Tuning and Temperament
When the lute was revived in the 20th century, everyone assumed that it was tuned in equal temperament. Equal temperament is the tuning system in which the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones and enharmonic pairs such as D#/Eb are the same pitch. However, as research into Renaissance and Baroque music progressed it became clear that keyboard instruments used different tuning systems, usually some variety of what is called "meantone" temperament. Many keyboards have "split" keys for some black notes, so that there are two separate keys for D# and Eb, G# and Ab. The use of meantone temperaments is also well documented in various treatises. Once the virtues of historical tunings for keyboards were appreciated, it was natural to ask whether the lute might also be tuned in an unequal temperament, and in 1984 Mark Lindley published a book which examined this possibility. Lindley's conclusion was that equal temperament was probably the most usual way to tune a lute, though for some periods and places (e.g., early 16th century Spain) some adjustment of the frets to obtain better tuning might have been used. Since Lindley's book was written, it has become almost universal amongst serious lute players to use unequal temperaments, largely for practical reasons: when tuned in this way the lute sounds sweeter, louder, and more in tune with ensembles including keyboards, harps, citterns and bowed strings. So are modern lutenists going against the grain of the historical evidence?
The evidence for equal temperament is compelling, but so is the evidence for a final adjustment by ear rather than a strict theoretical placement of frets. Gerle (1533) describes a method of placing the frets which approximates to 1/6 comma meantone rather than to equal temperament and his instructions were repeated by Dowland (1610) - see Dombois (1982). The vihuela music of Luis Milan (1536) consistently uses a difficult chord shape for an E major chord (nominal A tuning) rather than an easier one, the most likely explanation being that the major third of the chord was then placed on the fourth fret (a proper G#) rather than the first fret (an Ab): in fact Milan also explicitly suggests moving the fourth fret closer to the nut for some pieces (see Lindley, pp.51-57). Galilei (1584) advocates equal temperament, but in so doing he castigates those who use extra little frets (tastini) to produce the major and minor semitones of meantone temperaments, thus showing that some players (perhaps the majority) used unequal temperaments (see Arto Wikla's website). Even when tastini are not used, the easily moveable frets of the lute almost invite adjustment to suit the "key" of the piece being played: this might even be a factor in the grouping of pieces by key, in addition to the usual one of retuning bass strings. It should also be noted that the presence of chromatic passages is not evidence for equal temperament, neither is the presentation of pieces in a wide variety of keys: in the first instance unequal temperaments make the chromatic effects even more startling, while in the second the frets can be moved to suit whatever key is being used.
A recent treatment of temperaments by Claudio di Veroli, including a discussion of fretting on lutes and viols, can be found in his ebook:
Dombois, E. (1973) Correct and easy fret placement. JLSA VI, 30-32.
Dombois, E. (1974) Varieties of meantone temperament realized on the lute. JLSA VII, 82-89. Corrections in VIII (1975), 106 and IX (1976), 108.
Dombois, E. (1982) Lute temperament in Hans Gerle (1532). The Lute, XXII, 1, 3-13.
Lindley, M. (1978) Luis Milan and meantone temperament. JLSA XI, 45-62.
Lindley, M. Lutes, viols, and temperaments. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
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