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The Instruments

Though lute-family instruments seem a bit marginal and less familiar to many of us today, in ages past they were often the most widespread and important instruments of both Western and non-Western music.  One testament to this in the Western world is that makers of violin-family instruments are still called “luthiers” to this day (many early makers of bowed instruments were also makers of lutes).

‘ūd (oud)

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The ‘ūd (oud) is one of the oldest lutes, though it traces its own origins to the barbat, a Persian lute carved from a single piece of wood.  The oud is considered the ‘king’ of instruments in the Arabic world, and it would seem to be the ancestor of the lute and pipa among other lute instruments.  The name ‘ūd literally means ‘wood’ or ‘stick,’ possibly a reference to the switch from a soundboard made of skin to one made from wood.  A seal cylinder at the British Museum dates the ‘ūd from the Uruk period (3500-3200 BC), according to professor Richard Dumbrill. The ‘ūd was also known during the Babylonian period from 1600-1150 B.C., and was also played in Pharaonic Egypt, 1501-1479 BC.

Originally strung with a combination of gut and silk strings, the ‘ūd is strung today with nylon strings. It is played with a risha or quill plectrum which becomes a sort of extension of the player’s thumb.  Originally it was played with a wooden plectrum and later an eagle feather.  The plucking technique requires a very subtle wrist. Its short neck has no frets, allowing the player to slide between pitches and to play scales in the Arabic Maqām system which include quartertones. The most ancient ‘ūds probably had four courses. In the ninth century, a fifth course was added by the famous scholar Zyriab, who is also said to have played the ‘ūd with an eagle’s beak or quill instead of a wooden pick. More recently, six and seven-course ‘ūds have been played. A recently discovered manuscript from the Muslim scholar Al-Farabi describes an eight-course ‘ūd with a range of three and half octaves.

The ‘ūd has had a presence in early Mesopotamia as well as in many surrounding areas, including Turkey, Egypt, Greece, and Eastern Africa. It was likely introduced to Western Europe by the Arabs who established the Umayyad Caliphate of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula in the early eighth century.

The European lute

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The European lute owes its existence to the Arabic occupation of the Iberian peninsula (711–1492), when the ‘ūd was introduced there.  The medieval lute continued to be very similar to the oud, often having five double courses of strings and played with a plectrum.  At some point it gained frets (tied strands of gut), and by around 1350 the European lute was well-established outside of any connection with Arab musicians. In the fifteenth century some lutenists began to play with their fingertips. With the rise of polyphony and the onset of the Renaissance, this new fingertip technique allowed lutenists to play compositions which imitated vocal music written for multiple parts. The instrument’s enormous popularity during the sixteenth century is sometimes described as being equivalent to the piano in the nineteenth century. The Renaissance lute had six courses of strings made from gut, and was made in different sizes (soprano, alto, tenor, & bass, or could be sized to match the tessitura of your voice). It was played by aristocratic amateurs as well as professionals, and used for solos, song accompaniments, and in larger ensembles.

Around 1600, new technology for making denser bass strings allowed the addition of a seventh course. The 7-course lute quickly gave way to lutes with 8, 9, and 10 courses, and many European nations began to modify the lute’s design and tuning in different ways. At this point the right-hand technique changed so that the right-hand thumb came outside the hand and rested on the bass courses, accompanying melodies with deep bass notes. The final swan-song of the lute occurred in Central Europe in the eighteenth century. Following a period of sophisticated repertoire for the 13-course lute in d-minor tuning, the lute fell into decline. Largely forgotten about for over a century, only through the enthusiastic research of twentieth and twenty-first century lutenist, musicologists, and instrument builders has the lute and its precious heritage been revived.

From Giambattista Marino's L'Adone, "Dual between the Lutenist and the Nightengale."

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Clutching the hollow instrument in his arms and playing marvelously as he is used to doing, with notes in fugue and with syncopations all over he probed every means of varying the song.

Without any pause he squeezes and releases the neck from its root to its summit, And as he is guided by his fantasy, he subsides, then revives in a flash, and so sublime. Sometimes he ascends to the chanterelle with trills, and plays the first string with his index finger; And at other times with profound seriousness he plunges down to the octave diapasons.

