Notes 59.2 (2002) 357-359
[Access article in PDF]
The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and Its Music. By Matthew Spring. (Oxford Early Music Series.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. [xvi, 536 p. ISBN 0-19-816620-6. $150.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Monographs encompassing the history of a given instrument have become something of a rarity in contemporary scholarship. More typical are collections of detailed essays that treat a subject or related subjects from the viewpoints of several different scholars. These collections are of great value for the particular topics discussed, but often lack the overall perspective and sense of continuity of a monograph. In the field of lute music, readers will encounter an enormous body of research on Western European sources in a variety of languages dating back nearly a century and produced by some of the best scholars in the field of music. Yet, for practical purposes, there are no single sources to which one can turn for a thorough overview of the repertory. The specialized notation and technique of the lute has also tended to marginalize its large [End Page 357] and important body of music within general history texts, especially since a great deal of the music is not yet available in modern transcription. Matthew Spring's The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and Its Music will go a long way toward satisfying the need for a thorough survey of lute music in at least one of its more important regional centers.
It was no small task to undertake a history of the lute in Britain from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, for not only is the size of the repertoire alone daunting, but many of the original sources are still difficult to obtain. Problems of scope immediately arise: should the lute be treated only as a solo instrument or should its important role in ensembles or as an accompanying instrument be explored as well? Even more crucially, how does one treat the history of music in a single country while exploring the influence of foreign musicians and repertories? Too often in the past, nationalistic treatments of the music of one country have tended to simply ignore or downplay foreign influence, leaving a one-sided and sometimes even jingoistic feel to the research. To complicate matters, Spring was unable to fall back on an up-to-date source paralleling developments on the continent so crucial to the history of the lute in Britain. (Douglas Alton Smith's recently published A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance [Lexington, Va.: Lute Society of North America, 2002] may now fill this gap.) There are other pitfalls in lute scholarship, as the unique nature of the instrument and its notation have caused scholars unfamiliar with the instrument to miss or distort many important aspects of music conceived for it. While it may not be true that one has to play the lute to do research on its music, scholars who choose to ignore technique entirely or work only from transcriptions do so at their peril.
Spring confronts each of these potential pitfalls directly and makes choices that greatly enhance the value of the book. While dealing primarily with solo lute music, he incorporates separate chapters covering the lute in consort (chap. 6) and the lute in song accompaniment (chap. 8), as well as an additional discussion on the theorbo (chap. 11). There are also two chapters entitled "A Continental Excursus" (chaps. 3 and 9) which deal with non-British sources from 1480 to 1530 and from 1600 to 1650, respectively. Even more importantly, the chapters on the lute in Britain have many references to continental developments in addition to the British sources. While the focus remains clearly on Britain, Spring is able to give an evenhanded account of foreign influences in the music throughout. In these discussions it is also readily apparent that the author's experience as a lutenist enables him to write in detail about changes in technique and musical style, and one is especially...