Saturday, November 14, 2009


Bet you haven't seen one of these before. The cittern is normally a modest little four-course instrument, remarkably similar to a 16th century ukelele. But this monster has fourteen courses, the result of an unwise match between a cittern and a Italian chitarrone four times its size. It's the cover illustration from Thomas Robinson's New Citharen Lessons, published in London in 1609. He called his book "the sweetest Cornell of my conceited Cithering" and optimistically described the new instrument as "most fulle, sweete and easie".

In fact, most pieces in the book are for the old-fashioned four-course cittern, and there's just half a dozen pieces at the end for the big fellow. There's some satisfyingly big six- and seven-note chords, but the extra bass strings are disappointingly sparingly used. An opportunity missed.

Cittern music looks rather scary to lute players. The chords require apparently impossible stretches; but the instrument is much smaller so (I guess...) they can be reached. And the music routinely goes much higher up the fingerboard than lute music: up to fret q (the 15th fret) on occasion.

Robinson wasn't the only English lutenist to stray onto the cittern. Antony Holborne published The Cittharn Schoole in 1597. In the dedication, he calls the instrument 'this little Wanton' and the book 'my silly Citharn Schoole'. Clearly a man with a healthy sense of the ridiculous.

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