Frequently Asked Questions about the Renaissance Cittern

Last updated Sunday, April 02, 2023.

The following is a list of questions frequently asked about the Renaissance cittern. While it covers the major topics associated with the instrument, it is in no way a complete "history" of the cittern and in many ways only skims the surface of the questions addressed. For further and more thorough information, one should consult the list of articles also found on this website.

That said, if there is a topic you feel should be addressed which is not here, or if you disagree with the information contained within the FAQ, please contact me and I will be happy to make the necessary additions/corrections.

What is the Renaissance cittern? How does it differ from the modern cittern or bouzouki?

The cittern is a small, metal-wire strung, plucked instrument from the Renaissance with a generally limited note range. It looks much like the modern-day flat-back mandolin and is the ancestor of the modern Irish cittern and bouzouki, as well as the so-called "English Guitar". Modern scholars debate its exact history, but it is generally accepted that it is descended from the Medieval Citole, or Cytole. Renaissance musicians may have seen the instrument as a rebirth or renovation of the ancient Greek kithara, which can be seen from the titles of some of the publications (e.g. Renovata Cythara) as well as in the iconography of the physical instrument itself (e.g. the "scrolls" found near the neck of the cittern resembling vestiges of the "wings" on the kithara).

What does the cittern sound like?

The cittern has been described as "sprightly and cheerful." It has a bright sound due to its metal strings, so it does not have the type of sweet melancholic sound of other instruments like the lute. In some ways it could be said to resemble a "Renaissance banjo."

When was it played?

The cittern was played in various forms from the Middle-Ages through the early Baroque period in Europe, though it gained its greatest popularity during the European Renaissance.

Who played it?

The Renaissance cittern was played both by the "common man" and by the nobility and upper classes. Given the simple tuning and its ability to produce simple chords, it was probably originally used as a popular music-making instrument, especially for dances. Later in the Renaissance it was popularized through a number of publications and, for a while, it was considered to be a part of "court fashion" to play the cittern. Sadly, by the middle of the 17th century the cittern was considered an instrument played only by fools and barbers, despite the publication of some of the most challenging repetoire for the instrument only a few decades before.

How is it played?

The cittern was typically played with some sort of plectrum (pick) - either of quill, bone, or shell. Evidence for this exists in treatises of the time as well as iconographical evidence from paintings and the simple fact that the majority of cittern music has all notes of a chord on adjacent strings. The music is generally of two types: fast, running passages or strummed chords - both of which are greatly facilitated by the use of a plectrum. Toward the end of the cittern's popularity, John Playford in 1666 advises that the cittern be plucked with the fingers rather than a plectrum, although the music in his collection still exhibits this "adjacent-string" quality.

How is the cittern strung?

The cittern is usually (but not exclusively) strung with four courses of metal strings (a course is a set of 1-3 strings): typically the first course is of steel, the rest brass. Citterns with five courses of metal strings are not unknown, and six and seven course citterns were quite common in Italy. As with most string instruments in the Renaissance, the cittern was also "theorboed" and citterns of twelve and even fourteen courses existed! (For examples, see the Dominici Zwolff-Chorischte Cithern or Thomas Robinson's Fourteen Course cittern in the Woodcuts Gallery.

How is the cittern tuned?

The cittern survives in many different tunings. Generally it has a "re-entrant" tuning (i.e. a tuning in which what would normally be the lowest sounding string is actually tuned higher than another string).
The most common tunings for four courses are known by the names "Italian" (sometimes "English") and "French", possibly after the places where they were most commonly used, though both tunings were used all over Europe. The main difference between the French and the Italian tunings is whether the fourth course is tuned one tone (French) or two tones (Italian) above the third course. Citterns of courses more than four generally alter the French or Italian tunings either by adding more notes in between the range already present or by adding bass notes to increase the range of the instrument.

[4-course tunings: Italian = b-g-d'-e'; French = a-g-d'-e']
Four course cittern tunings.

[6-course tunings: Lanfranco = a-c'-b-g-d'-e'; Virchi = d-f-b-g-d'-e'; Kargel = b-G-d-g-d'-e'; Praetorius = G-d-b-g-d'-e']
Six course cittern tunings.

What are the different types of fretting?

Fretting on the cittern is made up of fixed metal frets set into the fingerboard (much like on the modern guitar), usually as pieces of brass that are then wedged in by small pieces of wood. The wood remaining between the frets is then "scalloped" out to make the frets as close to the fingerboard as possible and to make the instrument as easy to play while having the smallest possible action. The scalloped frets also allow the player (to a small degree) to adjust the intonation of the strings by pressing them more or less.
This fretting falls generally into two different categories: chromatic (often associated with the Italian and English cittern, but not exclusively so) and diatonic (often associated with the French cittern, but again, not always so).

What is the difference between chromatic and diatonic fretting? Why are they used?

Chromatic fretting is where a fret exists on the cittern for every semi-tone. Other examples of chromatic fretting are the modern guitar or the modern mandolin. An advantage to this type of fretting is an increased ability to play more complex music - i.e. being able to fret every note within the chromatic scale (white and black keys on the piano).

[Chromatically fretted cittern.]
An example of chromatic fretting.

Diatonic fretting is where not all frets are present on the cittern. A good modern example is the mountain dulcimer. While having the disadvantage of not being able to play every note, and hence all chords, diatonic fretting does offer the player of the cittern the advantage of playing otherwise difficult chords with ease: what might otherwise be a difficult stretch for the fretting hand becomes simplified by the removal of a fret (or a portion thereof).

[Diatonically fretted cittern.]
An example of diatonic fretting.

Both diatonic and chromatic frettings are found throughout cittern literature for both Italian and French tuning. Generally speaking though, the French tuning is usually diatonically fretted, whereas the Italian tuning is usually chromatically fretted.

Where can I get a cittern?

Citterns can be ordered directly from luthiers who make them, or from specialty music stores who carry either completed instruments or kits you assemble yourself. For a list of modern cittern makers, visit the Cittern Makers List. An inexpensive possibility if you would like to try to play cittern but are not sure you want to invest in one right away is to restring a modern mandolin and to tune it like a cittern.

What are sources for cittern music?

Cittern music survives in a number of 16th century manuscripts and books. There are some modern editions of cittern works that have been or are currently being published, including transcriptions into staff notation and high-quality facsimiles. Other sources include microfilms available from libraries or the Lute Society of America. For a list of sources, visit the Modern Sources List.

Where can I learn more?

Over the past 50 years there have been a variety of articles written about the history of wire string instruments. For a list of articles, visit the Articles List.

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