Sunday, September 29, 2013

The 'Warwick' Frei Lute

I recently finished a model of the 'Warwick' Hans Frei lute. The original is conserved in the Market Hall Museum, Warwick UK. Although it has been one of my favorite models I didn't blog about building it because it, or rather I, literally fell victim to fate when I broke my knee (requiring surgery) just after I finished assembling the bowl. This happened before I started blogging. Unable to complete the lute, I fitted a false top to the bowl so it would retain its shape and placed it on a shelf in my studio to await a better day. But I wanted to blog about the lute and decided to focus on the original. So this post is shaped in part by my thoughts, but also by responses to queries that I made to fellow lute makers and lutenists.

I recently found out that at much at the same time as I was finishing my model, Adam Busiakiewicz, a curator  and lutenist at the museum were the Hans Frei is conserved, announced the idea to organize a lecture/mini recital about the Warwick Frei. . Although Adam was to play on his own Frei copy, the museum agreed to display their original Hans Frei which had not been seen in public for many years. This took place on September 10 and I am sorry not to have known about it earlier. I did confirm with the museum that the Frei will be on display until October 19. .

The Warwick Frei has long been a popular model for contemporary lute makers as a visit to any maker's website will attest. The history of its conversion from a renaissance to a baroque lute is frequently noted. But little has been written about it and few photos appear in the public domain. Adam posted this photo  of the lute being played in the 1950s.

My favorite article and the one I re-visited for this post is: Michael Prynne, Galpin Society Journal, vol. 2, 1949 that described the Frei with measurements and four excellent photos. Online, this article can be downloaded from JSTOR,

When I started building lutes no plans were available for the Frei, so I scaled up one of the photos from Prynne's article. For many builders this was the only available option. When plans were published in 1979 I bought those, but they are now in tatters. I just ordered a new set from The Lute Society:

The Warwick Frei was in playable condition in the 1950s  and presumably it still is. Prynne wonderfully describes the tone; "The tone of the lute is sweet, though quite small, with a rather reedy quality in the lower register. The notes hold out for a long time, and 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."

Prynne's remarks are revealing because they relate to a curious feature in the graduation of the thickness of the Frei soundboard. It tapers in thickness from the area behind the bridge where it is unusually thick to the area around the neck joint where the thickness is more normal. In my opinion this thickness is responsible for the richness, intimate and sympathetic tone but not for the smallness of tone. The treatment of the harmonic barring, size, shape and placement  regulate the strength of tone. That is what I found in building models of the Warwick Frei and I think it is also true for other historical instruments that have unusually thick soundboards.

I discovered that Jacob Heringman owned a Warwick Frei six course built by Michael Lowe with the original soundboard graduation. When I contacted Jacob he generously provided a lengthy account of his experience with the lute that includes a link to several tracks of his  Josquin des Prez CD where he uses his Frei. Jacob relates that Michael Lowe built the Frei six course with the graduated soundboard as an experiment and asked him to try it out before applying the finish with the intention of thinning the soundboard if he did not think that it worked. Jacob said:" My strong feeling was that he should definitely finish the instrument off leaving the soundboard as it was, without making any further changes. It felt pretty good right from the start, but I had the strong hunch that, because of the amount of wood in it, the instrument would take a long time to develop ... When the instrument was still brand new, I recorded several of the tracks on my CD of Josquin intabulations on it. It sounds striking and remarkable already on that recording  Now, fourteen years on, it sounds even better, and it has certainly become more responsive and more nuanced as time has gone on... in my own collection, it's my favourite -- my 'desert island lute' and I'm so pleased that we kept our nerve and went through with the 'experiment'."

Building copies of historical instruments requires some detective work. Writing about them requires witnesses. I would like to thank David van Edwards, Bruce Brook and Tony Johnson : whose remarks I did not use but who pointed me in the right direction.

1 comment:

  1. That looks awfully like James Joyce playing that lute.