Music of the High Renaissance: The Lute

The lute played an important part in the development of instrumental music during the latter half of the 16th century. It was the instrument of kings and queens, playing the sublime music of great composers. The lute was heard in the theatre, but it was also heard on the streets by common people, immersed in the “pop” music of the day.

The lute is believed to have arrived in England in the late 1200s (the first named lute player we know of, ‘Jean le luteur’ was playing at court in 1285) but written lute music material is scarce before the 15th century. The heyday of the instrument began in the late 15th century with the arrival of elegant long-bodied instruments and the realization that polyphonic music could be played with fingertips. This led to a notation called tablature, where lines, letters and numbers were used to mark the position of the player’s left hand on the finger board and the strings to be plucked by the right.

Throughout the Renaissance, almost all lute music was notated in one of the three forms of tablature (Italian, French, and German) which first appeared around the beginning of the 16th century when lute solos and lute songs began to be published or copied into manuscripts. Many of these were intended for the blossoming numbers of amateur lutenists, who learned to play and sing to the lute. Great composers such as Fraceso Canova da Milano (Italian, 1497-1543) and John Dowland (English, 1563-1626) amazed and moved their listeners with virtuoso playing and profound compositions.

Here is a selection of songs by some of the most well-known names of that gilded era.

John Dowland is best known today for his melancholic songs such as “Come, heavy sleep”, “Flow my tears”, “I saw my lady weepe”, and “in darkness let me dwell”. His instrumental music has undergone a major revival in the 20th century, along with that of early music in general, although Dowland’s music is still not much known to the public.

England composer, John Dowland (1563-1626)

Here are three songs composed by John Dowland, performed by lutenist and soloist, Francesca Torelli.

Lacrimae – Flow my tears (1:33 mins)

Galliard (dance) – Lady Rich Galliard (3.35 mins)

Passion – Come again (3.35 mins)

Francesco Canova da Milano (dubbed “Il divino”) was celebrated as the pre-eminent composer of lute music in Renaissance Italy. He was widely published in his lifetime and remained popular across Europe well into the 17th century. Here is a recording of Il Divino’s Rivercar 51 by the Norwegian musician Trond Bengston (note: a “rivercar” or “rivercar” is a type of late Renaissance and early Baroque instrumental composition).

Italian lutenist and composer, Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543)

Further study:

For samples of songs from a wide range of composers, including Renaissance computers, check out

For a complete collection of Dowland’s Galliards works, listen to the recording by Paul O’Dette at

The following YouTube audio features a selection of Il divino’s fantasias, ricercares,intabulation, dances and reconstructions, performed by acclaimed American lutenist, Hopkinson Smith:


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