Lutes are stringed instruments played by plucking with the fingers. Their oblong, rounded and pear-shaped body have a flat soundboard on which the strings are attached to a fretted neck. Normally, the lute has five sets of double strings plus a single, longer highest string. Other types of lutes include the small mandora and a bass lute, pandora, and the very largest lutes, the chitarrone and the Theorbo.
The lute derives its name, as well as its distinctive shape, from the Arabic 'ud, an instrument which is vey much at the heart of Arabic musical life to this day. 'Al 'ud' means 'the wooden one', a name perhaps coined to distinguish the 'ud from instruments made from gourds or with parchment soundboards. Lutes came to Europe in the Middle Ages, perhaps brought back from the Crusades, or via Moorish Spain, or Sicily, where the thirteenth century King Manfred von Hohenstaufen was a keen player. Throughout the Medieval period lutes, which then had only five pairs of strings, was played with a quill plectrum - again like the 'ud. Playing with a plectrum limits the kind of solo music that can be performed, and so the lute was often played in consort with other instruments, playing dance tunes, and being used to accompany song.
Lutes really came into their own in the late fifteenth century when it was realized that they could be played with fingertips instead of a quill. This meant that music properly composed in parts could now be played on the instrument. With the addition of a sixth (bass) course, the development of a more elegant, elongated body shape, and the invention of a system of tablature for notating its music, the lute attained a new classical perfection, and the stage was set for a musical craze that was to last over 150 years. At the end of the sixteenth century experiments and innovations began to be made. A seventh pair of bass strings was added, then an eighth, then a ninth, eventually getting up to fourteen pairs; the intention being partly to increase the range of the instrument, partly to be able to play in a low register when accompanying male singers. By the end of the seventeenth century though, the days of the lute were clearly numbered.
Lutes and their repertoire were never quite forgotten, and from the end of the nineteenth century a revival began. The lute is rich not only in repertoire but in symbolism. Its refined sound has given it courtly associations in East and West. For Arabs, the lute was amir al - 'alat, the sultan of instruments. In the hands of angels it symbolized the beauties of heaven; it was further used as a symbol of harmony, while a lute with a broken string (as in Holbein's famous painting 'The Ambassadors') stood for discord. From ancient times it has symbolised youth and love. What could be more romantic than a man singing to the lute outside a lady's window? Conversely, it could be an emblem of lust or lasciviousness: in the hands of an older man it symbolized scandal and degeneracy. If the lute's sensuous and delicate tones evoked the pleasures of love, the fleeting nature of its sound, and the physical fragility of the instrument made it a fitting emblem of transience and death. It is often included, sometimes alongside a skull, in Dutch still life paintings of the Vanitas variety, illustrating the vanity of worldly existence.
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SPECIAL NOTE - No Warranty on Strings: Whether you purchase an instrument on-line or in a neighborhood store, manufacturers recommend that you change the strings on your instrument as soon as you receive it. Your instrument has completed a long journey to your home. During this time the strings WILL oxidize and this may shorten their life expectancy and may reduce their sound quality. On occasion instruments may arrive with a broken string, therefore, it is recommended that you purchase a replacement set of strings and consider changing your strings as soon as it arrives. Learning to change strings should be the first lesson learned when embarking on the journey of playing a new instrument.
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