British lutenist Nigel North in conversation with the NYGF’s Jesse Freedman

The British lutenist, scholar, and pedagogue,  Nigel North has been captivating audiences with his brilliant playing for decades. He has become one of the premier authorities on the performance and interpretation of early music. His performance at the Audible Cloisters: Guitar Marathon will focus on French lute music of the 17th century. In the following interview he elucidates certain aspects of the lute and music of this period. Additionally, he talks about the issue of authenticity in early music and gives his advice to young artists negotiating the pitfalls of historical performance.


The lecture you are giving at the NYGF academy is going to focus on French lute music of the 17th century. Why have you chosen to focus on music of this period? How much of your concert will be comprised of this music?

The lute which many people played in the 17th century (England, Germany, France, Bohemia, Austria) was known as the French Lute. It was a way to distinguish it in terms of tuning, number of strings, size, design and timbre. There were many different lute instruments played in Europe, all with their own repertoire in tablature. On the “French” lute you can play a wide range of music, including some Weiss and Bach.


The music in the concert will from 17th century England, France, Germany and Austria. How do you view your role as a performer with regards to the act of preservation in early music traditions? 

I think of it more as birth and creation, not preservation. We have not much idea how music really sounded 300 years ago, and we are just recreating a new world based on some historical help. It is enjoyable and the music is divine, and its alive now. I am just following my own dream and passions.


Can you talk about why you think it is important to actively keep early music alive? Also, how do you take this music and make it relevant to people outside of the music world?

I just play the music to which I am drawn, and have been drawn for decades, and hope that there are people who will enjoy the music, connect with it and somehow receive whatever we I communicate through it about humanity. I see music as music and don’t really think of it as “early music” these days.


Many musicians get overwhelmed regarding the issue of “authenticity” in pre-19th century music. Can you talk a bit about what authenticity means to you as a performer? Do you have any advice for young musicians trying to negotiate the “authentic” performance of early music?

As instrumentalists, we have a head start over singers. We can play original instruments, we can read about the technique used then, we can play from original sources and live as much in the world from 200 -400 years ago. After that – then you are there and you have to use your own passions, your own integrity to “make music.” If you are drawn to 16th century music , there will be a reason. Put you heart and soul into it.  Its not an academic or historical exercise. It’s a living thing. Also – don’t listen to youtube and to CDs to find out how it goes. Play it yourself, discover the music yourself, on a good instrument and from good sources. Inform yourself, don’t copy. 


Can you talk a little about the instrument you are using for the NYGF marathon? 

My 11-course lute is made by Lars Jonsson in Sweden. It’s a beautiful copy of an original Hans Frei lute. Frei was one of several 16th makers which the 17th century lutenists loved. They took the bodies of old lutes and made them into the modern 11 course lute. The shape of these Bologna made  lutes, long and slim, was though to give the most ideal sound for the French music of the 17th century. The Frei lute  was remodeled in the late 17th century – and the Lars copied it in 2004!


Do you have a piece or song that you most enjoy playing these days?

I would say that in general there are particular composers whose music I enjoy interpreting. These include John Dowland, Francesco da Milano, Sylvius Weiss, Bach (of course) and the music of the French lutenists of the 17th century. A favourite? – whatever I am playing at the time


What projects are you currently working on?

A 4th Weiss CD, for the UK label BGS, and building up more 16th century repertoire, including Albert de Rippe.


What are some of your hobbies outside of music?

Reading (historical fiction, fiction, mostly), looking after our 3 month old daughter Diana, hanging out with my 10 year old son, and catching up on sleep and getting fresh air! 


What are you listening to these days? 

Mostly old LPs from The Shadows (UK band in the 60s and later) and some gypsy jazz and modern blues vocalists.


What concerts are you most looking forward to playing this year?

I am looking forward to working on and playing the 1604 Lachrimae book for 5 viols and lute (John Dowland) with friends in Montreal, Les Voixs humaines.

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For more information about Nigel North, please visit:


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