A guide to the lute

A brief guide to the music of the lute

Published: October 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543) was the first famous lutenist-composer. The Italian channelled his renowned improvisatory skills into writing ricercars and fantasias, which influenced generations to follow. But for a first taste of the rich world of the lute, head to the bountiful Elizabethan golden era, when the instrument was in its heyday.


John Johnson (1545-94), one of three royal lutenists, turned dances of the time – pavans, galliards, almains and so forth – into art forms. He paved the way for the greatest of English composer-lutenists, John Dowland (1563-1626). Exquisite melancholy was Dowland’s calling card, nowhere more so than in his lute song Flow my tears. He penned many other lute songs, as well as solo lute works and viol consorts with lute.

The design and tuning of the lute itself kept on developing in the Baroque era in France. As a result, the ‘style brisé’, in which melodies were hidden in arpeggiated chords, became popular. Sample the glories of this period with the music of court lutenist Robert de Visée.

The French style also found its way to Germany, home to Sylvius Leopold Weiss. A prolific and brilliant lutenist-composer, he’s thought to have written over 1,000 lute pieces, many of which survive. Weiss was friends with JS Bach, who also wrote suites often played on the lute.


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