Renaissance Fantasias: 16th Century Lute Music across Europe


  • Artist(s): Francesca Torelli
  • Composer(s): Albert Dlugoraj, Alonso Mudarra, Daniel Bacheler, Francesco da Milano, Gregory Huwet, John Dowland, Lorenzo Tracetti, Luis Milan, Nicolas Vallet, Simone Molinaro, Vincenzo Capirola
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Lute
  • Period: Renaissance
  • Publication year: 2022
SKU: C00609 Category:

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The roots of the lute dig deep into antiquity. Depending on how one defines a lute, its ancestors can be dated back to approximately 5,000 years ago. This exceptional age led to the development of numerous variants of this instrument, found in Europe and in the Middle East, with common traits and distinctive features. In spite of this, the fortunes of the Western lute have not been constant. It is abundantly documented in the medieval period, but with structural features, performing techniques and purposes markedly different from those it would assume later. It was indeed in the Renaissance that the lute knew its golden age. One might even say that it was the most important instrument in the Renaissance era, particularly as concerns solo performance. In fact, the versatility of this instrument – capable of playing melodies, polyphony, and harmony – not only qualified it as the most beloved instrument of the time, but also encouraged and prompted the composition of many works, as well as the very evolution of the musical language, styles, and forms of the era.
It was an instrument which could perfectly accompany other sound mediums, such as the voice or other instruments, but which could also sustain the complexity of a polyphonic texture without strain. Unavoidably, therefore, on the one hand it derived its earliest repertoire directly from transcriptions of vocal music, but, on the other, it developed its own solo repertoire primarily out of the practice of improvisation. This represented its greatest fortune, but also, alas, our misfortune, since improvised music is only occasionally written down: thus, countless improvisations are lost forever, and even the written sources that have been preserved are silent on many aspects of performance practice. Notwithstanding this, what we do have is more than enough for savouring the beauty, richness, fantasy and creativity of this repertoire, along with the distinctive national and local features of the lute idiom in Europe. This Da Vinci Classics album leads us through this fascinating itinerary, where Renaissance internationalism encounters localisms, and where improvisation and improvised practices intertwine with the precious testimony of the written pages.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Renaissance Fantasias
16th Century Lute Music across Europe

