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Lute & Recorders
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
What Child is This? (Greensleeves)
8-Course Renaissance Lute - Germany, ca. 1970
Soprano, Alto, Tenor & Bass Recorders - Germany
Cornett - Monk, 1980
Alto Crumhorn -
Woods, ca. 1980
I love lutes. Carry a lute case into a crowded room and odds are no one will believe it could seriously contain a musical instrument. So, the gasps of wonderment are understandable when you produce from the case an instrument with the exact same shape. The gasps would become more pronounced if you then told the crowd that the lute’s role was as important in the sixteenth century as the piano’s in the nineteenth. Perhaps the crowd would become derisive if you further opined that this unlikely-looking candidate enjoyed a longer success (well over three centuries) than has the modern guitar, but you would not be making this up. In fact, to this day, a builder of any stringed instrument is called a luthier.
Let’s pretend you’re a typical guitar player examining a lute: the first thing you will notice is the rubber band-like string tension. If you’ve just finished playing your heavy steel-string guitar, be careful or your first plucked chord on the lute is apt to send it sailing across the room. The strings (overspun silk and gut or nylon) are extremely light because the instrument is even more so – it seems the ideal lute should be so unbelievably lightweight and delicate that you could attach it to a string and fly it like a kite. The next thing you might notice is the tuning: the eight courses (one single, seven double) of a typical Renaissance lute are tuned D,F,G,c,f,a,d’,g’ – totally different from guitar, yet just similar enough interval-wise to cause complete confusion. You’ll also soon realize that the total number of strings (fifteen) and the sixteenth century state-of-the-art tuning pegs are the basis for the old saying, “ a luthier spends half his time tuning, the other half playing out of tune.” The frets are not wire, but segments of gut string tied around the neck. Lastly – why the round back and the long, heavy, seemingly broken bent-back pegbox? Because the Renaissance artisans decided that even though it would prove incredibly unbalanced and slippery to hold, it would look cool in oil paintings.
I find it impossible to hear a recorder without it immediately evoking a romantic, medieval-type setting. These modern instruments are based on seventeenth and eighteenth century Baroque recorders – three-piece, sophisticated instruments compared to the one-piece Renaissance recorder. The fingering is the same for each recorder, with the alto and bass (one octave apart) a fifth below the soprano and tenor, respectively. Four different types of hardwood give these instruments their different hues.
The cornett (now usually called the cornetto, and not to be confused with the brass cornet) is a unique sixteenth century instrument with a trumpet-type mouthpiece but fingering like a recorder, and, in fact, sounds like a mellow trumpet. The bore has a pronounced right curve, so that the fingerholes are easier to reach. Traditionally made from two matching halves of wood, the cornett is then wrapped in leather to strengthen and seal the instrument. This inexpensive reproduction is made from a resin compound, but is still covered with leather to look authentic and fool one’s friends.
The distinctive crumhorn is basically a five hundred dollar kazoo shaped like the letter “j.” Fingered like a recorder, one simply blows into the mouthpiece, which contains a concealed double-reed, producing the buzzing tone. From the same era as the recorders, it also comes in a “consort” of various sizes.
Which brings us to the percussion (not pictured): During this era tambourines and hand drums, in every size and description, were widely used because no one had yet invented the drum set.