17th Century Lutes around the North Sea Littoral

Image: from the Thysius Lutebook, 17th century lute tablature (French style)

Soundyngs went on a trip to the Netherlands recently and found itself in a 17th century townhouse in Leiden housing a phenomenal collection of 17th century books: this is the Bibliotheca Thysiana, founded in 1653 by Dutch bibliophile Johannes Thysius. The house was built round a library, looked over a canal, and had a book wheel at one end (if you don’t know what that is, see here).  I learned from the curator that there was such a thing as a perfume that smelled of books (not supplied but definitely on the family Christmas list).  But most interesting for this blog, amongst the material laid out were lute manuscripts from the period with a contents list that overlapped  in broad outline of types of pieces with what I’ve seen in the international contents of contemporary Scottish lute manuscripts.  These particular lute books were compiled by Adriaan Joriszoon Smout (1578-1646), beginning when he was a student at Leiden University between 1595 and 1600, but continuing into his adult life as a theologian and clergyman. Today, the collection forms one of the largest body of lute music from the period anywhere in Europe.

Substantial overlap of international dance tunes with the material in Scottish collections isn’t surprising.  Scotland in the 17th century had close trading links with the Netherlands and France, where most of this repertoire circulated.  In my part of the world (Fife), we sent coal to the Low Countries, and received back as ballast the originals of the red roof tiles that cover houses in the sea villages along the Fife coast.  For Scottish students who wanted an advanced training in legal theory, Leiden university was a draw throughout the period; the Scottish legal system has more affinity with the Dutch than with the English.  When John Clerk of Penicuik spent time in Leiden in the late 17th century, his father was apparently distressed to find he spent as much time playing music (probably more) with the medical scientist and polymath Herman Boerhaave as he did in the medical faculty (see Davidson). So finding overlaps in the repertoire of Scottish and Dutch amateur lutenists reflects well-established patterns of cultural exchange in the 17th century.

What kind of music was being shared across the North Sea? The Thysius Lute Book has some sacred material (principally, psalms, many in arrangements by the French Calvinist composer Goudimel);  many popular songs and dances; and some fantasies and lute intabulations of polyponic music; all drawn from French, Italian, Latin, English and Dutch (although not, I think, from Scottish songs). Given that Smout went on to have a serious clerical and academic career, here is evidence that even Calvinists could dance.  Elizabethan English material is also represented – John Dowland and John Johnson clearly had continental European reach. The French Gailliard de la Royne d’Escosse (item 70, MS f.24-24v, facsimile Thysius Lutebook vol 1 p.71) shows the international interest, long after her execution in 1587, of the tragic Scottish queen.

Some of the most extensive Scottish musical manuscript anthologies from the seventeenth and early 18th centuries are associated with the kinds of big house families, particularly along the east coast, who had trading and political links with the Low Countries and France.  The Aberdonian Straloch manuscript, the Fife Balcarres and Wemyss manuscripts, the West Lothian Skene manuscript, and the music manuscripts (Pan 4, 5 and 8) within the Panmure papers from the Dundee area, in particular, contain a wealth of material played by wealthy east coasters in the period after the 1603 Union of the Crown took the court south and away from Scotland. These manuscripts contain a combination of fashionable tunes from England, France and the Netherlands, alongside some of the earliest written-out versions of indigenous Scottish tunes.  Different collections have different focusses, reflecting varying social networks and usages, but dances and songs feature largely, reflecting patterns of amateur sociality in the period. These and other sources fed into the first printed book of Scottish songs, John Forbes’s Songs and Fancies printed in Aberdeen in the mid-1660s.

Maps as well as music connected the east coast with the Netherlands.  The Thysius House also holds maps copied from those made by Robert Gordon of Straloch (1580-1661), compiler of one of the Scottish lute manuscripts (now lost, but partially copied in the 19th century), who was also a considerable early cartographer of North East Scotland.  Straloch’s contribution of Scottish maps to Blaeu’s ‘Theatrum Scotiae’ atlas project (Amsterdam 1648), a royal commission from the doomed King Charles I, suggests Netherlandish connections between Straloch and the Netherlands might be explored more systematically.

