Hopkinson Smith, Lute

Bright and Early

Italian and French Lute Music

From the Beginning of the 16th Century

The lute books of Francesco Spinacino (1507) and Zoan Ambrosio Dalza (1508) are milestones in the history of music. From the press of Petrucci in Venice, they contain not only the first lute music to be printed, but, apart from some tablature fragments, also the very first sources of music for the instrument that have come down to us. Both give testament to a true flourishing of lute culture in Italy at the dawn of the 16th century.

But Spinacino’s tablatures are full of mistakes. There are passages of great coherence where one can clearly sense elements of a charismatic genius; and then there are absurd non-sequiturs, missing measures, and loose ends begging to be reconnected. (I have a theory as to how this might have occurred.) The narrative aspects of his Ricercare seem to evoke tales of soldiers and sailors in far-off lands or the pains of love and loss through an improvisatory style coming out of the polyphonic practice of the late 15th century. The challenge for the interpreter here is first of all to reconstruct a coherent text where the lacunae are filled out and disparate ideas are clarified and reconnected.

The music of Zoan Ambrosio Dalza is the perfect complement to the free-form Ricercare of Spinacino. Most of his pieces are directly inspired by popular dances arranged in suite-like groupings. His energy, invention and virtuoso flourishes are always present and aficionados of Country Music will find some passage-work here that has an occasional hint of Bluegrass. Dalza states that his printed pieces are often somewhat simplified versions and that he would publish more elaborate variants in a later book [no trace of this]. Taking the lead from Dalza, I have felt free to add diminutions and variations to most of his pieces.

Alternating with Spinacino and Dalza will be music from the first French lute tablatures. The two collections printed in 1529 and 1530 by Pierre Attaingnant contain improvisatory preludes, dance music—some requiring great lightness of touch, others with clear Celtic roots—as well as some of the most beautiful Chanson settings ever.

The program will be played on a six-course lute with octave stringing on the 3rd through 6th courses. This solution, with its ringing clarity and brighter resonance, comes out of a late 15th century tradition and is implied by the music itself.


March 8-22, 2022 October 9-25, 2022

The splendour of the lute: English origins

Anthony Holborne & John Dowland

29 February 2020

Mad Dog: The Elizabethan Lute

Hopkinson Smith


John Dowland, though also a sprightly and humorous composer, is most famous for the darker side of his character and the pervading melancholy that nourished his unquiet soul. But he was in no way the inventor of highly charged melodic poignancy in solo lute music. Two important composers of the generation of English lutenists that preceded him clearly show signs of great invention including moments of tormented yearnings which led to music of extraordinary depth. John Johnson (died in 1594) and Anthony Holborne (died in 1602) were the most prominent lutenists to remain in England during the Elizabethan period (Dowland spent many years on the Continent). Their œuvre contains rhapsodic Pavans of lyrical intensity and richness of harmony, spirited Galliards, striking character pieces (one of which is entitled “Mad Dog”) and elaborate variations. They were both virtuosos if the highest calibre as the daring of their diminution techniques attests. This program highlights theirs and Dowland’s masterpieces from the 1580s and 90s.

Hopkinson Smith is surely the most charismatic lutenist in the world today.

Kronen Zeitung, Austria, 3 January 2018

Lute player Hopkinson Smith is still a phenomenon at the age of seventy. No one can bring the Renaissance to life in a way that is as sprightly, as crisp and with as much melancholy as he.

De Standaard - Cultuur en Media, Belgium, July 26th, 2017

Hopkinson Smith himself is still at the top: technically more confident and mellowed than ever, intellectually razor-sharp and clear-sighted.

BR-Klassik, Germany, July 2nd, 2017

Smith’s approach is the same: locate the soul of each piece through the most sophisticated and subtle use of extemporized embellishment you’ll ever hear. Yes, it’s that good.

Gramophone, England, Sept. 2017