Walter Bitner

Home » Music » The Golden Age of English Lute Music

The Golden Age of English Lute Music

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Elizabeth I playing the lute by Nicolas Hilliard, c. 1580 ~ Berkeley Castle, Berkeley, Gloucestershire, UK (click images to enlarge)

The Lute Part XIII

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I – an astounding 45 years from 1558 to 1603 – is often referred to as the Golden Age of English history. The long rule of the Virgin Queen brought momentous advances for England: colonization of the New World and circumnavigation of the globe by English privateers, the dramatic defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth and her advisors’ miraculous achievement of reestablishing and maintaining a Protestant state for nearly fifty years in the face of continental Catholic opposition.

England brought forth an artistic and cultural flowering under Queen Elizabeth – most famously in the development of the theatre and the work of the playwright William Shakespeare, whom she patronized. Music, too, flourished during the Golden Age: English musicians were renowned not only at home but abroad for their excellence and virtuosity, and the Queen herself not only patronized court musicians, she played the lute herself.


Magnus Andersson performs A Pavine by Daniel Bacheler (1572 – 1619) on 9-course renaissance lute.


The Golden Age of English Lute Music 1579 – 1626

The period referred to today as the lute’s Golden Age in England is an invention of twentieth-century musicians and musicologists, and spans roughly two generations straddling the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. Over a little less than fifty years, English lutenists created a body of music in a distinctly English style that was new and different from anything that had been known before, or came after. The music that has survived is mostly for lute solo, but there are also small but significant repertoires for lute duet and for lute in consort with other instruments. The Golden Age also brought forth the brief but spectacular rise of the English lutenist songwriters, beginning with the publication of John Dowland’s The First Booke of Songes in 1597.

English musicologist Julia Craig-McFeely described this Golden Age as “broadly attaching” to the period 1550-1630.

Apart from the evolution and brief but prolific work of the lute-song writers, the concept of a Golden Age stems from the apparent maturing of an idiomatic English solo style, synthesized from various continental influences, and resulting in an identifiably insular harmonic flavour, texture and group of genres. Before 1580, the music reflects trends principally garnered from Italian masters, as well as features from intabulations of popular secular and sacred models. Although intabulations continued to appear in the solo repertory after 1580, their importance waned rapidly. Nevertheless, their melodic influence persisted in the now-popular and ubiquitous dance music and in settings of popular songs and ballads, becoming an integral part of the English style. After 1625, influences from abroad, particularly France and the Netherlands, diluted the repertory, and this diversification marked the end of this era. What survives today from the Golden Age is a repertory of about 2100 pieces by some 100 known composers, with possibly as many again who composed only one or two surviving pieces and remain anonymous.

~ Julia Craig-McFeely
Introduction, English Lute Manuscripts and Scribes 1530-1630, 1993/2000


the album cover of Julian Bream’s recording The Golden Age of English Lute Music, released by RCA Victor in 1961

The designation of the period 1550 – 1630 as the Golden Age of English lute music was first proclaimed by Richard Newton at a presentation before the Royal Musical Association (U.K.) on February 23, 1939 at which Diana Poulton performed, and this notion was developed by David Lumsden in his 1957 dissertation The Sources of English Lute Music, 1540-1620. Lumsden’s was the first published attempt to collect and examine English lute music systematically. In the sixty years since it appeared, a tremendous amount of work has been done to further our understanding and appreciation of this unique repertoire by scholars and performers alike. One significant milestone in this continuum was Julian Bream‘s 1961 album of lute solos by John and Robert Johnson, John Dowland, Francis Cutting, Daniel Batchelor, Philip Rosseter, Anthony Holborne, and others, which promulgated the idea of the lute’s Golden Age to a more popular audience.

In her 1993 dissertation, Craig-McFeely claimed that “The real period of ‘glory’ for the English repertory was limited to the 35 years spanned by 1580-1615.”

Sayce, Linda, 1992. The Golden Age Restor’d: Lute Music by John & Robert Johnson. Dervorguilla Ltd DRVCD101.

