Accords Nouveaux – An Introduction

Lute is a generic term for types of plucked strings which form an extended family. What the instruments of this family have in common is the body in the form of a drop (or pear) cut in half, with a soundboard which is more or less flat. The neck extends from the narrow end of the body and shows a variety of forms: with a bend-back pegbox, and/or with different forms of neck extensions for bass courses.
In Europa the lute was played at least from the thirteenth century on (this excludes Al Andalus, the so-called ‘Moorish’ Spain, and other European areas which were at least temporarily part of the Arabo-islamic culture, and where the lute was brought to as an integral part of this culture much more early). During the centuries to follow many different forms developed for different types of usage and the demands to be met in connection with these. It vanished from musical life around 1800, only to slowly reappear around the end of the nineteenth century. The book The Lute in Europe 2 contains a survey of the different forms of the lute, how and why these developed, and an introduction into tablature notations.

Tuning (French „accord“)
The sixteenth-century lute was commonly equipped with six courses tuned in fourths with a major third between the third and fourth course (counting form the highest sounding course down): ffeff in fret positions (for an explanation of this short form of describing a tuning see: Thesis Tunings – A Survey). The pitch to which the courses were tuned depended on the sounding string length of the instrument. Most commonly mentioned is a tuning either in A (a’ e’ b g d A) or in G (g’ d’ a f c G). This tuning was later called Vieil Ton to distinguish from the D-minor tuning (f’ d’ a f d A, called here Nouvel Accord Ordinaire or short NAO, given in fret positions as dfedf), which was accepted from c. 1640 on as the tuning of the six most often fingered courses of the Baroque lute.
Why the Vieil Ton fell out of use in France (not in Germany) around 1624, and experiments with different new tunings – the Accords Nouveaux – were carried out, finds no explanation in any historic source. We are therefore dependant on hypotheses if we want to explain this phenomenom.

Accords Nouveaux are called those lute tunings which still relate to the Vieil Ton, how far ever they deviate from it, while they are still not related to the Nouvel Accord Ordinaire.
In some cases, Accords Nouveaux were in use side by side with the Nouvel Accord Ordinaire until c. 1710. It would therefore be wrong to understand them as transitional phenomena.

The term Accords Nouveaux goes back to the Ballard collections of 1631 and 1638, both entitled Tablature de Luth de differens autheurs sur les accords nouveaux. There are more tunings then those found in this two prints. Which of these additional tunings may be accepted as Accords Nouveaux and which not, is a matter of opinion. This Website follows, at least for the moment being, François-Pierre Goy who accepted in his thesis twelve tunings as Accords Nouveaux. The list of these tunings can be downloaded here in the form of a PDF file.

During the period the Accords Nouveaux were employed for the lute, the music of the Lyra Viol, a variety of the Viola da Gamba, also became a field of experimentation with many tunings, some of which correspond the lute lute’s Accords Nouveaux. Similarly, the tunings of the Mandore and of the Baroque guitar were experimented with. To make comparisons possible, these instruments and their tunings are also registered.

It is certain that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century a change in musical esthetics took place, and that the lute was treated in new ways even with respect to actual playing technique. Also, the lute instrument used for playing the solo repertoire grew in the number of courses to 11 or even 12, and the bass courses from the sixth down were tuned in a diatonic scale from 1611 on.

The solo music of the lute, the Lyra viol, Mandore and Baroque guitar was almost exclusively notated in tablature. This meant that to keep different tunings in use was not difficult, and that the tuning used in a piece of music at hand could be derived from the tablature.