THE SCHOOLE OF MUSKICKE: Wherein is taught the perfect method of true fingering of the lute.’

Thomas Robinson, 1603.

As the title page suggests, this teaching manuscript is a real gem for the modern lute player and indeed, for the inquisitive guitarist delving into the repertoire and technique of the instrument. Comprising of mainly Robinsons’ own compositions, 38 in total, coupled with a few popular arrangements of the period, the lute tutor includes 6 very beautiful lute duets, 3 of which are composed upon a ground. One other composed in unions and two duets, A Toy for Two Lutes and A Plaine Song; both of which are constructed of interlocking sections.

Not much detail is documented about Robinsons’ life. His dates are given to be around 1560-1610. Before 1589, Robinson was employed to teach Princess Anne (1574-1619) the daughter of the king of Denmark, Frederick II. John Dowland was also engaged at the royal court of Denmark between 1598-1610, under Christian IV. Dowland, famed not only for his music, but also for his high salary, making him the highest paid court musician of the time.

We know from the title of this book, Schoole of Musicke, Robinson is not just a composer and teacher of the lute but also the cittern, orpharion, bandora, viol and voice. In the final section of the manuscript there is a heading, ‘Rules to instruct you to sing.’ whereby you will find numerous exercises for the viol and voice in unison. Only two other manuscripts by Robinson are known. The New Citharen Lessons 1609, a cittern tutor and Medulla Musicke 1603. The second of the two manuscripts has been lost.

Despite the lack of a background picture of Thomas Robinson, the real clues into this jewel of a renaissance composer of the Golden Age, can be gleaned from the preface of the Schoole of Musicke. The true character of Robinsons’ personality can be pieced together from this worthy introduction. An introduction into some of the most sublime, and quintessentially English lute repertoire that has transcended through the ages.

Written in the form of a dialogue between a Knight, ‘who has children to be taught’ and Timotheus the teacher, this conversation is both informative and humorous! At one point, they discuss the health benefits of learning to play an instrument.

‘But that Musicke is Phisical, it is plainlie seene by those maladies it cureth. As it cureth melancholies it much prevaileth against madnesse. If a man be in paines of the gout, of any wound, or of the head, it much mittigateth the furie ther of’

On another point, (and a point I identify with, as I have two of my children taking music lessons,) the Knight bemoans the cost of tuition, saying:

I feare none so much as the last, which is that they (his children) will be carelesse and forgetfull, of so excellent a qualitie as is playing upon the lute.’

The Knight goes on to say, that in his youth he played the lute well but now it is all cleane forgotton!’ Timotheus replies in sympathy, saying that many a man or woman played well in their youth but when they once have beene married, have forgotton all!’ For this, Timotheus blames the ignorance of their teachers!

they strove (onelie) to have a quick hand upon the lute, to runne hurrie hurrie, keeping a Catt in the gutter upon the ground, now true then false, shouldering labouring, and sweating, like cart lads, without any skill in the world, or rule.’

Could this book have been written out of frustration? Or was it desire to set down a definitive guide? Robinson presents this tutor articulating how to hold, tune and pluck the strings of the lute. It is these rules I wish to use as the basis for my tutorial for the beginner. It was these rules and principles that made this work one of the most important lute tutors to have been written in England.

Use the audio tracks to help you, and why not play along!

My instrument is a G lute at 440Hz.

I hope you enjoy the lesson and just to help you get started….Robinson has a little advice!

‘For true Art makes hard things easy.

Labour makes hard things perfect.’