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Review: A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance by Douglas Alton Smith

Review: A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance by Douglas Alton Smith

Reviewed by Bryan Johanson

Originally published in American Lutherie #73, 2003 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance
Douglas Alton Smith
ISBN 0-9714071-0-X
Lute Society of America, 389pp. 2002
www.lutehistory.com

Being a witness to history is an exciting and dynamic experience. Every day we follow events that shape our future and define our past. Music history during the past century turned out to be one of the most fluid and exciting periods ever experienced. We saw the rise to dominance of the recording industry and the decline and continued struggle of the music-publishing business. Composers, once the driving, creative force in music history, were marginalized by the surge of dynamic performers seeking their turn in the driver’s seat. This new wave of musical leadership created performance vehicles for themselves largely by exploring music of the past. As a result, buried treasures have been rediscovered. The music of Bach is no longer an occasional academic event, but a daily concert hall occurrence. Compositions by great Renaissance composers Josquin, Palestrina, Morales, Gesualdo, and Victoria can now be heard on recordings and in concerts almost anywhere in the civilized world. Performers have continued to reach into the past with courage and curiosity, reviving repertoire like ancient plain chant, early Greek and Roman music, and the mystic compositions of Hildegard von Bingen. There seems to be no limit to the vast musical treasure trove of the past. This rediscovery of early and ancient music was one of the most important trends in the 20th century, and it appears to still be gaining momentum in this new millennium.

In this brave new world of early music, scholarship, musicianship, and craftsmanship have become equal partners. One of the most impressive revivals during the last fifty years was the rebirth of the lute and its music. Once the most popular instrument in Europe, the lute was extinct by the end of the 19th century. Of the many thousands of compositions written for the lute, none were in circulation. Of the many thousands of instruments, only a handful survived as antique curiosities. As society entered the 20th century, the lute and its music was certifiably dead. However, a curious thing about musical instruments and their music is that death is not as terminal as it is for us mammals. There is no way to bring back a living dinosaur or any number of extinct species of birds, fish, and animals. But the lute, that’s a different story. With scholars like Douglas Alton Smith, luthiers like Robert Lundberg, and performers like Paul O’Dette working on its behalf, the revival of the lute is now in full flower.

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Review: A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance by Douglas Alton Smith

Reviewed by Bryan Johanson

Originally published in American Lutherie #73, 2003 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance
Douglas Alton Smith
ISBN 0-9714071-0-X
Lute Society of America, 389pp. 2002
www.lutehistory.com

Being a witness to history is an exciting and dynamic experience. Every day we follow events that shape our future and define our past. Music history during the past century turned out to be one of the most fluid and exciting periods ever experienced. We saw the rise to dominance of the recording industry and the decline and continued struggle of the music-publishing business. Composers, once the driving, creative force in music history, were marginalized by the surge of dynamic performers seeking their turn in the driver’s seat. This new wave of musical leadership created performance vehicles for themselves largely by exploring music of the past. As a result, buried treasures have been rediscovered. The music of Bach is no longer an occasional academic event, but a daily concert hall occurrence. Compositions by great Renaissance composers Josquin, Palestrina, Morales, Gesualdo, and Victoria can now be heard on recordings and in concerts almost anywhere in the civilized world. Performers have continued to reach into the past with courage and curiosity, reviving repertoire like ancient plain chant, early Greek and Roman music, and the mystic compositions of Hildegard von Bingen. There seems to be no limit to the vast musical treasure trove of the past. This rediscovery of early and ancient music was one of the most important trends in the 20th century, and it appears to still be gaining momentum in this new millennium.

In this brave new world of early music, scholarship, musicianship, and craftsmanship have become equal partners. One of the most impressive revivals during the last fifty years was the rebirth of the lute and its music. Once the most popular instrument in Europe, the lute was extinct by the end of the 19th century. Of the many thousands of compositions written for the lute, none were in circulation. Of the many thousands of instruments, only a handful survived as antique curiosities. As society entered the 20th century, the lute and its music was certifiably dead. However, a curious thing about musical instruments and their music is that death is not as terminal as it is for us mammals. There is no way to bring back a living dinosaur or any number of extinct species of birds, fish, and animals. But the lute, that’s a different story. With scholars like Douglas Alton Smith, luthiers like Robert Lundberg, and performers like Paul O’Dette working on its behalf, the revival of the lute is now in full flower.