For a long time, I wished to realise an album collecting some of the best compositional expressions of the Renaissance lutenists.
The Fantasia is the musical genre which, in my opinion, best represents the Renaissance composer-lutenist. Sixteenth-century composers dedicated themselves mightily also to dance forms, but, in dances, their task was mainly that of writing diminutions/variations. In fact, in many cases dances pre-existed, at least in their basic form, as popular pieces. Composers elaborated enriched versions of them, making them suitable for court entertainment. Renaissance lutenists also intabulated of many vocal works, but, in this case, it is still more evident that the music does not belong entirely to them, but first and foremost to the composers who wrote the original polyphonic vocal pieces. Lutenists-composers frequently limited themselves to the addition of sober (or even abundant) diminutions, with very varied results.
The forms in which the composer’s personality is best expressed are therefore the so-called free forms. In the Renaissance, these are identified mainly with the Fantasia and the Ricercare (actually these two are synonyms, in the period under observation), as well as the Prelude, which was found also in the first French musical prints.
In the international recording panorama, I believe that no recording has hitherto appeared collecting an anthology of lute fantasias spanning over the entire timeframe of the musical Renaissance (from the early sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century), and coming from all over Europe. The European countries where there was as flowering of lute music in the Renaissance were primarily Italy, France, Germany, Spain, England, the Netherlands, and Poland. The most beautiful Renaissance Fantasias travelled, at that time, throughout Europe, both in printed volumes, and in manuscript form. By the end of the Renaissance some composers, among whom Robert Dowland and Jean-Baptiste Besard, felt the need to produce bulky collections containing the European “greatest hits” for the lute.
For my own recorded collection, I chose works by very famous composers, such as Dowland or Francesco da Milano, but also others by lesser-known composers, such as Tracetti or Mertel, when their music seemed to have brought innovative elements, and, at the same time, when it seems capable of communicating something to our own times.
Vincenzo Capirola’s Ricercare Quinto, which I chose as the opening piece of the album, is found in a manuscript written about 1510-20, i.e. one of the earliest sources of lute music. It is therefore surprising to find that this is a long and complex piece, made of several sections, and exploring the lute’s fingerboard’s entire range: this bears witness to an art which was already mature, and not just moving its first steps.
Within this collection, Alonso Mudarra’s Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa is the one I feel as the most “modern”, probably due to the almost obsessive insistence on which it is built, and which, in the second part, becomes coloured with dissonances. This insistence does not last for long, but one would like it to last forever. It is like the first seed of a way of composing which would reach its full development only several centuries later.
Two pieces, i.e. Luis Milan’s Fantasias X and XI, are excerpted from a printed volume of music for the vihuela, the Spanish stringed instrument tuned in the same way as the lute. In this volume we find the first description ever of “rubato” performance: this interpretive process is, in my opinion, essential for performing the Fantasias written in those years.
There are many fascinating and well-built Fantasias by Francesco da Milano. I firstly chose three of them (nos. 81, 84, and 40), which are extremely short: in spite of their synthesis, they transmit, in my view, an exemplary sense of fulfilment.
Francesco da Milano’s Fantasia divina is found in two manuscript copies 1, but in both the text is laid with errors and inconsistencies. I used both sources in order to elaborate my own version. This is one of Francesco’s longest Fantasias, with many and varied sections, which are however marked by his stylistic imprint.
I believe that Francesco’s Fantasia 51 fascinates the listener for its structural asymmetries, and also for a certain sense of “unresolvedness” which comes from the motifs which are presented but later not continued in the various voices. It had for me an irresistible attractive power, particularly in the bass’ enthralling melody found in the piece’s second part.
Lorenzino Tracetti’s Two Fantasias are the pieces which stylistically best anticipate the Toccata, i.e. the favourite “free form” in Italy in later years. In particular, the first of them, recorded here in world premiere, is written in an improvisational style, and conceived as a melody sustained by a bass, rather than as the superimposition of several melodic lines in counterpoint.
The Genoese lutenist Simone Molinaro was also an organist; perhaps precisely for this reason, his lute works have a density of texture which is hardly found in the works by other coeval lutenist-composers. His Fantasia V is a paradigm of the rationality and refinedness of a musical thought expressed on the lute.
The French-Dutch lutenist Nicolas Vallet’s La Mendiante Fantasye is woven around a chromatic motif. In its first part, this chromaticism is found even in two voices at the same time, producing unusual harmonies. Then it becomes rarefied; it dissolves toward the end, leaving room for an ending with serene arpeggiated chords.
In spite of the recent studies by Wirth and Robinson 2, the lute output of Dutchman Gregorius Huwet is still surrounded by mystery. Huwet worked as a lutenist at the Wolfenbüttel court, where, in 1594, he met John Dowland: with him, he travelled to the court of Kassel in the following year. The musical exchanges between Huwet and his better-known colleague must have been more significant than those we now know. In fact, several pieces by Huwet contain quotes from Dowland’s works, but state-of-the-art research cannot yet clarify their mutual musical influences. This Fantasia by Huwet contains a chromatic motif found throughout the piece. Its insistence, united with a construction implying a long, static wait before the unfolding of a liberating concluding section, is what turns this work into a little masterpiece.
German lutenist Elias Mertel authored one of the conspicuous European anthologies at the end of the Renaissance, i.e. his Hortus Musicalis Novus of 1615. Unfortunately, the pieces’ individual composers are not mentioned in the collection. The Preludio and the two Fantasie thus could have been composed by Mertel himself or by others, and are recorded here in world premiere.
Even though he was a famous lutenist at his time, Daniel Bacheler did not publish lute music. Some fifty-odd of his works for the lute have been preserved in manuscript sources by other English composers. I combined his dark and profound Preludio in C minor with his only know Fantasia.
The Finale by the Polish composer Dlugoraj, in spite of this title found in a manuscript, is catalogued as a prelude in Hortus Musicalis Novus. Its simple and tranquil character seemed to constitute an effective contrast with the dramatic character of Bacheler’s preceding pieces.
I have still said nothing about the Fantasias by John Dowland I added to the collection. Much has been written about John Dowland, his life and music – including questions, his successes and failures, the attributions… – but I find it difficult to write about his Fantasias. I am tempted to let his music simply speak. I only add that I chose these three Fantasias because, in my opinion, in its concluding section each one has an opening, a change in register, whereby musical scoring becomes capable of freeing itself from the stereotypes of counterpoint, and, therefore, from the language of his time.
This music becomes capable of making a journey involving more than space (through the Europe of his time), and capable of travelling also in time, toward us. It is capable not just of evoking, but also, simply, to touch us.
Francesca Torelli © 2022

1 In the manuscript by Giovanni Pacalono in the Cathedral Church of Castelfranco Veneto and in the ms. Donaueschingen, Fürstlich Furstenbergische Hofbibliothek, ms G14.
2 Sigrid Wirth and John. H. Robinson: Collected Lute Solos of Gregorius Huwet and Thobias Kuhne, Lutenists at the Wolfenbüttel court, Tree Edition, 2018.


