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What Is a Baroque Lute?

The Baroque lute, an enchanting stringed instrument from the 17th century, is renowned for its intricate design and rich, resonant sound. With its deep ties to European musical traditions, it offers a unique window into the past. Its complex music continues to captivate modern audiences. Discover how its timeless melodies can still stir the soul—what secrets does its music hold for you?
Pablo Garcia
Pablo Garcia

A baroque lute is a European lute fashioned during the Baroque era, which lasted from between 1600 and 1750. A lute is a stringed instrument with a deep rounded back that is played in the same fashion as a guitar. It figured prominently in Baroque music, especially when used for ballads or songs. It was often accompanied by harpsichord and cello music or could be played alone by a singer. Its unique design made it a very versatile instrument with a wide musical range.

The lute as an instrument is most likely of Arabic origin. Its name evolved from the Arabic “al 'ud,” meaning “wooden one.” Sometime in the Early Middle Ages, the lute arrived in Europe. Instrument makers transformed the Arabic lute by the addition of 14 pairs of bass strings, eight of which are on the neck of the lute and five of which are on the “swan,” a second slanted peg box at the top of the neck.

Baroque lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.
Baroque lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.

The sound board of the baroque lute, which contains the opening from which the sound comes out, was made from finely planed spruce. It was then glued to the body of the instrument, roughly the shape of a halved pear. The sounds from the lute came through an elaborate geometric pattern called a "rose," which was carved into the sound board. The strings of the lute were wrapped around tapered pegs that could be twisted to control the pitch of each string, the same as with modern string instruments.

Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.
Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.

Baroque music was highly ornate. The word baroque derives from a Portuguese expression meaning “a pearl of irregular shape.” Composers followed the doctrine that music should express the emotions of its creator. Italian Composer Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” was composed during this period.

Composers of the era characterized their work as “moderno,” or modern. This was to distinguish it from earlier Renaissance music, which was thought too stiff and unemotional. Baroque music was characterized by exuberance and deeply personal emotions. It was also known for its use of “counterpoint,” two or more melodies being played simultaneously, and “bass continuo,” the playing the cello and harpsichord together. German composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Silvius Leopold Weiss were among those who wrote pieces for the baroque lute.

Eventually the lute’s popularity and use was replaced by that of the five-string baroque guitar. There is still an interest, however, in the baroque lute. There are societies in the US and Europe devoted to its history and use. There are many courses available on how to make and to play the instrument.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Baroque lute and how does it differ from other lutes?

The Baroque lute is a plucked string instrument from the lute family, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is distinguished from earlier lutes by its extended bass range and the number of strings, which can be up to 24 or more, arranged in courses. The Baroque lute also features a more elaborate and ornate design, with a bent-back pegbox that facilitates the tuning of its numerous strings.

How is the Baroque lute tuned?

The Baroque lute is typically tuned in a system called 'D-minor tuning', which became standard during the Baroque period. The top six courses are tuned in unison to D, A, F, D, A, and E, resembling the tuning of a Renaissance lute, while the additional bass strings (diapasons) are tuned to notes that extend the range downward. This tuning allows for a rich harmonic palette suitable for the complex music of the Baroque era.

What kind of music was played on the Baroque lute?

The Baroque lute was used to play a variety of music, including dance suites, fantasias, toccatas, and variations. It was also employed for vocal accompaniment and in chamber music settings. Composers like Sylvius Leopold Weiss and Johann Sebastian Bach wrote extensively for the instrument, with Weiss being one of the most prolific lute composers of the period, leaving behind over 600 pieces for the lute.

How did the Baroque lute contribute to the music of its time?

The Baroque lute played a significant role in the music of its time by providing a harmonic and melodic foundation in ensemble settings and serving as a solo instrument for intimate performances. Its ability to produce a wide range of dynamics and its extended bass range made it ideal for the expressive and ornamented style of Baroque music. The lute's popularity also led to the development of lute tablature, a unique form of musical notation.

Is the Baroque lute still played today and where can one hear its music?

Yes, the Baroque lute is still played today by early music enthusiasts and professional musicians specializing in historical performance practice. Its music can be heard in concerts, recordings, and at early music festivals around the world. Contemporary lutenists continue to explore the rich repertoire of the Baroque lute, often using historically informed techniques and period instruments to recreate the authentic sounds of the era.

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    • Baroque lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.
      Baroque lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.
    • Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.