In his brilliant and beautiful new book, A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Douglas Alton Smith has given us a wonderfullywritten account of the rich history of that once seemingly extinct instrument. Although the lute is most immediately related to the Arabic oud, Mr. Smith takes pains to trace the origin of the lute to much earlier times. The lute’s connection to ancient Greek culture, with its influential philosophy, music theory, and aesthetics, shaped the development of the Renaissance lute as much as its more recent Arabic heritage. Tracing the origin of any string instrument into antiquity is a tricky business. There are many ways in which an author’s narrative can become bogged down in slogging through all the loose ends and fragmented bits. What is so refreshing about Mr. Smith’s book is the strength of its vision. His writing about the lute’s far-distant past is fluid and engaging.

Once he moves us into the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the historical evidence is much less speculative. He clearly traces the rise of the lute’s popularity, country by country. The reader will no doubt delight in the scope of the tale. Mr. Smith has woven many historical threads together to give us a complex and complete picture of the lute as it existed in society. To follow the early history of the lute is to also follow the early history of music. The lute was such an important part of the musical culture of Europe that any musical development was immediately reflected in the lute’s repertoire or construction. In addition to the part played by the lute in music culture and society, Mr. Smith also traces the history of its construction.

Once the book gets rolling into the more familiar terrain of the Renaissance, Mr. Smith traces the lute’s history by region and performer. There are chapters on the lute in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe, France and the Lowlands, and England. Naturally we are treated to mini-biographies of such musical giants as the brilliant and influential Francesco Canova da Milano, Vincenzo Galilei, Lorenzino di Roma, Hans and Melchior Newsidler, Valentine Bakfark, Adrian Le Roy, John and Robert Johnson, Daniel Bacheler, and the incomparable John Dowland. In addition to the copious biographical information, Mr. Smith has illuminated many of them with musical examples and illustrations.

One interesting addition is a chapter on the history of the vihuela in Spain. As many enthusiasts know, the lute did not flourish in Renaissance Spain. The reasons for this are complex and somewhat obscure. What did flourish was an instrument that looked a bit like the guitar but was tuned and played exactly like the lute. Its history and music often show up in histories on the guitar. But the vihuela’s connection to the guitar is a weak one. The vihuela flourished for a brief period and faded into obscurity before the beginning of the 17th century. The music produced by Luis Milan, Alonso Mudarra, and Luis de Narvaez has long been claimed as transcribed guitar repertoire. However, in the last fifty years, luthiers have begun to construct modern replicas of the vihuela. This repertoire is now being reclaimed by specialists on that instrument. It is not surprising that many of this new generation of vihuelistas are lutenists who have made slight adjustments to their technique to master this distinguished music. Mr. Smith has convincingly claimed that the vihuela is simply a Spanish version of the lute. And, though the vihuela will always remain outside the history of the lute proper or the guitar proper, its temporal relationship to the lute is a more natural historical fit. Mr. Smith’s chapter on this marginally related instrument is an important addition to the vihuela’s history.

There are many ways one could enjoy and use this book. It is a remarkable accomplishment in its scope and depth and literary style. For professional musicians, luthiers, and musicologists, this book is an absolute must. It will no doubt become the standard reference work on the subject for many years to come. In addition to use by scholars, luthiers, musicians, and serious-minded students, the book is also an incredibly enjoyable read. On the most obvious level, it can also be savored as a compelling historical narrative. I would suggest that anyone who listens to lute music for pleasure can enjoy this book for the same kind of pleasure.

A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance is published by the Lute Society of America, and I would like to take a few moments and congratulate them for the look of the final publication. It is a beautifully prepared, edited, and laid-out book. The integration of text, musical examples, and illustrations adds immeasurably to the joy of this book. It was obviously prepared with great care and respect for the material, and the Lute Society of America is to be praised.

I can’t begin to express my gratitude to Douglas Alton Smith for his efforts in bringing this book to print. His talents as an historian, scholar, and author are overwhelming. His book is a massive achievement to which the reader can return again and again for information, insights, and pleasure. His efforts on behalf of the lute and its music are inspiring, and I hope that readers of this review will immediately order their own soon-to-be-well-worn-and-well-loved copy of his fine book.

