The Lute and Old Master Paintings (14th September 2021)

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The Lute in Medieval Art

What from the title looked like a rather niche lecture, was in fact a tour de force as visiting historic music specialist Adam Busiakiewicz gave an inspired presentation on the lute in medieval paintings at the September meeting of The Arts Society Alton.

With origins in the Middle East, the lute became the must-have instrument of Renaissance Europe having arrived following the Crusades and the spread of Arab influence around the Mediterranean. By the 15th century it was so popular it began to appear in paintings and, by the 16th century, playing the lute had become the accomplishment of educated courtiers and aristocrats. Henry VIII was described as a phenomenal lutenist, a skill which the Venetians considered to be his most important attribute. That he is said to have owned 26 lutes at the time of his death in 1547 suggests he fancied himself as a bit of an expert.

At a time when many painters were also musicians, their artwork often reflected how music and art were interwoven. During his talk, Adam coupled works of art with music and highlighted the presence of the lute and other musical references asking the question, ‘What does that painting sound like?’ It was interesting to view paintings featuring the instrument whilst Adam skilfully played his lute.

Although the early instruments were purely functional European craftsmen and jewellers adapted them to show their decorative skills and the members and guests were shown images of lutes in art adorned with ivory and with gilded brass. Some were so highly decorated that they were primarily show-pieces. Players of early lutes used a feather plectrum but in the 16th century it became the practice to pluck the strings with the fingers. The audience learned that the lute sounds best in a small room with hard surfaces as soft furnishings mute its delicate tones.

The instrument went out of fashion in the 18th century as it became so over-engineered - one example being over five feet in length.  However, the French musician Arnold Dolmetch, who lived in Haslemere, revived interest in several historic instruments, including the lute around a hundred years ago. Julian Bream the well-known classical guitarist who died last year, was also a highly accomplished lutenist and regarded as the foremost player of the instrument of recent years.

Tony Cross