Francesca Torelli is considered among the best Italian interpreters of lute music of her generation.
After earning a degree in lute with the highest marks at the Conservatory of Verona under the guidance of Orlando Cristoforetti, Francesca Torelli completed her studies with Nigel North at the Guildhall School of Music in London. At the same time, she studied renaissance and baroque singing with Auriol Kimber.
From the beginning, her concert activities have featured the repertoires for voice and lute (singing while accompanying herself on the instrument), as well as the solo repertoire for lute and theorbo and basso continuo. Since 2000 she also has performed as a director of early music ensembles.
As a soloist, she has participated in numerous festivals in Europe, South America and Australia.
She has provided and played the music for various theatrical productions and has appeared as a lutenist on television programs for RAI 2, Channel 4, and others.
Francesca has recorded for the labels Tactus, Dynamic, Stradivarius, Mondo Musica and Nuova Era, with the ensembles Cappella Artemisia, Sans souci, Cappella Palatina, Accademia Farnese and the chamber orchestra Offerta Musicale of Venice. She has also recorded for the national Italian radio RAI Radiotre, WDR and other European radio and television networks.
She has also collaborated with the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Vivaldi ensemble of the Solisti Veneti, Il Ruggiero, Accademia degli Astrusi, Capella Regiensis.
Francesca has made two solo recordings (on Tactus) with music by Pietro Paolo Melli and Alessandro Piccinini (reprint Brilliant 2011) and the albums John Dowland: Lute songs, lute music (2010) , Musique pour le Roy-Soleil: Robert de Visée works for theorbo (2013), Italian Baroque Music for Archlute (2017), Le Dialogue: Charles Mouton Lute suites (2021) for Magnatune. All this recordings received great appreciation from the press.
In 2006 A tutor for the Theorbo, an handbook written by Francesca Torelli went out for Ut Orpheus editions. This is the first and only method published in the world dedicate to this instrument.
She is the founder and director of the ensemble Scintille di musica with whom she has recorded six CD for the Futuro antico series on EMI and Lungomare, featuring the voice of Angelo Branduardi. These recordings are about Sixteenth and Seventeenth century Italian music: Mantova, la musica alla corte dei Gonzaga; Venezia e il Carnevale; Musica della Serenissima; Roma e la festa di San Giovanni; Il Carnevale romano; Musica alla corte dei Principi-Vescovi.
Francesca has directed the Milano Conservatorio’s early music ensemble Andromeda in performances of Baroque oratorios (Kapsberger, de Rossi, Carissimi) theatrical works (Purcell) and concerts productions.

She has taught lute at the conservatories of Bari and Vicenza and has held seminars and master classes at numerous Universities and musical institutions.
Since 2001 she is lute professor at the “GiuseppeVerdi” Conservatory in Milan, where she is currently also director of the Early Music Institute.


Albert Dlugoraj
(b 1557 or 1558; d probably after c1619). Polish lutenist and composer. ‘Gostinensis’, indicating his birthplace, can refer to many places in different parts of Poland. He was in the service of the Polish nobleman Samuel Zborowski, an important political figure, who had him educated for the position of lutenist at his court but alienated him by his notorious brutality. In 1579 Długoraj fled from his master and entered the Observants’ monastery at Kraków, but he was expelled in 1581 because of his improper mode of life. He then became lutenist to an unknown master, but Zborowski sought him out and compelled him to return to his service. In 1583 Długoraj revealed politically compromising letters to King Stefan Batory, thereby contributing to the execution of Zborowski and the banishment of his brother Krzysztof. From 15 September 1583 to December 1586 he was a lutenist at the royal court. He then apparently left Poland after the king’s death for fear of the Zborowski family’s vengeance and went to Germany, possibly to Stuttgart or Leipzig. The compilation of the great Leipzig lutebook of about 1619 (D-LEm II.6.15) is attributed to him. Literary sources refer to him as an eminent virtuoso. His art most probably lay in skilful improvisation, as may be inferred from the comparatively small number of extant pieces by him and from the improvisational nature of his three most ‘personal’ compositions, two fantasias and a fugue. His surviving pieces indicate a marked interest in folkdances, both Polish and Italian (as in the villanellas); one of his fantasias also includes certain dance elements. The ‘finale’ is a series of three variations on a cantus firmus.

