which the strings are stretched from just below the hole up to the top of the neck.  The player holds the instrument with his left hand , at the same time making the notes by pressure of his fingers, while the strings are struck by the right hand either with the fingers or with a plectrum.  The plectrum elicits notes from the strings.

The utilitarian description above is followed by a more esoteric outline of the lute’s tuning and the number and disposition of the strings, “thereby making the lute completely perfect.” Mention of the use of plectrum or fingers, as well as the playing of four or more parts in the text that follows, implies that use of the finger tips of the right hand to play polyphony was quite common in the 15th century:

Some instruments of the lute family, by reason of the size and number of strings, are perfectly suitable for rendering all four parts of a composition, or even more if the player has sufficient skill.

Tinctoris continues, describing how, when and by whom the lute is played, going so far as to name names.

We use the lute at feasts, dances, and entertainments public and private, and in this many Germans are exceedingly accomplished and renowned.  Thus some will take the treble part of any piece you care to give them and improvise marvelously upon it with such taste that the performance cannot be rivaled.  Among such, Pietro Bono, lutenist to Ercole, Duke of Ferrara is in my opinion preeminent.

Furthermore, others will do what is much more difficult; namely to play a composition alone, and most skillfully, in not only two parts, but even in three or four:  for example, Orbus the German, or Henri who was recently in the service of Charles, Duke of Burgundy.

While Tinctoris seems to be remembered today for his thankfully descriptive details on counterpoint, he was a sensitive composer and his Missa sine nomine has been a perennial favorite in the choir loft where we met singing for a weekly Latin Mass.  The composition places the bass in a very low range: The low tessitura is amusingly interpreted as a growling challenge by some more literal performers who appear to be unfamiliar with the common 15th century practice of pitching a piece of vocal music where it is most easily sung.

Practical hint: Historical composers wrote with flexible reference pitch in mind.  Tinctoris goes up, Tallis goes down.

  1. Nice to read about my compatriot Tinctoris, we published some articles about him in our quarterly magazine Geluit Luthinerie #35 consultable online ( under “Publications” but unfortunately for most of you it’s in flemish)

  2. Thanks, Greet. The article seems to put a finer point on the nomenclature describing the instruments, with some other small differences in the translation from the original Latin.

    I’m most impressed by Tinctoris’ articulate description of playing polyphony with the finger tips of the right hand, putting to rest the unfortunate misconception that plectrum playing was more common throughout the 15th century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: