Seven/Eight course lutes

Significant changes in design and construction of lutes are evident in the period 1580-1620. A significant number of instruments by different makers have survived which show striking consistencies of approach to design, workmanship and use of materials. Significant structural developments are closely linked with Venice and Padua and workshops established by the various members of the Tieffenbrucker family who emigrated from Füssen in Bavaria. The family name was spelt in many different ways including Tieffenbrucker, Dieffopruchar and Duiffoprugcar. In nearby  Padua, Leonardo Tieffenbrucker (d.1566) was succeeded by his son Wendelin Tieffenbrucker, who changed his name to Vendelio Venere as it would appear that the Italians found this easier to pronounce[1].

The most obvious change in design was the lute’s basic outline - the long pearl form of the Bologna makers giving way to a fuller, more rounded form. There is some evidence that more complex geometric shapes (like the ellipse) were employed in constructing the outline, where the earlier profiles had been formed from simple arcs. As an abstract tool for the lute’s design, this may not seem like a significant development, but in practical terms it accompanied a change in the shape and distribution of the body’s air mass, which inevitably altered the acoustic response of the instrument. Different makers applied these changes to varying degrees, but were all involved in the general trend.

Paduan and Venetian lutes were generally built with a minimum of thirteen ribs, but some had considerably more[2]. The technique of building multi ribbed lute backs may indeed have been pioneered by the Tieffenbruckers. It was technically demanding work and no doubt expensive, but it was a highly distinctive style that made their lutes highly desirable objects throughout Europe.

The development of multi-ribbed lute backs was particularly well suited to exploiting the tonal and visual potential of yew wood, especially shaded yew: that part of the tree which in which the dark heartwood and the narrow white sapwood are naturally juxtaposed in a narrow contrasting strip. Unfortunately, this was the same part of the tree from which longbows were cut, and the yew tree’s value as military ordinance meant that it was strictly rationed to the lute makers. The tonal benefits of yew can be overstated, but multi-ribbed lutes in shaded yew are striking in appearance, suggesting that the best makers were keenly interested in making lutes that satisfied contemporary tastes for rich and complex art forms.

On expensive lutes (liuti da preti), we see the increasing use of ebony veneer - either plain, or with alternating strips of ivory - on necks and peg-boxes, to provide an elegant, fashionable look. This general appreciation for ebony and ebonised forms extended to other fittings such as the frequently black-stained bridge and pegs, and ebony half edging fitted to the soundboard. This might give the impression that all lutes of the period were all expensive, but we should remember that cheaper instruments were also produced in large numbers. The high quality lutes made in workshops like the Tieffenbruckers have tended to survive in disproportionately greater numbers, which inevitably distorts our impression of what was normal for the period. Plain lutes made from maple and fruitwood were probably the staple work of lute makers, but only a few have survived. For example, the small lute by Hieber (Musée des Instruments de Musique, Brussels) has thirteen ribs of maple, a plain beechwood neck and pegbox and a black painted fingerboard.

Perhaps the most significant developments in the structure of the soundboards, where new patterns of barring emerge and thinner soundboards lead to a more extrovert and demonstrative type of sound. These changes were also a necessary response to the addition of extra bass strings. Again individual  makers, or workshops, developed approaches to these specific issues which, though different in detail, worked towards the same general tonal goals.

Although the general trends in late sixteenth century lute making are clear, many details are still not yet fully understood. Many questions remain unanswered, such as when lute builders started to make instruments with seven courses. Virdung[3]refers to them as early as 1511 though it is doubtful if they were common at that time. In 1556 Hans Timme, a pupil of Bakfark in Krakow, tried to obtain an Italian lute with thirteen strings - probably a seven-course instrument. Such a lute may not have been common, and is it not known whether Timme was able to acquire one. More interesting perhaps, is that Timme was seeking an Italian instrument, and that he was a pupil of Valentine Bakfark, since Bafark was one of the first lutenists[4]to publish music for a seven-course lute in his Harmoniarum Musicarum in usum Testudinis factarum Tomus Primus (Kracow, 1565).

Melchior Newsidler was another important and influential lutenist at the centre of lute building and playing in Germany. His father Hans was a prominent lute builder and player, and Melchior himself was employed by the Függer family in Augsburg - not only one of the wealthiest families in Germany, but also leading patrons of music. Raymond Függer himself had a collection of 141 lutes by some of the most prominent German makers of the day[5]. In 1566 Melchior Neusidler published his first two books music for six course lute in Rome, followed in 1574 by his Teütsch Lautenbuch which included pieces for the seven course lute. One possibility is that Newsidler’s  interest in the seven course lute stemmed from his visit to Italy in 1566., though whether he visited Venice  or Padua wherethe leading makers were based  is unknown. Neusidler also knew several German lute makers around Augsburg (including Sixtus Rauwolf and Rudolf Bossert), so the possibility of new developments north of the Alps should not be excluded.  