Flying along the strings, now low, now high the hand hurries faster than the rossignol itself, from above, from below with unexpected leaps the facile fingers flicker like lightening. He imitates the movements inimitably of a fiery conflict and a confused assault, and equals with the sound of sweet songs the bellicose uproar of armor. 

The pipa

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The pipa’s name originally referred to two right-hand techniques: pi meant "to play forward" and pa "to play backward." The ancestor of the modern pipa arrived in China in the 4th century AD, a direct descendant of the ‘ūd. It had a half-pear-shaped soundbox, a crooked neck, 4 or 5 strings and 4 frets. Until that time a plectrum had been used. The five-stringed,straight-necked pipa reached a height of popularity during the Tang Dynasty, and was a principal musical instrument in the imperial court. Many delicately carved pipas with beautiful inlaid patterns date from this period. This instrument was introduced into Japan during the Tang Dynasty as well as into other regions such as Korea and Vietnam. The five-stringed pipa however had fallen from use by the Song Dynasty. During the Ming period, the plectrum was replaced by fingernails, while the horizontal playing position became the vertical (or near-vertical) position by the Qing Dynasty. 

pipaBy the 1960s, a special fake fingernail made from plastic had been introduced , and is now normally attached to each finger of the right hand. This allows more freedom for the player to perform certain demanding techniques. Used for both solos and in ensembles, the pipa is considered the most expressive of plucked-string instruments as it uses the widest range of techniques. The number of frets has gradually been increased up to 30 frets, expanding the instrument's range dramatically, giving it a range of over three and a half octaves. The original silk strings have now been replaced with steel or nylon strings, always arranged in a pentatonic tuning A-D-E-A. The playing techniques used today are even more sophisticated than those used in antiquity.

The pipa's clear, bright and mellow tone and its wide dynamic range is described in the immortal poem ‘Song of the Pipa’ by the Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi:

The bold strings-they patterned like the dashing rain,
The life strings-they sounded like the lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering
As pearls, large and small, on a jade patter fall.

The kora 

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The kora is a the harp-lute of the Malinke people in western Africa.  It seems to have originated in the valley of the Gambian river, though there are players in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Senegal.  The first known reference to the instrument in a European source is from 1799, though it may have existed in some form centuries before.

The kora is constructed of a calabash gourd covered by a leather soundboard.  Its strings stretch from the top of a long neck across a floating bridge to an iron ring at the base of the neck.  The bridge is notched to accommodate two rows of strings, typically 21 (11 played by the left hand and 10 by the right) though some instruments have as many as four additional bass strings. 

Traditionally the strings are tuned by moving leather tuning rings on the neck, though geared pegs are often used now.  The player uses the thumb and index of each hand to pluck the strings, and the other fingers hold a pair of posts which extend from the top of the gourd (and also support the soundboard).

The kora is associated with royalty and the ruling classes, traditionally played by male musicians and often used to accompany songs or narrations.  Some kora players are also historians, genealogists, or storytellers, known as “jali” or “griots” (similar to a “bard” or oral storyteller in English). 

The setar

The setar is considered one of the most important instruments for realizing Persian classical music.  This long-necked lute has been played since at least the 15th century, and possibly much earlier.  The name of the instrument (“se” = three, “tar” = string) reveals that it originally had three strings, though a fourth drone string was added in the nineteeth century by the mystic Moshtaq Ali Shah (and is called the Mushtaq string).  The bowl is often made from ribs of mulberry while the neck is most often of walnut.  The wire strings pass over a floating wooden bridge and attach to a string holder on the bowl.  The setar can have as many as 28 frets which the player can adjust to change the instrument’s tuning.  The strings are plucked typically using mainly the index finger of the right hand.

The setar is closely related to the tar, which share the same neck and tuning system, but is a larger instrument with a fuller sound.  It is sometimes confused with the Indian sitar, whose etymology is related to the setar but is a quite distinct instrument with 18-21 strings.