Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Art of Music: The Lute at the end of the 16th century

The lute was a very prominent feature of the Renaissance and Baroque, and is easily recognizable in paintings.  The lute as a visual trope is rich with historical symbolism.  From ancient times it has symbolized youth and love; it is a symbol of harmony or, if a string is broken, dischord.  The instrument has its roots in Arabic history, but came to Europe during the middle ages.  With many instrumental changes during the 16th century, it became a wildly popular instrument throughout Europe.  The lute is painted, sculpted and written about for hundreds of years.  The Baroque period is known for its innovations and dynamic experiments, and the lute experienced it’s fair share of these changes. The instrument instrument began receiving additional notes until many of the instruments had over 20 strings, placed in pairs, tuned in fourths with a third in the middle. The intention of these innovations was to increase the range partly to be able to accompany male singers.  Today, the instrument is not as common or popular and it is difficult to fully appreciate it as a visual trope without experiencing the full essence of the instrument, mainly it’s audible music.  What would it be like to experience the scenes seen represented in baroque art, to listen and enjoy the music of the lute?

Lute, Sixtus Rauchwolff, 1596, Wood, various other materials, 89.2.157

Lute, 1601, Wood and other various materials, University of Edinborough
Start by comparing these two instruments. Made within four years of each other, these lutes are very similar in size and shape but one has more than twice the number of strings as the other. The lute had different forms and variations and during the Baroque period, the number of variations increased rapidly.The lute had a broad repertoire made even more vast by the innovations and additional strings. It was played as an accompaniment to vocals, at dance parties or as a solo instrument.  

Mermaid playing a lute, 1550-1600, bronze, 30.95.111
Here is a use of the instrument in sculpture.  The lute was not only a theme in paintings and dance parties, but in other forms of art as well. It was an incredibly common and popular instrument and pops up in many different mediums.  This is a decorative and functional piece used to hold ink for writing.  There is not much research on this piece, giving the viewer now the opportunity to wonder:  Why is there a mermaid playing a lute over a bowl of ink?

The Musicians, Caravaggio, ca. 1595, Oil on Canvas, 52.81

This painting features the a lutist tuning his lute as the main subject of the work.   With cupid in the background and the musical instruments in the foreground, this painting is an allegory of love and music.  As a visual representation of music and love, t is easy to see the romantic tone and visual rhythms of the piece, but imagine listening to the romantic tone and harmonious rhythms of the lute as well.  

The Lute is an instrument for dancing, singing with and just enjoying its mesmerizing melodies.  Nigel North is a musician living in the United Kingdom who is devoted to the study and performance of the lute.  He has an impressive resume of learning and teaching music.  WIthout listening to the instrument being played, there is no way to fully understand what a lute really is.  It is not just a visual form used for symbolism in art, it is musical instrument full of melodies and harmonies evoking emotions.  Experience, listen and enjoy.

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