MALCOLM PRIOR - LUTEMAKER

From an initial fascination with the lute and music as a schoolboy, I followed my family’s woodworking tradition and become an apprentice building viols before setting up my first workshop in London to make lutes.

From my workshop near Norwich, I now make lutes for players of all levels.

First impressions

My involvement with the lute started in 1969 when I bought Julian Bream’s The Golden Age of English Lute Music. As a schoolboy I had played transcriptions of English lute music for guitar and this recording made a deep impression on me.

In 1972 I read Diana Poulton’s recently published biography of John Dowland and bought a facsimile Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons. I wanted to be part of London’s dynamic early music scene.

Up to this time my main interest was in History of Art, and my ambition to train as a picture restorer. On my regular visits to the Victoria & Albert Museum, I was however increasingly fascinated by the musical instrument collection. During one of these visits, I had the idea of becoming a lute maker.

Learning the ropes

I left school aged 17 to start an apprenticeship in the workshops of Arnold Dolmetsch Ltd in Haslemere Surrey, where I learnt to build viols under the direction of Roger Rose. When my apprenticeship ended in 1978, I returned to London and set up my first workshop to build lutes.

From 1978-1988, I was developing my knowledge and practical skills. In the workshop I experimented with different methods and I started designing lutes based on historical principles, studying the drawings Stephen Murphy and Stephen Gottlieb had made from historical instruments in Europe collections.

It was an exciting time and I built lutes for some very good professional players, with customers in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the US.

An academic interlude

From 1986 my work also included teaching part-time on the Early Stringed Instruments course at the London College of Furniture – finding this an enjoyable complement to my work as an instrument maker.

In 1991 I started a degree course in History of Art at Birkbeck College (University of London). The four years of part-time study that followed greatly extended my cultural and intellectual horizons.

Finding a new understanding

After graduating in 1995, I continued building instruments and teaching, but my academic studies encouraged me to approach lute building in a more structured and enquiring manner. I re-examined everything that I knew, or thought I knew, pored over drawings, data sheets and measurements, and built lutes that tested these ideas out in practice.  This work has led to the most creative phase of my career.

The workshop today

In 2005 I stopped part-time teaching in order to concentrate exclusively on instrument making. I now build lutes for players from Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan - from  complete beginners to top performers like Nigel North and Paul O’Dette.

I have the enthusiasm and commitment I started with but now it’s supported by experience and a mature understanding of what I do and why.