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What is a Lute Song, and Where to Start?

Updated: Apr 27

Elegant. Complex. Passionate. Intimate. Humorous. Heartbreaking. Raucous. Dirty. All of these words can be used to describe what today we call “lute song.” Lute song encompasses a wide variety of styles and subjects, and though we generally use the term when referring to English voice and lute repertoire from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods (roughly 1558–1625), it is an umbrella term that can also include such diverse music as French airs de cour and Italian frottole. Even when narrowed down to the English repertoire, the diversity of subjects and styles found amongst the sources would certainly warrant far more genre classification if the music were written today. Thomas Campion’s (1567–1620) “Jack and Joan,” a flirty tune that has all the best characteristics of folk song in both the voice and in its simple, but finely crafted, chordal accompaniment, sits on another planet from John Dowland’s (1563–1626) “Come Heavy Sleep,” a complex piece with dense text and beautiful counterpoint. It may be tempting to attribute the differences to the authors, but Campion was no slouch when it came to writing intricate and moody music (see “Author of Light” and “Never Weather-Beaten Sail”) and Dowland certainly wrote some light-hearted ditties (See “Fine Knacks for Ladies,” and “Daphne was not so chaste”). When we examine the repertoire as a whole without prejudice, we see that all great composers of English lute song used a diverse variety of forms, textures, and techniques to produce some of the most varied repertoire in the English language. 

With such great variety, where is the modern student of lute song to begin? When we first formed a duo in 2014, we made the deliberate choice to avoid some of the most commonly performed repertoire: the works of John Dowland. In all honesty, we did this primarily because we wanted to be edgy and do something different than other people. We also weren’t huge fans of Dowland’s lute songs, though that has certainly changed. We settled on doing a program of Scottish songs arranged for the lute by Kenneth Elliott in his Sixteenth-century Scots songs for voice & lute1 and a small number of songs by Thomas Campion. I think we were both surprised at how much we enjoyed playing and performing the music of Campion. We liked it so much that we made his music the centerpiece of our second album, BEDLAM: Died For Love. In retrospect, we are thankful for this because his music has several qualities that make it an especially good introduction to lute song.

While he was technically a practicing physician, Thomas Campion’s greatest legacy is certainly his poetry. His experimentation with forms and rhyme schemes (including rhymeless verse!) made him practically avant-garde in his time. Though he was modest about his skills, his work has always been well-respected in circles that take poetry seriously. His lute songs, most of which can be found in his four books of airs, place the text above all else. In the music of John Dowland, John Danyel, or Robert Jones (c.1577–1617), there can be found moments when the text is subservient to the music: unusual accent placements, text that is awkwardly set to existing music, and other small issues that force the performer to confront and resolve them using clever tricks. This is no attack on the quality of the songs themselves, just a recognition that they require perhaps more experience to perform well. In Thomas Campion’s songs, the text is always set beautifully and matches the stressing of the words. The lute part is almost “proto-continuo” in nature: often simple, but well-composed chordal accompaniments that leave a tremendous amount of freedom to the singer. The lutenist, unencumbered by frequent countermelodies and running passages, can focus on supporting the singer’s interpretation of the text with appropriately articulated chords.

And that text is spectacular. Covering the gamut from devoutly religious to downright erotic (see “Beauty, since you so much desire,” a fairly graphic depiction of love-making), Campion’s texts cover the full range of human emotion and are extremely relatable to the modern listener. There are abundant opportunities for the singer and lutenist to play with color, articulation, and timing, a perfect playground for exploring this repertoire. We’ve also found that the text tends to be a bit more relatable to modern audiences than that of some of the other lute song composers. This makes Campion’s works a good introduction to lute song not only for performers, but also for listeners, as well! 

While we certainly believe that students should perform whatever lute songs they like, we have learned through our own experiences that the works of Thomas Campion provide a wonderful foundation for exploring the rest of the repertoire. We are grateful for what his pieces have taught us and we think that all lovers of lute song will find countless lessons within his works. 

  1. Elliott, Kenneth. Sixteenth-century Scots songs for voice & lute. University of Glasgow Music Department Publications. 1996.

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