Matthew Spring noted that this Golden Age was a literary metaphor being applied to music, and that it was not only glorious for lute music:

The two working generations from the appointment of John Johnson in 1579 to a place as a lutenist in the Queen’s music to the death of his son Robert Johnson in 1633 encompass the maturity and decline of an identifiable native style, and its replacement by something quite different. These years coincided with the high point of the lute’s popularity, not only in England but throughout Europe, …produced the complete output of English madrigals, of published English lute songs, of mixed-consort music, of the maturity of the virginal school, and a large proportion of English viol consort music.

~ Matthew Spring
The Lute in Britain (2001), pp. 97-98

It was not only a Golden Age of English lute music, but of English music in general.


Historical periods – especially musical style periods – are often approximate, and the dates given for them can be symbolic as well as an attempt to describe historical trends accurately. In this spirit, I suggest that the Golden Age of English lute music describes the period that can be said to begin with John Johnson‘s appointment to Queen Elizabeth’s lutes in 1579 (as suggested by Matthew Spring), and to end with the death of John Dowland in 1626. Dowland was the leading English lutenist/composer of the Golden Age. Like Johann Sebastian Bach a century later (whose death in 1750 marks the end of the Baroque period), his compositions developed the musical style of his time to their fullest flowering in an array of genres, and like Sebastian, after Dowland’s death, music (and in this case lute music) developed in new and different directions.


The Repertoire

The Golden Age spans the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (the Elizabethan era), and the entire reign of James I, who reigned from 1603 – 1625 (the Jacobean era). Several of the lutenists who were patronized by King James in the early decades of the seventeenth century (including Dowland) rose to prominence and developed the repertoire as young men in the final decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

The first page of the Cambridge University Library manuscript Dd.2.11, which can be found here. Dd.2.11 is the first and largest of four manuscripts of lute music transcribed by Matthew Holmes, Precentor and Singingman of Christ Church in Oxford from 1588 and then in Westminster Abbey from 1597-1621. Holmes’ lute manuscripts are a primary source for Golden Age lute music, comprising some 650 pieces.

Most of the surviving Golden Age music for solo lute exists in manuscript – over two thousand distinct pieces in all. (Well over three thousand pieces survive, including more than a thousand multiple versions or duplications.) Relatively little of this was ever published before the 20th century due to a music printing monopoly that the Queen granted to William Byrd and Thomas Tallis from 1575 – 1596, and then gave to Thomas Morley in 1598.

Under the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), music-making and the lute in particular had risen to a position of unprecedented cultural esteem. Over the course of a few generations of gifted player-composers, a distinctly English lute repertoire arose and flourished during the second half of the 16th century. These pieces are almost exclusively secular in origin and inspiration – a contrast to continental lute repertoires that prominently feature transcription of polyphonic vocal music, often sacred. Neither these transcriptions nor contrapuntal fantasies make up a significant portion of the Golden Age repertoire (John Dowland’s ten fantasies are an important exception that proves the rule). Most of the pieces are dances – although in many examples the pieces are dances in name only: complex and decorated compositions intended to be listened to rather than danced to.


Michael Gondko performs Muy Linda by Anthony Holborne (c.1545 – 1602) on 8-course Renaissance lute


Julia Craig-McFeely lists more than 30 genres of solo lute music in English Lute Manuscripts and Scribes 1530-1630. The vast majority of these are dances: pavans, galliards, almains, courantes, volts, jigs. Song settings and variations over a ground bass are the other categories most substantially represented.

More than half of the Golden Age lute repertoire consists of pavans and galliards – fashionable court dance forms of the 16th century that became vehicles for musical delight and in the case of more advanced pieces, technical virtuosity. Both dances are cast in a three-part musical form that differs from the more popular ternary form of later periods in that the first section is not returned to after the second is complete: AABBCC rather than AABBAA. Usually the repeat of each section features divisions – variations on the original melody – resulting in the form AA’BB’CC’.

