About the Lautenwerk
By Keith Hill ©2016 Nashville
The Lautenwerk used in this recording is the last of five that I have built in my career. Each is different in specification and is intended to find a design that is increasingly superior in tone and usefulness.
I started building Lautenwerks after seeing one built by the harpsichord maker, Willard Martin, back in the early 1990s. My first lautenwerk was built in 1994 for my brother, Robert, and has been used by him in many commercial recordings. It is located near Freiburg a.b., Germany. It was strung completely in gut strings (some harpsichord makers string their lautenwerks with monofilament nylon harp strings that produce a decidedly “ropey” or “rubberbandy” timbre when not plucked with the fingers).
To imitate the way lutenists pluck the strings closer or farther from the bridge while playing, the instrument was outfitted with a pedal mechanism to enable the single row of jacks to move away from the nut for a more flutey, hooty sound, or towards the nut to get a nasal sound.
My third Lautenwerk, which has been used multiple times for commercial recordings by various artists, is a double manual instrument with two complete sets of gut strings and a brass strung 4’. It was disposed according to the same specification of the lautenwerk owned by J. S. Bach as reported in J.J. Adlung’s Musica Mechanica Organodi published in 1768. One might safely assume that a brass 4’ set of strings would have had its own set of jacks. Apparently, before the guitar became popular, lutes in the time sported brass 4’ strings that ran beside each gut string, except the chanterelle, to produce the octave, thereby increasing both the volume and the focus of the lower notes on the lute.
The next lautenwerk was a double manual instrument having but one set of gut strings, yet possessing two sets of jacks to pluck that same set of strings. It also had a set of 8’ iron strings with its own set of jacks. What was extraordinary about the sound of that lautenwerk was how the 8’ iron strings added a halo of sound around the gut string sound. It was like having its own “cathedral acoustic” built into the instrument. The technical term for such a sound is “aliquot”— an effect favored by the piano maker Julius Blüthner in the 19th century for its ability to add a more singing effect to the sound of the piano. The experience of hearing this aliquot effect on my lautenwerk convinced me that it is possible that the famous “Bach” specification mentioned in Adlung might be a brass 4’ set of strings supplied without a set of jacks needed to play the sympathetic strings.
That brings me to the present Lautenwerk used in this recording. It has only one manual, with one set of gut strings and two sets of jacks to pluck the same 8’ set of gut strings in two different places: one, positioned farther from the nut, for producing a flutey, hooty sound and the other, closer to the nut, for a more nasal timbre. This present lautenwerk also has a brass 4’ set of strings that are there purely for the sympathetic vibration, similar to the effect heard on a Viola d’Amore. That set of 4’ brass strings adds the aliquot “halo” effect because it causes the rather dry sound of the gut strings to have much more of a singing quality. Thus one might be tempted to call this lautenwerk a “Lautenwerk d’Amore”.
For this recording, which is all about the Cantabile style of playing, having a more singing quality of sound is advantageous. Of all the lautenwerks I have built I find this one by far the most satisfying because of its simplicity of construction and the magnificence of its tone.