A few months ago, yew logs were delivered to the workshop of Michael Lowe at Wootton, near Woodstock. Now, after many stages from the initial sawing of the logs to the fine planing of sections to a thickness as little as one-sixteenth of an inch, this wood is forming the body of an example of ‘the queen of instruments all’, as the lute was regarded in Renaissance times.
The particular instrument Mr Lowe is working on is a style known as a theorbo — one of the largest of the family.
Mr Lowe came to devote his working life to this very specialised skill through his own early interest in music.
“As a teenager, I taught myself to play the guitar. I played quite a lot of lute music that had been arranged for the guitar and came to like it,” he said.
“I read a book on the history of musical instruments and thought that perhaps I could have a go at making a lute. I made one while I was still at school and that gave me something to play — and I suppose that is what started me off.”
The interest continued while he was at university, studying classics and Greek archaeology at Merton College, Oxford.
“While doing postgraduate work, I bought myself a little workbench and made more lutes for other people,” he said.
“When I went across to Holland, I took along some of the instruments I had made — and came back with nine orders. I then had to make a decision about what to do, and decided to try lute-making. By 1973 it had become a full-time business.”
Building a lute is a lengthy process. Each commission may take several months, depending on the style.
One of the three lutes on which Mr Lowe has been working most recently is the theorbo, which is six feet long, the body being made of 37 ribs of yew.
For a replica 17th-century French lute, nine ribs of figured or striped maple have been used and for a replica 18th-century German-style instrument, 11 ribs of birds-eye maple. This wood is named after the small visible knots which can be seen on its surface.
The German-style lute will be a particularly lengthy project as it involves a decorative baroque pattern of carving on the peg box.
Such is the time required for each commission, that Mr Lowe currently has an eight to ten-year waiting list. In the UK there are several other lute-makers all of whom, Mr Lowe believes, have no shortage of work.
His clientele is nternational — the lutinists who will play those three instruments are Dutch, Italian and a German living in Switzerland.
Mr Lowe also plays lute himself, in musical ensembles in the local area, and also to illustrate talks he gives about his work.
The origins of the lute were in Arabia, as a development of the Arabian ud, in the 13th century. It came via Spain and Italy to northern Europe. Today it is still studied at most of the major conservatoires and played by both amateur and professional musicians.
“I feel there should be more opportunities for solo players,” said Mr Lowe.
“I don’t think it gets the exposure it rightly deserves in concert and festival programmes. For many centuries it was one of the most important instruments.”
Although the popularity of the lute in the 16th and 17th centuries had begun to wane, interest continued ,followed by a new enthusiasm from the 1960s.
It is most often heard in ensembles and as an accompaniment to solo singers.
“It is a very quiet instrument,” Mr Lowe explained.
“But while some people may see that as a bit of a problem, in the past it was regarded as a virtue, and it can also be much valued as a contrast to louder music. The lutinist today operates at a similar sound level to that of conversation. That is one of the things that is highly-valued about it.”
Yew was much used for lutes in earlier centuries. Other woods include the more exotic rosewood and ebony.
Mr Lowe’s choice of wood for each of his instruments is always appropriate for the period from which its style is based.
All give different sounds — the harder the wood, the brighter the sound.
Whatever wood is used for the body, the sound-board is always made of European spruce, as are those for the violin, guitar, etc, because of its acoustic quality.
The strings and the tuning-pegs are not made at Wootton but are fitted there. Here, another aspect of the precision required comes in, as each lute is made to suit the size of the player’s hands.
“It’s like having a suit made to measure. The specific dimensions required affect every part of the lute, so nothing is standard,” said Mr Lowe.
A lute, like a violin, improves with maturity — its quality appreciating as the wood ages.
“There is always satisfaction in seeing a piece of work completed,” he said.
“One of the things I like about lute-making is knowing that it is only then that it begins its life.”