The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 2

Lesson 2

  • Lesson 2 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce, October 2009
  • Piece taken from 40 Easy to Intermediate Pieces for Renaissance Lute (piece #24)
  • Full copies of the playing editions from which the lessons are taken can be ordered in our catalogue

Christ ist Erstanden

The 16th century German lute pedagogue Hans Judenkünig was expert at reducing a polyphonic vocal composition to just two meaningful parts, thereby making an eminently playable lute solo without sacrificing the character of the original. This gorgeous little piece makes a wonderful exercise in clean 2-part playing. The sound we are aiming for is a pair of seamless legato lines, which happen to create chords in which the component notes are plucked precisely together.

Right Hand

Let us look first at the right hand issues. The notes of each chord should be plucked absolutely simultaneously, partly for the technical practice, and partly because - let’s face it - spreading a 2-part chord is more likely to sound like an unintentional technical glitch than an artistic statement. Unlike the single-line exercise of the last instalment, plucking 2-part chords relies on movement by the fingers and thumb, rather than the whole lower arm. It may be helpful to think of the movement as a sort of ‘pincering’ of the thumb and the index or middle fingers, like when a crab’s claw starts to close. Keep the movement as compact as possible - no frantic grabbing at the strings, please! Start by using the thumb and middle finger on every chord: it is easiest to get good contact and a good sound with this combination of digits. When you have that totally under control, play the piece again with thumb and index. Finally, for the ultimate in sophisticated plucking, use the thumb on every lower note, and for the upper notes alternate the middle finger on the strong beats (the first chord of each bar), and the index finger on the offbeats. Keep the right hand relaxed, and keep your contact with the strings quick but firm. Think of the double strings as thin ribbons, with the individual strings marking the edges, and aim for the middle of each ribbon. Each plucking stroke should start in the air, not on the strings (if you place the fingers before plucking, you’ll damp the previous chord and produce a very choppy line). When you make contact with the strings, push them fractionally towards the soundboard before releasing them - you’ll get a better grip, produce a better sound, and avoid knocking each string into its neighbour. Make sure that you don’t ‘bounce’ your 4th finger off the soundboard with each chord.

Left Hand

In the left hand, the fingerings need to be changed slickly, during the last possible microsecond of each chord, in order to achieve a legato result, Relax the hand - tension is not conducive to light, swift manoeuvres. You will probably find some changes more difficult than others. Take the relevant chords out of context and practise alternating between them, starting slowly and gradually increasing the speed, until every finger knows exactly where it is going. You can then think of the whole change as one movement, rather than of several individual finger actions. Next put the chords back into context, again starting slowly, so that the awkward spot gets smoothly integrated. Build up the context little by little if that helps, adding a chord on either side of the problem patch, than extending that patch by another chord on either end, etc.

The most awkward moment is over the barline between bars 8 and 9: don’t snatch at the short second chord in bar 8, and make sure that the left hand fingers don’t fall short of their frets in bar 9. In bar 17, you should practise putting the 3rd and 4th fingers down without lifting the 1st and 2nd, partly because it will save you some effort and string noise, and partly because the 2nd finger note is needed again immediately afterwards.

And finally

Finally, a word about the character of the piece: each phrase should flow as in a hymn, or like the chorales in a Bach Passion. Don’t let the high value rhythm flags mislead you into playing the piece at a funereal pace, and don’t take a tea break at the pause bars; treat them as being basically in time, but allowing the breathing space that a congregation would take when singing a hymn. When you have satisfactorily addressed the technical issues, you can have fun shaping the phrases with dynamics. I don’t mean the rather artificial terraced dynamics that one finds written into ancient editions of lute music, but the natural ebb and flow of dynamics which happen in hymn singing. As a starting point (feel free to develop your own ideas), upbeats should be lighter than downbeats, phrase ends which feel like musical commas should be lighter than those which feel like full stops, and the whole stanza should make a rhetorical statement. The title, ‘Christ is risen’, indicates that a celebratory, joyful feel would be appropriate.