An Exceedingly Rare Lute by Hans Frei, Bologna

A Luthier's Legacy

Within the collections of the Warwickshire Museum, is an exceedingly rare 16th century lute. Not only is this instrument of incredibly high quality, but it was made by one of the lute equivalents of Stradavarius, the German-born luthier Hans Frei (c.1505-1565). Frei, alongside his equally famous contemporary Laux Maler (c.1485-1552), lived and worked in Bologna, Italy, and created some of the most exquisite lutes to have survived in modern times.

Compared to the popularity and importance of this instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries, original surviving lutes are rare. Indeed, although 1,100 finished instruments were listed in an inventory made after Maler’s death, only five fragments of his instruments have survived into the 21st century. Despite the fact that Frei probably made as many lutes as Maler, less than ten examples of his instruments have survived. Apart from the outstanding Warwick instrument, the other best examples of Frei’s lutes are in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, with others surviving in Museums in Bologna and Stockholm respectively.

The Queen of instruments

In Elizabethan England the lute was believed to have been the Queen of instruments, only second in importance to the voice. Britain at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century went through a golden age of lute music and produced some of the finest lutenists and composers in Europe during this period, such as the legendary John Dowland (1563-1626).

The Warwick instrument, which is dated c.1550, is made of a variety of woods; the neck and ribs of the instrument are composed of sycamore; walnut is used for the fingerboard; and spruce for the soundboard. Inside the belly of the lute is an original label, with the luthier’s name in Gothic characters. Although the instrument was probably originally intended to be strung with six courses (five double strings and one single string) the neck of the lute was later adapted to become a larger 11 course baroque lute (nine double strings and two single strings).

These changes were probably made in the early 18th century as later contemporary music demanded a greater number of strings, and the use of different tuning. The ornate decoration on the fretboard and neck, consisting of a fine Renaissance style foliate arabesques in ivory and ebony, was probably added during this later period. These additions suggest that the instrument was played and admired for a considerable time after its initial construction in the mid 1500s.

Obscure provenance

The provenance of the Warwick lute is obscure. It was originally purchased in 1947 by Eric Halfpenny (1906-1979, and a founding member of the Galpin Society) from a private collector who had only recently bought the instrument at auction. Halfpenny’s friendship with the Warwickshire Museum started in 1954, when he was involved in organising a temporary exhibition of musical instruments there. A picture published in the 1950s shows that Halfpenny would often play the instrument, and it was described that “the tone is very sweet, though quite small, with a rather reedy quality in the lower register. The notes hold out for a long time, with the richness in overtones and comparative weakness of the fundamental note produce to a marked degree the very intimate and sympathetic tone which is the lute’s essential character.”

After becoming an honorary advisor for musical instruments, Halfpenny eventually sold several pieces of his own collection to the museum.The Hans Frei Lute was purchased by the Warwickshire Museum in 1964, with assistance from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, and the instrument was displayed as part of the In sweet musick is such art. An exhibition of English music of the period 1580-1620 organised in that very year.

Further Reading

M. Prynne, “An unrecorded Lute by Hans Frei.” The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 2 (March 1949), pp. 47-51.

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