Like the Dutch student lutenist Adriaan Smout, Robert Gordon seems to have used some of his time as a student (in Straloch’s case, at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and after that, Paris) playing the lute.  However, a challenge for music research is that Straloch’s original music manuscript is now lost following a sale to an anonymous buyer in the 19th century.  The sale catalogue from March 1842 for the lost manuscript lists several Scottish tunes – the air ‘Gray Steel’, ‘Green greus ye Raches’ (Glen, p.9), expanded by Dauney (p.368).   Dauney also noted that a February 1823 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine included a full list of contents, along with a note that the musical material was collected at Aberdeen around 1627 (Dauney, p.368); [this next sentence stands corrected] I have looked at that particular edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and no such list exists, so I am not sure what Dauney was looking at and cannot verify that the contents list existed [18 March 2024 correction: Keith Sanger helpfully notes in comments the correct edition – it DOES exist – information added into further reading.]  The copy in the National Library of Scotland Adv.5.2.18 is recommended as the most reliable surviving source, made by George Farquhar Graham, and there is one modern printed transcription of this by Wayne Cripps (see Further Reading).

For those interested in listening to lute music from this period, Scottish lutenist and multi-instrumentalist Rob MacKillop has for many years been putting up historically informed recordings from the Scottish lute books along with notes and observations, as well as contributing scholarly essays on the topic (see Further Reading).  His websites have gone through a series of different designs and URLS but are always worth searching out.  See Further Listening for the latest iteration.

Further Reading

  • Bibliotheca Thysiana – visitable by appointment.
  • Luitbock van Thysius (The Thysius Lute Book), Bibliotheca Thysiana 1666, Introductions by Jan W J Burgers & Louis Peter Grijp, 3 vols. (Facsimile edition Leiden & Utrecht: Nederlandse Luitvereniging en Koninklijke Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, 2009)
  • Robert Chambers, The Scottish Songs: Collected and Illustrated, vol.1 (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1829)
  • Wayne Cripps, ‘The Straloch Manuscript’ (Lyre Publications, 1995) – transcription of the 19th century copy by Graham for the Lute Society.
  • Peter Davidson, ‘Leo Scotiae Irritatus: Herman Boerhaave and John Clerk of Penicuik’, in The Great Emporium: the Low Countries as the Cultural Crossroads in the Renaissance and the Eighteenth Century ed. C C Barfoot and Richard Todd (Amsterdam: Brill, 1992) pp,155-194
  • William Dauney, Ancient Scottish Melodies (Edinburgh: Maitland Club, 1838)
  • Kenneth Elliot (ed.). Sixteenth Century Scots Songs for Voice and Lute Musica Scotica Vol. 2 (Glasgow: Musica Scotica, 1996)
  • John Forbes, Cantus: Songs and Fancies to three, four or five parts, both apt for voices and viols, with a brief introduction to music, as is taught by Thomas Davidson in the musick school of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1662, 1666 and 1682)
  • John Glen (ed.), Early Scottish Melodies: including examples from MMS and Early Printed Works (Edinburgh: J & R Glen, 1900)
  • E Hood, ‘Old Scotch Musick’, in The Gentleman’s Magazine 93(1), (Feb, 1823), p.122-23
  • Rob MacKillop, ‘For kissing for clapping for loving for proveing’: Performance practice and modern interpretation of the lute repertoire’, in James Porter (ed.), Defining Strains: The Musical Life of Scots in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford etc: Peter Lang, 2007), pp,73-96
  • Joseph Ritson, Scotish Songs in Two Volumes, Vol.1 (1794; reprint Glasgow: Hugh Hopkins, 1869)
  • Charles Sanford Terry, ‘John Forbes’s “Songs and Fancies”, The Musical Quarterly 22(4), 1936 402-419
  • Robert Gordon of Straloch, extracts from the manuscript lute-book of Robert Gordon of Straloch, 1627-1629 (now lost) made by George Farquhar Graham, 1845

Further Listening


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