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The Printed English Lute Song in 17th Century England

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Lute Player

The English lute song is the musical genre on which I am writing my dissertation. Music printing experienced a brief flowering late in the reign of Elizabeth I and through James I's reign, and the lute song was one of a few genres regularly printed during this time, from 1597-1622. After 1622, no more lute songs were printed and in England, music printing itself died out shortly thereafter, not to begin again until 1652. Although no one knows why lute songs stopped being printed, it is likely due to competition from newer genres combined with the corrupt political and economic situation surrounding printing at the time.

What is a lute song?

The lute song is a musical composition written for at least one voice with accompaniment by a lute. Many songs were written for four voices singing in harmony, but even those songs could be performed with simply the melody voice and lute.

The texts for lute songs were generally lyric poems - many of which were written by the composers themselves. Thomas Campion, one of the more famous song composers of the time, wrote a treatise on poetry and set his own poems to music. Others, such as Thomas Morley, set other people's lyric poems.

Picture of a lute

So - what is a lute?

The lute is a pear-shaped plucked string instrument with strings that are usually paired up in courses (two strings tuned in unison or octaves). Most English Renaissance lutes had between 8 and 10 courses, or 15 to 19 strings (the top string was usually single).


Designed to aid the amateur performer or the lute song enthusiast, this site provides solid background information on printed lute songs. I have broken the topic into four broad categories for further consideration: Composers, Song Books, Printers, and Song Styles (this page has musical examples which require Real Player to hear). By clicking on About Me, you may read my dissertation abstract and my current early music interests.