Monday, August 7, 2023

A Lute Spotting (Another Lute Identified?)

Another one of my favorite lute paintings is Peter Paul Rubens' (1577-1640) painting of the lute player wearing the ruff.  Rubens painted this glorious painting, circa 1609-1610 and it is very much in the formal portrait style of so many Dutch paintings of the period.  What stands out is the wonderfully detailed and accurate depiction of the lute being held by the sitter.  The subject serious and confident, and certainly seems to know what he's doing.   This is not a prop found in the corner of the artist's studio!  

This lute seems to be a 10-course on the larger size- perhaps approximately a 70cm string length.  The lute seems to be in the "old" renaissance tuning, given that the left hand fingers are in the nominal Bb major chord position.  This would seem to be the standard tuning in 1609-1610 in the Netherlands, contemporary with Van Der Hove and Vallet's publications of lute music.

Lute Player (1609-1610) Musée des Beaux Arts in Troyes (1)

This lute in the painting looks to be very similar to the surviving Hans Frei lute in the Warwick County Museum in the UK.  This lute known as the "Warwick Frei", which survives as a 10-course lute, but there is evidence that there was a treble rider that broke off and was never replaced.  The body has been thought to be originally from the early to mid 16th Century, probably originally built as a 6 course lute, and went through subsequent changes as tastes changed as the years went by.

I am not insinuating that the lute in the painting is the exact same as the one in the Warwick museum- the lute in the painting includes an inlaid spade behind the bridge and a different rose.  Also, Rubens was detailed enough to include the crack in the soundboard between the spade inlay and the bridge- common misfortune that lutenists have dealt with for hundreds of years as this painting points out!

 The Hans Frei lute on display in the Warwick County Museum

Three views of the lute-


Regarding the "Warwick Frei", something that's interesting to me is that the style and geometry of the body seems to be unique- even Hans Frei's other lutes that survive bear little resemblance to this instrument- The contour of the body and deep end clasp seem to be unlike other lutes.  If you know of other Frei lutes that are similar, feel free to comment.

Here is a recent Eleven Course version that I made recently.  It has a slightly longer string length at 71cm and the added treble rider for the chanterelle.

I'll finish with this interesting side note- Rubens seems to have painted the same man when he was younger in 1597.  No lute though- perhaps he left his seven course lute that he had at the time at home for this painting?  

Portrait of a Man, 1597 Possibly an Architect or Geographer, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York City, NY, US

(1) (edited 9/16/2023 for location of painting)

Sunday, August 6, 2023

The audience doesn't give you extra credit for reading from a facsimile.


"Yeah... but I would have enjoyed the concert so much more if they were reading from facsimile."

Said no one...  Ever.  

I jest-fully point this out because in the world of early music, whether it be performance or lutherie, we can adopt a dogmatic attitude that only  X   is acceptable and that somehow any other way is fakery, not legit or amateurish.  However, I would argue that it is the end result that matters.

So get out on stage and do what you gotta do.  Ready... go!

But sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do to get through the gig- not cheating mind you, but you figure out ways to make the process of music making smoother, from page to eye to brain to fingers, in order to deliver a better performance. 

OK, I will admit that I've written in chords symbols in jazz-style shorthand for a Bach cantata that I had to learn in a few days with one short rehearsal.  It helped me filter through the gazillion 16th notes on the page which were being played by the cellos around me.  The fact is, the audience was none the wiser and could be captivated by the sound of my theorbo and my stress-free demeanor.

But what about historical accuracy?

Let's face it, if we would be slavish about complete historical accuracy, then performers should only perform in period costume and abstain from bathing for several months- just to make the performance that much more convincing.  Everyone up to about the fifth row will be aware of you total dedication and commitment.

Le pew!

OK, so what about lute making?

As I've discussed before, modern lute-making presents modern builders with challenges.  Staying true to the art of lute making, as we live in a modern age, requires making various "compromises".  We have things they didn't have, such as electric light, electric tools like bandsaws, bending irons and glue pots.  Beside all that, other useful items the masters didn't have.  

"What is this sandpaper you speak of?"

The truth is, today's audience and modern lute players have an expectation of aesthetic perfection- far beyond what the old guys were familiar with.  But the market demands it... 

Today's luthiers be like:

"I don't use sandpaper...  Except when I do"