11-course lute after Pietro Raillich

11-course lute after Pietro Raillich, Venice 1640’s

EMS_LUTE - 21_sm EMS_LUTE - 22_sm EMS_LUTE - 24_sm

In order to underscore the contrast between the C and F minor and C and F major suites by Reusner recorded on this site, I chose to play the works on two very different lutes with very different sonority and stringing. The minor key pieces are played on my copy (1998) of a wide-bodied, flat-backed multi-rib instrument, made of yew wood and strung entirely in gut (Savarez and Dan Larson), modelled on an mid-17th century Italian lute made in Venice by Pietro Raillich. It’s a transitional instrument, with 15 shade yew ribs and a fairly short string length. It’s overtone-rich colour and wide neck make it technically and musically well suited to the introverted, intense character and low-pitched tessitura of the writing. For this recording I used a higher pitch, a 435 Hz. The major-key works are played on a large-bodied, nine maple rib instrument, my copy (1987) of a lute designed originally for 11 courses (later enlarged to a theorbo-lute) by Martin Hofmann, a German maker of the late 17th century, working in Leipzig. (See the notes on the 14-course theorbo-lute for more.) Both original lutes are currently housed in the Nuremburg museum, where they made a great impression on me when I visited and viewed them. The Hofmann is strung with a mixture of modern carbon-fibre strings (harp string diapasons and monofilament octaves) and gut playing strings. The neo-Renaissance design is characterized by a rich bass and a more strident timbre, with less string noise and a less registered sound than the Raillich. It serves the extroverted and sunny temperament of the major-key pieces very well. With its longer string length, I used a pitch of a 415 Hz. Here is an essay that I wrote about seeing the Raillich in the (Nuremberg) Germanisches National Museum while a student in Switzerland:(excuse the free verse formatting, it was an email message to the lute list) I first saw it in the glass case in Nuremburg, on a trip there with a group of keyboard students, all intent upon clavichords and German harpsichords. While the group, guided by the intrepid and ultra-knowlegeable John Henry van der Meer, passed on through the wonders of the lute exhibit (including the fantastic Harton multi-rib great bass lute that looks like a baby’s bathtub) I stared, transfixed in wonder. The shape of the lute embodied the essence of “barocco”, an oblate, flattened pearl. (Is this theory of the origin of the term still current, or are we onto another oscillation of the universe yet?) I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I didn’t pick it, it picked me. A luminous visitation. Perhaps it was the Lebkuchen and coffee. Anyway, I studied every line, every rib, every peg, every ding, every scratch. What secrets could it tell? It positively reeks of Venice, but in a good way. The Gothic rose is morphed into characteristic Venetian tracery.The bridge had been moved, to alter the string length, and changed from ten courses with double second, to single, adding a treble rider, to make eleven courses. Having bought the drawing offered by the museum, with its unique detailed map of soundboard thicknesses, I thought little about it until taking up the craft of lute-making some years later back in Canada. I noticed that the iconography which I first thought had perhaps ignored this particular shape and disposition actually had documented it; notable examples are the Rhetorique des Dieux engravings, and a picture by Vermeer, surely the most evocative masterpiece of lute playing, or rather, tuning. The lute played by the subject (supposedly Jaques Gaultier?) of Anthony van Dyck’s “Lute Player” The latter two are certainly more elongated, like the “Madonna with the Long Neck”, but have the characteristic rounded shoulders as many earlier lutes had, evidence of Byzantine influence? Did Raillich return to these models for inspiration, as Martin Hofmann was inspired by earlier German lutes in the 1690’s? I have built two versions, one ten course with rosewood ribs, as per the original, and an eleven course in shaded yew with a gilded rose, a per the post-ravalement (to borrow a term from harpsichord making) version. Bending only 15 ribs around that ladle shape is a challenge. The original is “palisander”, i.e. Brazilian rosewood with ivory fillets, continuing the lines on the neck and pegbox veneers. The decor of the original is quite tasteful and restrained when compared with contemporary instruments, particularly those incredible Venetian guitars. One could not imagine a more perfect musical instrument from the point of view of design for the contemporary music, including among others, Kapsberger, Piccininni and Galilei, aside from its rightness for early French baroque music, not to forget Vallet and Sweelinck. The flattening is extreme, and the string length is short for this type of lute, at around 610-20 in its present form. I altered the neck by millimetres to get one more tied fret on the neck in the eleven course version, and this seemed not to affect the overall design much. It is by nature an extroverted instrument, stoutly built, humpbacked, with a thick neck and wide at the head nut. The strings are widely spaced, and in overall appearance it fits with the Mannerist style of Sellas, Beuchenberg and Cocho. It might easily have been a typical liuto attiorbato, but without the silliness of proportion of a large archlute head grafted onto a small body. The ergonomic features of the lute appeal to the player. It can be played easily because of its rather short body and neck, and the flattening reduces the interior volume so much that the lute projects well, reminiscent of Italian harpsichords and guitars. The flattening and the overall size allow the lute to be held comfortably close to the body. The width allows for ease of play in the mysterious passages of Reusner which involve thick chords in the low register (the A minor Pavane and others, mud on other lutes). Further, the amount of room afforded the courses on the wide soundboard allows for an agressive playing style, demanded in the athletic use of the thumb by the French and Italian composers of the period. In an obvious grab for attention, the thumb is often called upon to jump from the fourth and fifth courses down to the lower courses and back, a feature of the style. Plenty of room for that. Somehow, it is reminscent of the guitar when playing, and the short string length and slightly thicker stringing appropriate for the low-pitched transitional tunings strengthen this impression. Compared to long-Frei style eleven course lutes, the Raillich is punchy and articulate. It is lacking only in the effete nasality which is the Frei/Maler hallmark. For later music, perhaps only effete and nasal will do. So there you have it…in defense of Raillich and Mannerism, an example of the ephemeral nature of taste… [Footnote: Hopkinson Smith made an historic recording in the late seventies, his first international success, with a vinyl LP of some of the suites of Rhetorique des Dieux, and another of suites by Dufaut on this very lute. An excellent photo of the lute appeared on the cover of the Gaultier. In an amusing mistranslation of the notes, Lothar Hofmann-Ebrecht’s remark that Smith tuned the the frets of the lute in “mitteltonige stimmung” (meantone temperament), the translator interpreted this in English as “having the frets in medium tension”.]

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