Alonso Mudarra
(b c1510; d Seville, 1 April 1580). Spanish vihuelist and composer. Raised in Guadalajara in the household of the third and fourth dukes of the Infantado, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1461–1531) and Iñigo López de Mendoza (1493–1566), it is likely that Mudarra travelled with the latter in the entourage that accompanied Charles V to Italy in 1529. He subsequently entered the priesthood, probably in Palencia, becoming a canon at Seville Cathedral on 18 October 1546, less than two months before the publication of his vihuela book. During the following 34 years he played an important role in cathedral affairs: arranging the annual Corpus Christi celebrations, hiring wind players, negotiating the purchase and installation of a new organ, and consulting in 1572 with Francisco Guerrero at the request of the chapter concerning the music commissioned from Guerrero for the coming Christmas season. From March 1568 he served as major-domo of the cathedral, in charge of all disbursements. After his death, the 92,000 maravedís raised from the sale of his possessions was distributed to the poor according to the provisions of his will.

Daniel Bacheler
(bap. Aston Clinton, Bucks, 16 March 1572; bur. Lee, Kent, 29 Jan 1619). English lutenist and composer. He was apprenticed at age seven to his uncle Thomas Cardell, lutenist and dancing master to Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that special talent was already evident. In 1587 his apprenticeship was transferred to the Queen’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, a move that was to determine the course of Bacheler’s career. In that same year he took part as a page in the funeral procession of Walsingham’s son-in-law Sir Philip Sidney. The earliest music attributed to Bacheler survives in the Walsingham consort books whose date, 1588, indicate that the music was composed and copied when Bacheler was only 15 or 16. His contribution includes seven pieces scored for the recently developed mixed consort of treble and bass viols, flute, lute, cittern and bandora.

Francesco da Milano
(b ?Monza, 18 Aug 1497; d 2 Jan 1543). Italian composer and lutenist. He was a member of a family of musicians, including his father, Benedetto (d before 1 Sept 1555) and his elder brother Bernardino (d after 1562). The date of his birth is given in three horoscopes, the earliest in a marginal note by Girolamo Aleandro (dated 1525), the others published by Girolamo Cardano (Libelli duo … item Geniturae LXVII. insignes casibus et fortuna, Nuremberg, 1543) and Luca Gaurico (Tractatus astrologicus, Venice, 1552). Gaurico also wrote that Francesco was taught by Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa, though this cannot be confirmed; if it is true, the instruction must have occurred in Milan between about 1505 and 1510. Francesco spent most of his career in the orbit of the papal court. The earliest indication of his presence in Rome is a listing as ‘Franciscus mediolanensis’ or ‘de Millan’ among the ‘esquires’ in the roll of the papal household prepared in May 1514. He and his father were among the private musicians of Pope Leo X between October 1516 and December 1518, succeeded by Francesco alone until March 1521. In a letter of 14 March 1524 the Ferrarese ambassador to Rome mentioned Francesco's participation in a banquet attended by, among others, Baldessare Castiglione and Paolo Giovio. In the same year there is a record of a ‘Barbero che sona di liuto con Francesco’; it is not clear whether a North-African Berber or a barber (like the 15th-century lutenist Pietrobono) was meant.

Gregory Huwet
(b Antwerp, before 1550; d ?Wolfenbüttel, c1616). Flemish lutenist. Although Dowland referred to him as ‘the most famous Gregorio Howett of Antwerpe’ (in A Varietie of Lute-lessons, 161023), he was long believed to have been English. Archival research has shown that the Huet family probably came from Huy near Liège. The composer's father, Gregorius, son of Guilliaem, who became a citizen of Antwerp in 1560, was himself a lutenist; he must have died before 1582 because entries in records from 1582 to 1588 mention his wife as the widow of the ‘luytslager’.

John Dowland (b ?London, 1563; bur. London, 20 Feb 1626). English composer and lutenist. He was one of the finest players of his time, and while his music was soon superseded in England, it had a profound influence on the Continent, where he spent much of his career. He is now recognized as the greatest English composer of lute music and lute songs.

Luis Milan
(b c1500; d after 1560). Spanish musician and writer. He is best known as the author of the first printed vihuela music, the Libro de musica de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro (Valencia, 1536/R1975; ed. R. Chiesa, Milan, 1965, and C. Jacobs, University Park, PA, 1971). Along with his earlier booklet, Libro de motes de damas y cavalleros, intitulado El juego de mandar (Valencia, 1535), it was composed during his residence at the Valencian court of Germaine de Foix, where he remained until at least 1538. Nothing of Milán's earlier life is known, although it is possible that he was the nobleman of the same name mentioned in Valencian documents in 1516. His last book, El cortesano (Valencia, 1561), clearly inspired by Castiglione, offers valuable insight into life at the Valencian court and Milán's own musical practice. With an air of self-assurance and conceit, Milán refers to himself in El maestro as a second Orpheus. Testimony to his musical ability is found in poems published in the 1560s by Juan Fernández and Gil Polo.

