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Music In The Age of Discovery

Elizabethan Lute and Ensemble Music

Peter Kun Frary


The lute was the most important household instrument of the Renaissance. It was perfect for home use due to its musical flexibility: capable of melody, harmony and counterpoint. Thus, the lute could be used for solo, vocal accompanying or ensemble playing. Like a guitar, it was portable and could be easily carried from house to house.

Nicholas Lanier, c. 1613 (Anon.) | Weiss Gallery | Lanier was an accomplished lutenist-composer and contemporary of John Dowland.

Solo Lute

During their occupation of Spain (711–1492), the Moors introduced the ‘ūd to Europe, the direct ancestor of both the European lute and Chinese pipa. The ‘ūd and lute are played like a guitar but has a shorter neck and a round back. The earliest surviving lute manuscript dates from late 15th century Italy. Certainly a lot of lute playing happened during the seven-hundred years before 1500 but it was not written down. With the advent of the printing press, the lute and its music moved into the spotlight during the early 16th century. Petrucci's publication of lute works by Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507) and Joan Ambrosio Dalza (fl. 1508) started a flood of pieces across Europe and helped establish the lute in homes and royal courts. By the late 16th century, John Dowland lived in a world where the lute was called the "king of instruments."

Renaissance Woodcut (anon.) of a four-course guitar. The guitar was considered a lessor member of the lute family and mainly used for strumming.

Although John Dowland's contribution to solo song is emblazon in every music history textbook, little mention is made of his solo lute writing. I suspect the lute is largely ignored because it vanished from the musical mainstream three centuries ago. And yet most of Dowland's compositions are for the lute and no less demonstrative of his musical genius than his lute song or consorts. Dowland's lute solos were revived by classical guitarists in recent decades and, finally, are increasingly performed by early music specialists on replica lutes.

Dowland's solo lute setting of My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home is a good example of idiomatic instrumental writing: it bristles with scales, arpeggios and ornaments. This piece celebrates Lord Willoughby's return to England after leading a military force to help the Dutch win independence from Spain.

My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home | John Dowland | Lute solo (first piece of a set of three)

Ensemble Music

Consort or instrumental ensemble music became an important performance medium at home and in royal courts. An ensemble of similar instruments is called a full consort. For example, soprano recorder, alto recorder, tenor recorder and bass recorder all belong to the same family of instruments and, when played together, form a full consort. A mixed ensemble—e.g., violin, lute and flute—is known as a broken consort. I suspect the broken consort was more common at dinner parties.

The Concert by Gerard van Honthorst (1590–1656) | National Gallery of Art | Broken consort playing at a home gathering

Francis Pilkington (c. 1565–1638) was a contemporary of John Dowland and an accomplished composer, lutenist and singer. Like Dowland, he received a Bachelor of Music degree from Oxford. Unlike Dowland, Pilkington spent most of his life in the service of the Church of England and was an ordained priest. Although a church man, Pilkington mainly composed secular music and left a trove of lute solos and duets, ayres, madrigals, and lute songs.

Pilkington's Echo is originally for two lutes but played here on the lute's wild cousin, the guitar. This piece is unique insomuch as the motives chase or echo one another between the two guitars. To hear the echo, listen with headphones or well spaced stereo speakers.

Echo | Francis Pilkington

La Bourrée from Terpsichore (1612) | Michael Praetorius | Broken Consort | The German composer and theorist, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), arranged a collection of over 300 dances in Terpsichore. La Bourrée is a brisk French dance in duple meter with clear-cut phrases, a strong beat and homophonic texture. Percussion is improvised and parts doubled for dramatic effect. Terpsichore is the Greek goddess of dance and pronounced "terp-sick-core-rean."

The Earle of Essex Galliard | John Dowland | Full Consort (first piece of a set of two) | Dedicated to Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex. As a lute song it is known as Can She Excuse My Wrongs?

Kemp's Jig (Anon.) | Broken Consort (first piece of a set of two) | The jig is a spritely Irish dance and this one was written for Will Kemp (fl. 1600), an English actor and dancer. Kemp was one of the original actors in Shakespeare's early plays and is said to have danced a distance of 80 miles nonstop.

It Was a Lover and His Lass

The second number in the above video, with broken consort and vocalist, is entitled It Was a Lover and His Lass. Thomas Morley set William Shakespeare's lyrics from the play, As You Like It. The lyrics are about a lad and his lass getting busy in fields of rye and corn.

It Was a Lover and His Lass has four verses and a chorus. The verses are composed of a rhymed couplet separated by "with a hey, and a ho and a hey nonino." The chorus rhymes as well: springtime/ringtime and sing/ding/spring.

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green cornfield did pass
In springtime, the only pretty ringtime,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie
In springtime, the only pretty ringtime,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that a life was but a flower
In springtime, the only pretty ringtime,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And therefore take the present time,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crowned with the prime
In springtime, the only pretty ringtime,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring.


lute, full consort, broken consort, Francis Pilkington, Michael Praetorius

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved