Lute tuning and temperament in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

Adam Wead

(…Today, Desiderio would not have this kind of problem because all instruments are tuned according to the same standard of equal temperament; however, when performing music from Bottrigari’s time, the equal temperament standard does not apply. Although it was known to musicians at the time, equal temperament was not favored during the sixteenth early seventeenth centuries. Instead, meantone temperament was the preferred choice for instruments, but it was not standardized in the way that equal temperament is today.

Many kinds of meantone temperaments existed during this period, and variants depended on the date, geographical location, and even the instrument. These continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while newer systems known as well-temperaments were invented. The majority of these applied to keyboard instruments because of the fixed nature of their pitches, but the same aesthetic preference for unequal temperaments was applied to all instruments.

The problem Desiderio faced was that lutes could have their frets set for a variety of different temperaments. In ensembles, they generally had to follow the meantone standard, but its execution differed from other instruments, hence the disagreement between his lute and Benelli’s harpsichord. Keyboard instruments, for example, had their own procedures for producing different temperaments, and lutes and similar fretted instruments could produce these as well, but the process and the limitations a particular temperament imposed could differ. The implications at this time were that the lute player would need to alter his or her technique, and in some cases, the instrument itself, in order to accommodate a particular temperament. This raises the question of how performers dealt with the issue. More importantly, it should give today’s performers pause when determining what temperament to use. Just as we cannot apply a universal modern temperament to older music, neither can we apply a historically-informed one either.
The principal difference between today’s equal temperament and the majority of those found at the turn of the seventeenth century is that the latter had semitones of
non-uniform or varied size…)

Lute tuning and temperament in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

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