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Review: Aux origins de la guitare: vihuela de mano by Joël Dugot

Review: Aux origins de la guitare: vihuela de mano by Joël Dugot

Reviewed by Bryan Johanson

Originally published in American Lutherie #81, 2005 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



Aux origines de la guitare: la vihuela de mano
Joël Dugot
ISBN: 2-914147-23-6
Paris, France: Cité de la Musique, 95 pp. 2004
www.cite-musique.fr

When I started high school, I was given the choice of taking French, Spanish, German, or Latin. This was in addition to the regular “boy” curriculum of math, English, P.E., biology, social studies, and metal shop. (“Girl” curriculum included secretarial studies and home economics.) I had heard that cute girls took French (a gross inaccuracy, as it turned out), so French seemed like a good choice. It was taught by a very round, short, bald man who insisted we call him Maitre. Every day he would breeze into class, walking quickly to the front saying, “Bonjour la classe!” as he went. We would drone back, “Bonjour, Maitre.” We could normally tell from his voice what kind of day it would be. If he was jovial, it would be bad French jokes day. If his voice was stern, we would be covering new material. If his voice sounded tired, we would be conjugating verbs. On rare days he would say nothing at all. That was the silent language of pop quiz.

For two years the main focus of the class was to learn to have a conversation with correct pronunciation. My conversational French was never very good. This was mostly due to the fact that I could barely hold a conversation in English. It was a harsh thing to take a shy, sensitive fifteen-year-old boy and stand him in front of class with an equally shy fifteen-year-old girl and make them speak to each other in clear, enunciated tones: “Hello Claire! Are you going to the library? I heard the record player does not work. Have you seen Jean? He is at the bakery. I think it is going to rain today. It is very moist....”

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Review: The Vihuela de Mano and The Spanish Guitar: A Dictionary of the Makers of Plucked and Bowed Musical Instruments of Spain by José L. Romanillos and Marian Harris Winspear

Review: The Vihuela de Mano and The Spanish Guitar: A Dictionary of the Makers of Plucked and Bowed Musical Instruments of Spain by José L. Romanillos and Marian Harris Winspear

Reviewed by Bryan Johanson

Originally published in American Lutherie #80, 2004 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



The Vihuela de Mano and The Spanish Guitar: A Dictionary of the Makers
of Plucked and Bowed Musical Instruments of Spain (1200-2002)

José L. Romanillos and Marian Harris Winspear
ISBN 84-607-6141-X
Guijosa, Spain: Sanguino Press, 585 pp., 2002

In the world of players and makers of fine classical guitars, the name José Romanillos stands tall. For decades he built some of the finest classical guitars ever made. His work with Julian Bream is legendary. With the 1987 publication of his first major book, Antonio de Torres: Guitar Maker — His Life and Work (with an extensive revision published in 1997), we were introduced to another side of this impressive artist, that of author, scholar, and fact-sleuth extraordinaire.

We now have his latest contribution to the realm of fact: his amazing new book on Spanish luthiers, The Vihuela de Mano and The Spanish Guitar; a Dictionary of the Makers of Plucked and Bowed Musical Instruments of Spain (1200–2002). It is a rare thing these days to find an author (in this case coauthors, Romanillos and his wife Marian Winspear) tackle the concept of writing a dictionary. The result of this ambitious undertaking is a highly readable reference book that includes much information not ordinarily included in a dictionary proper.

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Review: The Century That Shaped the Guitar (From the Birth of the Six-String Guitar to the Death of Tárrega) by James Westbrook

Review: The Century That Shaped the Guitar
(From the Birth of the Six-String Guitar to the Death of Tárrega) by James Westbrook

Reviewed by Bryan Johanson

Previously published in American Lutherie #88, 2006



The Century That Shaped the Guitar
(From the Birth of the Six-String Guitar to the Death of Tarrega)

James Westbrook
2005. 180pp.
Available from theguitarmuseum.com.

In 1813 the soon-to-be-renowned composer and guitarist Fernando Sor left Spain, never to return. His destination was Paris, in the only country that would have him. After two years of frustration and disappointment he moved to London where he was to finally achieve the success that had eluded him. The large forces that brought Sor to London include his education, his professional training, the many wars in Europe, and taste.

Sor was given a liberal education in his native Barcelona. He studied composition, singing, and the newly invented 6-string guitar. With the premiere in 1797 of his opera Telemachus on Calypso’s Isle, Sor became the celebrated wunderkind. But a career in music was not in his immediate future. He had received a military training that seemed unlikely to cause his musical career much trouble. But, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain changed all that. Sor was thrown into active duty. When the French finally conquered Spain, Sor was given the choice of continuing his military career as part of the occupying French army, or joining the Spanish resistance. (The resistance was not doing so well, as documented by the many gruesome paintings by Goya.) Sor chose to continue his military career with the French (bad move). When Napoleon was finally defeated, these Spanish afrancesados were being murdered by the now victorious resistance at an alarming rate. Like many Spaniards in his position, Sor joined the exodus of 1813 and moved to Paris.

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This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

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