If anyone should question the acumen of those in times past…one need only regard something so simple as an instrument(its history) and therein a whole world of wonder appears.
The 13-course Baroque Lute is an instrument of beauty and refinement, possessing some of the most beautiful soloistic literature among all the plucked stringed instruments. It is essentially an instrument of PRIVATE performance: it is NOT designed to please large audiences and halls.
1. Be skeptical about everything you read about the lute in
20th-century sources. There’s some good stuff, of course, but also a
lot of surmise and a lot of reasoning backward from unlikely
conclusions, as in, “Michel Pudolski’s playing in 1970 (or Arnold
Dolmetsch’s playing in 1930) represents the historical lute; he sounds
pretty bad, therefore the lute must be a difficult instrument to play.”
Historically, I can’t think of anyone other than Mace who felt
compelled to defend the lute against charges of difficulty, and the
instrument was around more than a century after him.
2. There’s nothing all that difficult about the lute. It’s a piece of
cake compared to the baroque trumpet. Even I can play it decently on a
good day. True, my last good day was during the Clinton years, but you
get the point. There’s some lute music I wouldn’t even attempt, but
that doesn’t make lute music generally too difficult. Not every
violinist can play Paganini.
3. A growing virtuoso literature does not cause an instrument to
decline; rather it’s a sign that there’s a growing number of virtuosos,
representing, one would think, the growing tip of a growing iceberg of
competent but non-virtuoso players.
4. If increased difficulty causes an instrument’s extinction, the lute
would have gone the way of the pteranodon before 1600. The instruments
got bigger and more complex, but I don’t think the music got
intrinsically more difficult in the 18th century.
5. The reasons for the lute’s disappearance from European art music
are not simple, especially since it may not have disappeared from every
place at the same time for the same reason. There are all kinds of
trends you can look to: I think the movement of music out of
aristocratic drawing rooms and into larger public spaces, and the
decline of basso continuo and rise of keyboard-specific written-out
accompaniment, would have moved the lute from the mainstream to the
margin. Perhaps the lute was associated with an aristocracy that was
becoming an endangered species after the French Revolution. The last
thing I would look to is something inherent in the solo music, which is
what most players think of these days, but was only a part of what lute
players did when the lute was contemporary with its music.”