Playing Lute Music on the Harpsichord



Because the harpsichord and lute operate on the same basic sound principle of plucked strings, the performance of lute music on the harpsichord is quite idiomatic. Moreover, there are two, documented historical precedents from the 17th-century for performing lute music, in its original state, on the harpsichord.

1. In his 1636 Treatise Harmonie Universelle, Marin Mersenne advocates for the possibility of transcribing lute music from tablature into grand staff notation “to transpose the beauty and richness of the lute for other instruments” (p. 214).

2. Later in the century, in 1680, French music theorist and lutenist Perrine published Pieces de luth en musique avec des regles pour les toucher parfaitement sur le luth et sur le clavessin. This extraordinary edition consists of 32 suave pieces by the famed lutenists and cousins, Ennemond and Denis Gaultier, written in grand staff notation. Perrine’s principal aim with this publication was an attempt to rescue the lute from decline by teaching players to play from the more accessible standard notation, rather than the complex and elusive lute tablature. However, he makes it clear performance on the harpsichord was equally possible and desirable: “…It will not be difficult to perform them perfectly  either on the harpsichord or on the lute” (Reprinted and trans. in Pieces de Luth en Musique, Ed. Paola Erdas, UtOrpheus, 1995, Preace, XVII).

That Perrine publishes the work with specific designation of the lute and harpsichord as instruments for performance, confirms that in 17th-century France, the lute and the harpsichord were indeed seen as close cousins, and that the performance of lute music on the harpsichord was no novelty. Indeed, as the lute began to decline, harpsichord performances of its repertoire may have become common.

Below, you can hear excerpts from Perrine’s Pieces de luth en musique, played by me on my seventeenth-century French harpsichord by Alan Gotto, after the 1667 Anonymous, Paris.