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The English Lute Song Books

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Lute Player

Between 1597 and 1622, 30 books of lute songs were published by 20 different composers. Click on the show button below to see a table of all the printed song books with their composers, printers, and dates of publication.

The printed format of the lute song book was quite unique. Instead of following the traditional song book practice of printing a separate book for each part, all of the printers followed the pattern of Peter Short's 1597 Dowland book: they are all in what is called table book format (see here for an image). This means that all the parts are printed on one opening of the book but facing in different directions so that the performers may sit around the table and read from the same book.

Each songbook had a (often quite elaborate) frontispiece. Since frontispieces were printed from engravings rather than using moveable type, the look was unique to individual printers. For example, Peter Short used an engraving of the twelve muses arranged around the title and composer information, while East used a less elaborate engraving of a classical-style building façade (see here and here for pictures of frontispieces).

An engraved initial

At the beginning of each song, the first word of the main voice part (cantus) has a specially designed first letter, called an initial (see picture to the right). Like the frontispiece, the initial is engraved and combined with the rest of the text of the song (printed with moveable type).

The rest of the printing in the book used moveable type, which means that each individual letter or music note (a piece of type from a font) was placed in a form that was tightened and inked for printing. The pieces of type were then removed from the form and the next page could be put together the same way. The lute tablature font was especially complex, with a six-line staff, numerous fret positions, and different rhythms to notate. Click here for a close-up of lute tablature. Remember, when each note, each piece of type is being placed individually, mistakes can be made. Some books are more accurate than others: in general, the prints through about 1609 are better than the later prints. For example, Robert Jones' early books are usually performance ready, whereas his later books are quite poorly edited. Care should be taken when performing songs from poorly edited books to correct obvious notational mistakes.