The lutenist and composer Marco Dall’Aquila came of age during a time when the lute was itself coming of age. Born sometime in or around 1480, Dall’Aquila bridged the gap between two very different periods in the life of the lute, its music, and its playing techniques.
From monophony to polyphony
At the end of the 15th century most lute players played their instruments with a plectrum or a pick and generally played one or two notes at a time, a single line of music in a style called monody. As such, the lute was primarily a melodic instrument, with the occasional strummed chord at important points.
But the early few decades of the 16th century was a period of rapid development that brought with it lots of new music, and lutes rolled with the changes. The instrumental ricercar—improvisational in style, was a lutenists bread and butter, along with dance music and arrangements of polyphonic vocal part music, both sacred and secular. This new polyphonic, or many-voiced music meant that lutenists needed to play several parts and many strings at once. Gradually, then, lute players dropped their picks in favor of a new right hand technique, putting a huge repertory now, quite literally, at their fingertips.
Much of this polyphonic repertory became widely accessible to lute players due in no small part to the invention of a new system of notation known as tablature. You don’t have to read music to read tablature because the graphical system indicates fingering rather than notes, and is written on lines that correspond to specific strings and frets.
Some of the earliest printed lute tablature was made by Petrucci in Venice in the first decade of the 16th century. In 1505, Marco Dall’Aquila was also granted a Venetian privilege to print lute music, but unfortunately, his publication didn’t survive. Thankfully, a number of his works were put out by other printers, and many others survive in a manuscript held at the Bavarian State Library in Munich
Lutenist Sandro Volta had made a recording of Dall’Aquila’s music for which he prepared his own edition from the Munich manuscript. Volta performs on a six course lute, the sort of instrument that would have been in use in Italy during Dall’Aquila’s lifetime.