Northern Renaissance Instruments

6 Needham Avenue, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AA, U.K.

proprietor: Dr. Ephraim Segerman [USA]

on internet:


Phone & Fax. +44 (0) 161 881 8134


In FoMRHI Comm. 1807 (Q. 107-8), the diameters of strings of several types of lutes were deduced from the sizes of holes in old bridges reported by Peruffo. Though the diameters of holes for strings with the same position on the bridge varied considerably, their averages make considerable historical sense as indications of original stringing. Concerning lutes in Renaissance tuning, on the assumption that the string diameter was 90% of the hole diameter, the evidence indicates that the average diameter of a 6th course string was 1.35 mm, and of the lowest string 2 octaves and a fifth below the first was 1.71 mm. It was assumed that the first string diameter before tuning up was 0.43 mm, in the range of the thinnest type of string made, according to the statutes of the Roman string makers, as reported by Peruffo. Making allowance for first string stretching after tuning, and its needing to be at higher tension than the others because it had to balance with paired strings on other courses, a virtual string that would have the same tension as a 2nd-course string would have a diameter of 0.34 mm. With these three diameters, their tensions were calculated using Praetorius’s Chorthon pitch standard and string stop. Then a power law in string tensions vs frequency was fitted. This interpolation procedure produced the other string diameters, except for the octave strings.

In that Comm, the resulting table was modestly called ‘Conjectural stringing of Praetorius’s lute’. The information from Praetorius was not necessary for the interpolation, and it applied to the averages of all the information on late Renaissance lutes. Since the bridge hole size for the 6th course of the sole earlier Renaissance lute measured is the same as for the later lutes, we can expect that the same string diameters should apply. In this stringing, the tension on the 6th course is only 2% less than that of the high courses, implying that Mersenne’s rule of equal tension applied well enough to all courses except for the low basses.

The only other evidence we have on the diameters of early lute strings is from Mersenne. This was not remembered when that Comm. was written. On p.79 of the Chapman translation, Mersenne wrote that the string diameter on the lute 7th course was 2/3 line (1.52 mm), the 4th course was 1/3 line (0.76 mm) and the 2nd course was 1/5 line (0.46 mm). The corresponding diameters deduced in the Comm. were 1.56, 0.76 and 0.45 mm. The agreement between this analysis of the bridge-hole evidence and Mersenne’s reported diameters is much closer than could ever have been hoped for (or can be justified by the precision of the evidence).

The tension on most of the strings in the above set is 2.2 Kg. Most modern lute players will find this tension lower than they are used to and may consider necessary for modern performing conditions. So we call this set 'light' and are offering a 'medium' set one step heavier (at 2.6 Kg) and a 'heavy' set one step heavier than that (at 2.9 Kg). The bridge-hole evidence says nothing about the octave strings, and the ones given here are just suggestions according to the common modern practice of assuming two steps lower in tension than the low octave. An exception is the octave 4th, where this assumption leads to a thinner string than the thinnest available at the time. Before the 1570s, when catlins became generally available, all the basses were of high-twist gut. Afterwards, octaved 4ths became rare.

The prices of sets of strings that follow assume that a 7-course lute has the lowest course at D, an 8-course one has the lowest courses at F and D, a 9-course one has them at F, D and C, and a 10-course one has them at F, E, D and C. One can easily do the sums for sets with different pitch assumptions.

Specifications and Prices (2009)