Lute Strings: Ancient and modern
1. Historical strings
Here is a summary of selected points from the main sources. Links are provided to full texts.
The Capirola Lute Book, Newberry Library, Chicago (written in Brescia c.1517)
A Varietie of Lute Lessons, Robert Dowland, London, 1610.
The Burwell Lute Tutor, copied by Mary Burwell c.1670
Musick's Monument, Thomas Mace, Cambridge, 1676.
These sources provide us with tantalizingly little information, but at least they seem fairly consistent. The main points may be summarized as follows:
String materials:strings were made from sheep gut ("cat" gut is probably a name rather than a material) - no other substances are mentioned.
Places of manufacture:range from Rome in the south to Strasbourg in the north, but for thinner strings "Minikins" (from Munich?) and for thicker strings "Venice-catlins" from Bologna seem to be the favourites.
Packaging:strings were made in lengths ("knots") at least twice as long as was needed on the instrument. "Double knots" are presumably twice as long. They are then "made up" into "bundles", more knots to a bundle for thin strings than for thicker ones. The whole issue of packaging has been largely ignored by modern writers but it can give vital clues as to the nature of the strings: all the descriptions of "knots", "bundles" and how to extract a string from them suggest characteristics very different from those of modern gut strings, which must be carefully coiled because bending round sharp corners ruins them. The picture of testing for trueness in Gerle's book of 1546 is one of several depictions which shows what a "knot" was like:
We might get away with this kind of wrapping for a very pliable substance like household string, but not a modern gut string. It reminds me of skeins of tapestry wool. This apparent pliability is also often seen in spare lengths of string sticking out of pegboxes in paintings, and although it seems at odds with the emphasis on "stiffness to the finger", we should remember that stiffness is relative.
Types of string:If we accept Mace's judgement that Pistoys were really a kind of Venice-Catlin, then we have only two sorts of string, Minikins (perhaps up to .65mm) and Venice-Catlins (greater than .65mm). There is no mention of roping or loading, and the same criteria for goodness apply to both - clearness to the eye and stiffness to the finger.
Selecting good strings:Good strings are newly made, strong, well-twisted and smooth, clear against the light, and stiff to the finger. They must also be tested for trueness as they are put on the instrument.
Storage:Moisture is the enemy of strings so they must be bound up closely together and kept in an oiled paper or bladder.
2. The bass string problem
In order to maintain a suitable working tension, strings have to get progressively thicker as they go lower in pitch. The sixth course of a lute is two octaves below the first course, and even when strung at a much lower tension still has to be about 3-4 times thicker. This increase in thickness as you go down into the bass creates a problem: as the strings get thicker they also get less elastic, until the point is reached where the sound is so short-lived and out of tune as to be unsatisfactory. Opinions will differ as to exactly where this point is, but to modern ears it is a little more than an octave below the first string - the fourth course is OK, the fifth is not. This judgement is perhaps supported by the historical use of different strings at this point (the fourth course is the first of the Venice catlines used by Dowland). If the thicker string could be made more elastic, it would work better. One way to achieve this is to put more twist into the string as it is made. Just how much further down into the bass a high-twist string will take us is a much more open question. In the mid 1970s Ephraim Segerman demonstrated that a more elastic string could be made by making a rope of thinner strings twisted together. Could this be how bass strings were made? Segerman thought so, and called his roped strings "catlines". Unfortunately the name has stuck as a synonym for roped strings, though more recent consideration of the evidence suggests that the original "Venice Catlines" were probably not roped. In the 1990s Mimmo Peruffo, having studied the sizes of bridge holes in surviving lutes, came to the conclusion that the original strings must have been of higher density than gut in order to reach a reasonable working tension. He has experimented with "loading" the gut with metallic salts before it is made into a string. The process can increase the density to about twice that of untreated gut. Support for the loading hypothesis also comes from paintings which often show dark or even bright red bass strings. Some doubt is cast on it by the historical references to clearness because substances which are heavy enough to have a loading effect also tend to be opaque. On the other hand the evidence from bridge holes is compelling: if strings were not loaded then they must have been at a much lower tension than we are accustomed to (according to Segerman, down to around 13 Newtons, about half what most of us would regard as sensible). One way to make the bass string problem less acute is to adopt a higher pitch, but of course this can only be done if treble strings can be made very strong, and in any case a big hike in pitch only results in a small decrease in diameter for the bass strings. Before the invention of the splitting horn in the 18th century, gut strings were made from whole guts and may therefore have been considerably stronger. However, much higher pitches are still not available - modern scholars seem to agree on the breaking strain of gut treble strings (though not necessarily on how close to breaking point the string should be tuned). A pitch of (modern) g' for a 60cm string length cannot be far from historical pitch. The issue of how nominal pitch relates to actual pitch is complicated, however, and discussed further in Historical pitch and the lute.
Further reading and useful links
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