It had been thought that the advent of the eight-course lute was marked by the publication of Michele Carara’s Intavolatura di liuto in 1585. However Paul Beier recently noted that “ ... seven and eight-course lutes were probably more in evidence during the 1580s than we are used to thinking. Apart from the well known, if disdainful, reference to them in Galilei’s Fronimo of 1584, consider the following letter written by the famous bass singer Giulio Cesare Brancaccio to Luca Marenzio’s patron, Luigi d’Este, in February, 1581”[6]:

 “....if one could find an eight course lute, like those that are made to perfection by a German master who is in Padua called Maestro Venere Alberti it would please his highness [the Duke ofFerrara] if you were to present it to him. Since the lute is then to be for my use, I would wish it to be of the usual sort as regards size,and that those bass courses beyond the usual six should be fixed diapasons sounding with one string each, not two, and, in sum, that the lute should be harmonious and silvery, that is, with a clear and sonorous sound, and that the bass strings should resonate as much as possible. Marenzio, or others who understand these things, will know how to deal with it[7]

If Maestro Venere was already making eight course lutes “to perfection” in 1581, then it is likely he had been making them for a quite number of years - perhaps since the early 1570s. Curiously, Brancaccio says that the seventh and eight courses should be single strings only. Although one painting shows just such an arrangement[8] most other sources invariably depict the diapasons as octave pairs. Mightthis type of stringing have been more common than we think, and if so, why? Or was Brancaccio asking for something unusual to suit his own special musical requirements. He also asks that the bass strings should “resonate as much as possible”, but it is difficult to know exactly how one should interpret this comment. Was Brancaccio describing the sort of sound that one could expect from such a lute, or was he specifically asking for resonant basses because he knew that these did not normally work well? We are accustomed to thinking that diapasons were always doubled because the low gut bass strings without their high octave pairs were incapable of sounding clear, well-defined notes. In this case a single gut bass string was clearly thought sufficient, pointing to twisted gut basses of an extremely high quality. Whatever the intention behind single diapasons, or the nature of the gut bass strings available, Brancaccio’sletter suggests that musicians approached the sound of the lute with a sophistication that we are barely starting to understand.

It is also unclear which Maestro Venere was being referred to in the text, though the most likely candidate is the first Vendelio Venere (Wendelin Tieffenbrucker), who in 1581 would have been about 60 years old. We cannot rule out his nephew Christofano Eberle, who was eventually to take over the running of the workshop after Vendelio’s death circa 1587-91. One piece of evidence which points strongly towards Vendelio Venere the elder is his close association with Valentin Bakfark - both lived in the same part of Padua and had other connections between them[9].Venere was a witness to Bakfark’s will, and appointed guardian to his widow and young son, and Bakfark, having published the first printed music for seven course lute in 1565, was in the vanguard of new developments for the instrument. Is it too fanciful to suggest that he might have worked closely with his friend Maestro Venere to develop lutes with both seven and eight courses? Admittedly, Bakfark died in 1576, but by then Venere could already have made the first eight course lutes.

We are also unsure to what extent the introduction of additional bass courses affected the design and proportions of the forms used by lute makers. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the width of the form body was ignored when old lutes were converted to eleven and even thirteen courses. Sometimes the bridge of a converted 13-course lute comes alarmingly close to the edge of the soundboard, and this was evidently not considered a problem - and the merits of these old lute bodies outweighed any potential loss of response in the bass that such an arrangement might involve. With so few instruments surviving in unaltered condition it is difficult to state with any accuracy what the original stringing might have been: if an instrument was later fitted with a neck for ten or eleven courses, it might originally have been built for seven, eight or even nine courses. However, a seven course lute made by Wendelio Venere in 1582 does survive with its original neck (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches museum, SAM 32). It’s a tenor lute with a string length of about 67 cm and has a body 33 cm wide at its maximum point. The 1609 Magno Tieffenbrucker in the Museo Bardini[10]  was built as an eight course lute with the same string length, but has a slightly wider body of 34 cm. The question is whether this difference represents a intentional widening of the form to accommodate the extra bass course, or simply the difference between two makers as to what constituted the most elegant and functional proportions of a lute body? Another Venere lute of 1592[11] has a wider form, but exactly the same width and proportions as the 1609 Tieffenbrucker. Whilst we cannot be sure this instrument was built as an eight course lute, given the date, that is probably the most likely possibility. 

Finally it worth pointing out that the eight course lute did not supplant the seven course instrument. Both instruments co-existed for a period of some 40 years and music was published for both forms into the 1620s.


[1]Peter Kiraly, ‘New facts about Vendelio Venere’ in The Journal of the Lute Society, vol XXXV (1994)

[2] 35 was common number of ribs.

[3] Sebastian Virdung. Musica Getutscht, 1511

[4] Hans Gerle’s Musica  Getuscht (1532) includes three pieces for seven course lute - the lowest course tuned a fourth below the sixth.

[5] D.Alton Smith ‘The musical instrument inventory of Raymung Fugger.’ GalpinSociety Journal XXXIII (1980).

[6] P. Beier. Some Remarks on the Seven-Course Lute Music in the Sienna Manuscript. Lute Society of America Quarterly vol XLIV, 2009

[7] P. Beier, op.cit

[8] Rutilio Manetti’s “Amore Trionfante”, Sienna 1624

[9]  see Peter Kiraly. Some new Facts about Vendelio Venere, Journal of the Lute Society, vol XXXXIV, 1994

[10]Museo Bardini, Florence no 144

[11]Victoria and Albert Museum , London no. W6 1940. Converted to an archlute in

the 17th century.