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A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. .

A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. By Douglas Alton Smith. [Lexington, Va.]: Lute Society of America, 2002. [xvii, 389 p. ISBN 0-971-40710-X. $85.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Few musical instruments have had such a history of both favor and neglect as the lute. Plucked string instruments of various sorts were popular in much of Europe beginning in the Middle Ages; iconographical and archival sources indicate that the lute was well established in Spain from the ninth century A.D. on, spreading into southern Italy and from there northward. The written repertoire begins around the year 1500 and from that time the lute enjoyed a period of nearly 250 years of intense creative activity throughout Europe--Douglas Alton Smith calculates that there are some forty thousand independent compositions for the lute in manuscripts and printed tablatures from the Renaissance and baroque (p. 301). By my estimate there are nearly five thousand individual pieces, not counting reprints, in the printed repertoire for lute in the sixteenth century alone (see Appalachian State University Libraries, Music Library, "Sixteenth-Century Lute Tablatures,", acces sed 27 February 2003). In addition to the solo literature, the use of the lute and related instruments in ensembles and as an accompaniment to the voice was common, especially in the baroque, and there is hardly a genre of music during the period that lutenists did not influence. One thinks especially of the lute's role in stylized dance music and in the development of monody and opera. Yet in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries--at precisely that period where the historical canon of European music was being formed--the lute had become a museum piece and its formative roles overlooked or misunderstood. At times during the past century, art historians would have had more familiarity with the lute than their musical counterparts, since the instrument is featured so prominently in early modern paintings.

The revival of interest in early music in the last forty to fifty years carried the lute out of the museum and back onto the concert stage, although in a much more limited role than it had enjoyed previously. Its peculiar notation and technique kept most nonperformers at bay. Even those who have acquired facility with any of the various types of lute tablature (it is not nearly as difficult as the uninitiated generally imagine) were still intimidated by the vastness of the repertoire, unfamiliar with the composers and styles, and outsiders to the musical culture within which the music was produced. Most lute scholarship to this point has thus been narrowly nationalistic or biographical. What few general surveys there are have been flawed by a lack of knowledge of the entire repertoire, of the instrument, or of musicological research techniques. Douglas Alton Smith's long-awaited monograph fills a gaping need in the literature on plucked-string instruments, for what has been needed for many years is a readable , authoritative study of the lute and its music throughout Europe. Lutenists and guitarists have felt the need most severely, yet this book is just as important for scholars and performers of other instruments who wish to explore the vast repertoire and the instrument's early history. "Early history" is the operative term here for, as Smith freely admits, the story is only partially told, leaving off at the beginning of the baroque era.

The hook begins with three chapters constituting a chronological survey of the lute to 1500, including a great deal of recent research on the early forms of the instrument and their dissemination. Chapter 4 follows with a focused look at lute making and surviving lutes from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This chapter will be especially valuable to performers in choosing an appropriate instrument, since it covers the instruments now most commonly copied by modern luthiers. The core of the book consists of chapters 5-8 which treat the lute, lutenists, and lute music in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe (primarily Germany), France, Spain (in the form of the vihuela), and England, respectively. Smith mixes various types of content within the geographical surveys, avoiding what could have been a tedious litany of individual lutenist's birth dates, biography, and death dates. There are many biographical details and, occasionally, subjective judgments of each composer's music. Smith comments, for example, on the Spanish vihuelist Diego Pisador, "much of this one man's corpus borders on the ridiculous" (p. xx)--an opinion difficult to contradict after having played through or studied his works. But these sections are interspersed with a good balance of discussion on subjects such as humanism and the lute, women singer/lutenists, music publishing, and lutenists from nonliterate traditions who are therefore known now only by reputation. There is always the danger here of establishing a new canon for the instrument, a new version of the "great men! great works" mode of scholarship. But Smith draws out enough major and minor figures for the instrument that the reader is left with a fuller understanding of lutenists, celebrated or not, and of the general role of the lute within the context of European society.

This overview allows the author to draw together connecting threads in the overall tradition. One of the central themes of the book is that the lute's association with humanism tied it inextricably to the revival of classical cultures. Throughout the Renaissance, the lute was seen as the modern equivalent to the lyre of ancient Greece, an association certainly more imaginary than real, but prevalent nonetheless in all countries but Spain. Spain appears to have been the one place where the lute's actual connection to the Middle East by way of the Moors won out over the newly attached classical fable. The Inquisition's attempts to wipe out all things non-Christian adequately explain why the vihuela--basically a guitar-shaped lute--became the dominant instrument there. Elsewhere in Europe, even the classical association was to have its negative side, for with the onset of the Enlightenment and a very different cultural and musical aesthetic in the later eighteenth century, the lute was suddenly considered quain t and outdated. Smith offers convincing evidence that it was the intimate associations of the lute and the ancient lyre, not problems with tuning or complex notations as is often stated, that caused the disappearance of the lute from musical consciousness during the eighteenth century. The lute rose and Fell with the Renaissance itself.

The book is not without some fairly serious flaws, although they are more editorial than authorial. The reader notices fairly early that many of the illustrations and musical examples have not been properly integrated into the text. There are many useful plates, but most are never referred to specifically. This is less of a problem if the illustrations are on the same page as the text related to them, but sometimes they are many pages removed. Smith's discussion of rosettes (pp. 87-89) would have been considerably enhanced by references to figure 10 (p. 24) or to the color plates following page 94. Occasionally the musical examples are not specifically mentioned anywhere in the text itself (e.g., p. 148 ex. 18). The list of music examples (p. 365) is of little use, for it gives no more information on original sources than citations for the examples themselves. One citation (p. 255 n. 32) even refers the reader to an engraving reproduced in a journal article, ignoring the fact that the same engraving has been reproduced at the bottom of the page itself! Clearly, Smith was writing his text without any awareness of which illustrations and musical examples would be included. This is perhaps understandable, but surely one might reasonably expect better final copyediting and coordination between text and illustrative material than that found here.

Another more detrimental editorial decision is the omission of parallel tablature with the musical examples. There are a few well chosen facsimiles, hut it is quite disappointing to find so little tablature in a book about the lute. (Surely this is not an indication that we are retreating to an era of scholarship when tablature was regarded as a nuisancel) Far too much information is shown in the original that cannot be conveyed in staff notation. For example, Smith's references to "rapid string changes" in the music of Joan Ambrosio Dalza (p. 114) could be much more clearly shown--even to someone without ability to read tablature--with the tablature itself. Another example (p. 177 ex. 26) purports to show, in part, the use of the upper positions of the instrument, but this is hardly evident from the staff notation. While parallel transcriptions would have added bulk to this already substantial volume, they were a most useful feature of Matthew Spring's recent The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and Its Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). This reader would have preferred that pitch names be given without the common, but distracting, elision of hexachord syllables ("C sol re ut" rather than "Gsolreut," as on page 153).

None of this should detract from the very real value of the work and the fine prose Smith brings to it, for this book is a must for any library collection dealing with early music or serving the needs of lutenists or classical guitarists. While it is not the last word in lute research, it will serve as a worthy foundation for future study. As the author aptly states, "Like musicians of the Renaissance, today's lutenists look to music of the distant past for inspiration. There is a vast repertory of lute music to inspire, and despite all the modern studies and editions, still more to discover" (p. 307).
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Author:Boye, Gary R.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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