Pavans are in 4 and have a slower, stately tempo; galliards are in 3 and are played more quickly. In some cases pavan and galliard exist for the same musical material and are intended to be played as a pair. For the Elizabethans, the pavan was a serious musical form in which they expressed profound feelings, including musical epitaphs for deceased friends, colleagues, and patrons in the same manner that French lutenists wrote tombeaus in the following century. John Dowland’s Lachrimae is the most famous example of the English pavan (versions of Lachrimae comprise an entire genre of its own in Craig-Feely’s list). In contrast, galliards are lighter and quicker vehicles for brilliance of expression.


Lady Layton’s Almain by John Dowland (1563 – 1626) performed by Magdalena Tomsińska on Renaissance lute


The almain, like the pavan, was a dance in common time with three repeated strains, but its tempo was quicker and its mood lighter than that of the pavan. It was never paired with the pavan or galliard, and was often elaborated upon by Golden Age lutenists in a manner similar to that of ballad tunes.

The title page of Varietie of Lute-lessons (1610) by Robert Dowland, available here

The coranto (or courante) and the volte – popular continental dances – began to appear in English sources around the turn of the seventeenth century. Thomas Morley described these dances as being “both of a measure…danced after sundry fashions, the Volte rising and leaping, the Courante traveling and running” in his A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597). Both dances are in triple meter and are well-represented in Robert Dowland’s A Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610), one of the few printed sources of Golden Age solo lute music.

Settings of popular ballad tunes such as Packington’s Pound and Go from my window comprise the most substantial genre of Golden Age lute solo that is not dance music. Often these settings would include variations, or divisions that present the lutenist with the opportunity to show his or her skill and even bravura. Sets of divisions over an ostinato ground bass such as the passamezzo antico, passamezzo moderno, bergamesca, romanesca, or the simple dump were also popular, and some of these division sets are quite challenging and exciting to play!

A delightful component of the repertoire is the aptly named toy – these are short musical novelties with unique titles such as Mistris Whittes thinge, The Shoemakers Wife, or tarletones riserrectione (all examples by Dowland). Elizabethan toys for solo lute show a remarkable variety of style and mood.


Ernesto Quezada performs Go from my window by Edward Collard on Renaissance lute


The Golden Age of English Lute Music brought forth an almost sudden proliferation of uniquely English music unlike anything that had been heard anywhere before. In addition to achieving new forms and heights of artistic expression in the music they left behind, the English lutenists wove their music into the warp and weft of Elizabethan and Jacobean society, achieved renown both at home and throughout the continent, and contributed to the ongoing development of the lute towards the instrument it would eventually become: the larger and deeper-toned baroque instrument which would supplant the renaissance lute, its tuning, and its repertoire within a few decades.


*       *       *

The Lute:

I ~ Meet the Lute

II ~ Francesco da Milano

III ~ The Medieval Lute

IV ~ Petrarch’s Lyre

V ~ Renaissance Lute

VI ~ Baroque Lute (coming soon)

VII ~ Ottaviano Petrucci and the First Printed Lute Books

VIII ~ The Frottolists and the First Lute Songbooks

IX ~ The Capirola Lute Book

X ~ Music Printer to the King: Pierre Attaingnant

XI ~ Attaingnant’s Lute Books

XII ~ The Lute at the Court of Henry VIII

XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music

XIV ~ “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I

XV ~ “I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II

XVI ~ “An Earnest Desire To Satisfie All”: John Dowland, Part III (coming soon)

XVII ~ Simone Molinaro


XVIII ~ Diana Poulton



i ~ The Lute: A Bibliography

ii ~ The Lute: A Discography

iii ~ Lute Recordings:

       a ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part I

       b ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part II

       c ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part I

      d ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part II (coming soon)

iv ~ John Dowland In His Own Words

v ~ The Lute Society of America Summer Seminar West, 1996




  1. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  2. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  3. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  4. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  5. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  6. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  7. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  8. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  9. […] XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music […]

  10. […] ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music XIV ~ “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I XV ~ “I Desired To Get Beyond […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow Walter Bitner on
%d bloggers like this: