Last updated: September 2016
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Developing from the five course lute some time in the 15th century the the six course lute became ascendant in and flourished almost throughout the entire 16th century. Due to its long and far-reaching period of dominance a vast body of music was written for it.
The courses are usually tuned in intervals not dissimilar from the modern guitar, the principal differences being that they are usually double-strung from the second course, the third course is tuned a semitone down and that the most commonly encountered nominal lute pitch today is higher at g rather than e. With their octave stringing from the fourth course they have a unique, magical and archaic character. Prices start from £1750.
The seventh course made an appearance quite early in the sixteenth century but didn't become popular until around the last quarter of the century. Like six course instruments they are now most often encountered tuned nominally in g with the top six courses arranged in the same intervallic relationships. Such instruments are considered to be very versatile as they are usable for most of the earlier repertoire as well as the music of the English renaissance period. However, both differences in construction and in stringing between these and six course lutes mean that they are very much two seperate instruments with distinct qualities. Prices start from £1765 and £1780 respectively.
Lutes with the additional ninth or tenth bass courses seem to have appeared in rapid succession at the close of the 16th century. Both nine and ten course instruments saw the last of the renaissance or old tuning as experimental or transitional tunings became common on the ten course lute in the early to mid 17th century. The ten course lute is in effect both the last "renaissance" lute type and the first "baroque" lute depending on which tuning system is used. Prices start from £1795 and £1975 respectively.
During the middle of the 17th Century experimentation slowed down in France and there was a settling on an instrument with eleven courses and D minor tuning. Coinciding with this was a general movement towards instruments with longer string-lengths, a lower nominal pitch of f and a preference for longer bowl shapes. This type of lute dominated the performance of solo lute music until the beginning of the 18th century. With its mysterious, enveloping and sympathetically resonant sound the development of the "baroque lute" proper represented a new orthodoxy in aesthetic expectations. Lutes offered in this section are ideally suited for playing the 17th century style brisť music of composers such as the Gaultiers, Mouton and Gallot. Prices start from £1985.
The late 17th century witnessed the lute's position in France decline and its move towards a German sphere of cultural influence. Although this shift started when lutes still had only eleven courses it coincided with a tendency towards lutes with even longer string-lengths. It wansn't long before the German baroque saw other major changes in lute construction such as the movevent to thirteen courses in the first quarter of the 18th century. Broadly speaking there are two different types of thirteen course baroque lute: "bass-rider" lutes and "swan-neck" baroque lutes. These lutes have qualities ideally suited to their own repertoire but are nonideal for the earlier French music. Prices start from £2550.
The modern convention is that the term "theorbo" is applicable to any lute which has an extended neck with long diapasons and is tuned in either a re-entrant version of the "old" tuning or, as was developed in the baroque period, D minor tuning with the chanterelle omitted. The name "chitarrone" is properly applied to the earliest theorbos as they were developed in Italy at the end of the sixteenth and the first part of the seventeenth century. Although theorbos have an excellent solo repertoire their principal purpose is for accompaniment, hence their almost universally large size.
The mandolino (sometimes called "Milanese mandolin" or "Baroque mandolin") is a very small lute family instrument that was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It can have four, five or six courses. The most notable composer to have written music for the instrument was Antonio Vivaldi.