The lute is often seen as a medieval instrument, although its origins can be traced back much further. However, you’re unlikely to hear a truly original lute being played. “It's one of the most fragile instruments that exists because it's extremely thin”, admits Thomas. “Most instruments that are from the time have to be restored; they don't age like violins. After 30 years, the soundboard gets a little tired.”
As well as having a long history, the lute is also more broadly defined than most modern instruments, with the number of ‘courses’ (strings) varying depending on the musical style and the manufacturer’s preference. “The ‘lute’ could mean a six-course lute or a seven-course lute, theorbo or chitarrone [types of long-necked bass lute]… maybe a hundred different ways of playing and making the instrument”, explains Thomas.
Innovative interpretation is something Thomas Dunford has embraced. He’s recently formed ‘Jupiter’, a group of musicians who “play baroque music with my own convictions, which are that this music should be not conducted but everybody has to be the composer together.” This is how he believes the music was originally performed. “I think the way baroque musicians would work was closer to what we do now with jazz music, where they improvise a lot. Bach himself was known more as an improviser than as a composer in his time. In order for us to play music by extraordinary improvisers, we have to know what it is like to create music out of nothing because that is what they were doing all the time in the baroque world.”
“The lute is one of the most subtle instruments that I know. There are so many possibilities of tone colours – and it's an instrument that asks for silence. You play one note; there's a lot of resonance… and the resonance is always dying out. So it's an instrument that always invites the silence into variety.”
Earlier this year Thomas released a CD of music by JS Bach, including some pieces that were originally written for other instruments. “When he writes, you feel that he's not thinking of any technical means, he's thinking in pure musical form”, he says. “That's why Bach works on any instrument. It's the hardest and also some of the most beautiful music.”
The Lapwing Festival runs from August 31st until September 2nd at Cuckmere Haven. lapwingfestival.com
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 144 September 2018