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A Century of Giving

The Lute Book of Lord Herbert of Cherbury


in on paper, 33.2 x 21.7 cm

The Fitzwilliam Museum: MU MS 689

The Lute Book of Lord Herbert



In his autobiography, Edward, 1st Lord Herbert of Cherbury (?1582-1648) claimed he had studied hard at Oxford University in order 'to make myselfe a Citizen of the world as farr as it were possible.' This he certainly achieved, combining a career as a courtier, soldier and diplomat, with that of a writer and religious philosopher.

Lord Herbert's Lute Book - one of the most important anthologies of 17th century lute music - contains some 240 pieces, including some of his own compositions. (He records that he learnt to play the lute at a young age). It features music by the great John Dowland (1563-1626) and other English lutenists, as well as major European composers, and provides valuable evidence of variations of well-known pieces found elsewhere throughout Europe.

By the 1620s, when this book may have been started, the Golden Age of the lute in England was over. The mixture of old English and newer French pieces found here may well reflect Lord Herbert's years in Paris as ambassador. In 1624, dismissed from his post, he came back to England, where he had time for more intellectual pursuits.

The music is written in tablature form, giving direct instructions to the player about where to place his fingers on the frets. It is unusual in being written by a man (Lord Herbert was one of three scribes involved) as lute books were more commonly transcribed by noblewomen.

Bought in 1956 for £1,500, Lord Herbert's Lute Book was given by the Friends, along with an anonymous donor, and is a major addition to the Museum's outstanding music collection. Its contents can be heard in professional CD recordings by leading lutenists.

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