Nicolas Vallet
(b Corbény, Ile-de-France, c1583; d ?Amsterdam, after 1642). Netherlandish lutenist and composer of French birth. He settled in the Netherlands about 1613 and in his early years in Amsterdam published four costly lute books, which appeared under various Latin, French and Dutch titles. The two parts of Secretum musarum (1615–16) contain secular music, the other two books are of Calvinist psalm settings. The ambitious Regia pietas (1620), containing all 150 psalms, was sponsored by wealthy Amsterdam merchants. After 1620 Vallet concentrated on performing and teaching. A number of contracts between him and other musicians (mostly English) throw light on the work and social conditions of musicians in Amsterdam in the first half of the 17th century. On several occasions he hired a musician to assist him in his musical duties, providing them with room and board as well as various agreed fees for playing in public with him. On 12 November 1626 he entered into a six-year partnership with the English musicians Richard Swift, Edward Hancock and Robert Tindel, who all lived in Amsterdam; the contract precisely stipulated their duties, fees and fines for non-participation and also included the founding of a dancing-school by Vallet and Hancock. The last known archival reference to Vallet, on 30 April 1633, makes it clear that he had been forced to give up all claim to his possessions, furniture and clothing because he was unable to pay his rent.

Simone Molinaro
(b Genoa, c1570; d after 1633). Italian composer, teacher and lutenist. His father’s name was Bartolomeo. Simone was the nephew and pupil of G.B. Dalla Gostena (murdered in 1593) whose second book of Canzonette (RISM 158913) includes his first published work. Several of Molinaro’s publications similarly included works by Dalla Gostena. In 1598 Molinaro was a canon of the Cathedral of S Lorenzo in Genoa. He became maestro di cappella there on 31 October 1601, a post from which he was abruptly dismissed in October 1617, possibly due to a serious illness, to which he referred in two letters of 1619. During his tenure at the cathedral he was entrusted with the musical education of a number of boys, for terms of as long as 12 years, and in 1618 some ‘alumni Simonis Molinarij ea scientia clarissimi’ were heard in Rome. From 1608 Molinaro was engaged, first as an extra musician and then, from 1609, on a permanent basis, by the prestigious Cappella di Palazzo; he became maestro in 1625. A visit to Naples from November 1609 to April 1610 may have led to his decision to publish in score form Carlo Gesualdo’s six books of five-voice madrigals (Genoa, 1603). Publication of his music ceased after 1616 (with the exception of a German contrafactum, almost certainly of an earlier work, published in RISM 162416), and there is almost no biographical information after 1625 apart from a legal document in Genoa in 1627, which could however refer to another man of the same name. He was still maestro of the Cappella di Palazzo in 1633, and he was alive in 1634 according to a census of clergy in Genoa; in a list of 1636 his name is replaced in the Cappella di Palazzo by that of the new maestro, G.P. Costa.

Vincenzo Capirola
(b Brescia, 1474; d ?Brescia, after 1548). Italian nobleman, lutenist and composer. He lived in Brescia in 1489, 1498 and again in 1548, and Gombosi surmised that he may have been the phenomenal Brescian lutenist who visited the court of Henry VIII in 1515. By 1517 he was in Venice, where between 1515 and 1520 one of his pupils prepared a lavishly illuminated manuscript of his music, the so-called Capirola Lutebook (now in US–Cn, facs., Florence, 1981), the most important document of Italian lute composition and playing from the decades between Petrucci’s publications of works by Spinacino, Giovan Maria, Dalza and Bossinensis (1507–11), and the first prints of Francesco da Milano’s music in 1536 (for facsimile, see Notation, fig.98).

Capirola’s music varies in difficulty from ‘easy little things’ for novices to works demanding great virtuoso technique. The manuscript comprises some 23 intabulations of vocal music of the type published by Petrucci between 1501 and 1514 (French chansons, frottolas, motets and mass movements by Agricola, Obrecht, Josquin, Cara and others of that generation), three cantus-firmus dances, three padoane alla francese, a balletto and 13 ricercares. The ricercares belong to the tradition of the quasi-improvisatory style of Petrucci’s lutenists, but tend to be of greater length and substance, frequently alternating passages in brilliant toccata style with sections of three-voice counterpoint of the type found in the sacred vocal music of Obrecht and Busnoys. The preface, one of the most important documents on early lute technique, contains much practical information on subjects such as tenuto and legato playing, fingerings, the importance of careful part-writing, ornaments (tremolos or mordents), ‘secrets’ about fretting and stringing the lute, and choosing an instrument appropriate to the player's physiognomy.