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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds While the keyboard tablatures of the 16th century still employed elements and symbols of the notational system of vocal music, the French lute tablatures make use of an entirely practical notation that simply represents the position of the fingers on the fingerboard of the instrument. This notation has been called finger notation, translating the German term Griffschrift, as opposed to Tonschrift, pitch notation. Since Pierre Attaingnant published his lute tablatures in 1529, you can see here a diplomatic transcription of a basse danse from Attaingnant’s print, the letters of the alphabet were used to mark the finger positions on the strings.

Skip to 1 minute and 4 seconds The strings of the lute were represented in the tablature by a stave of five or six lines, depending on how many strings the respective instrument had. The rhythm was notated on top of the staves, by means of the rhythmical signs that were also employed for the keyboard tablature, which we saw in the previous step. Therefore, we can say that French lute tablature consists of three main graphic elements - the stave, the letter of the Latin alphabet, and the rhythmical signs.

Skip to 1 minute and 52 seconds The lute is strung in courses, that means in double strings. However, the first, highest chorus is generally a single string. In this example, a 6-line staff represent the six choruses of the lute. The uppermost line represents the first, the highest course, and the bottom line, the sixth - the lowest chorus. The frets of the lute are marked by the consecutive letters of the alphabet. The letter a is used to mark the open string. b indicates that the string is to be pressed down on the first fret. c means second fret, and so on.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 seconds The rhythmical signs are familiar to you from the keyboards tablatures of our previous step. They can be translated as the contemporary notes values of breves, semibreves, minima, and semiminima, as depicted.

Skip to 3 minutes and 6 seconds In the 16th century, intabulations were mainly used to transcribe polyphonic, that is vocal music, for the lute. However, these intabulations were rarely left as plain as the vocal original, since instrumentalists considered artful elaboration and ornamentation of the model to be their essential skills, as well as a medium of individual musical expression.

Skip to 3 minutes and 41 seconds We will listen now to a version for lute of the Ami souffrez - the same piece we heard last week in a keyboard version from a manuscript from the Basel University library, which was written by the humanist Bonifacius Amerbach around 1520. [LUTE PLAYS]

Skip to 5 minutes and 32 seconds But how was such an intabulation done? Let’s take a look at the practical example, taking the dense piece Chorea from another manuscript of the Basel University library, also belonging to the Amerbach family, as a starting point. The dance has four parts, each part in its own part book.

Skip to 6 minutes and 1 second In order to play the four part dance, our performers have chosen to assign the top part, Discantus, to the recorder, and to intabulate the remaining parts, Altus, Tenor, Bassus, so that they can be performed on the lute. While the recorder player needs only to read directly from the discantus book with its void mensural notation, the lute player needs an intabulation to play from. Our lutenist has chosen to encode the three parts of Chorea in French lute tablature. To do this, we need a blank paper with six line staves, on which the single pitches of the single parts are transcribed, according to the playing possibilities of the lute.

Skip to 7 minutes and 1 second The rhythm, on top of this staves, shows always the fastest rhythmical motion that occurs in the polyphony. Now, let’s listen to the result of this intabulation. As said before, the top voice, the Discantus, is performed by a recorder, whereas the remaining three voices are played by the lute. [LUTE AND RECORDER PLAY]

French lute tablature

French lute tablatures make use of an utterly practical system. This notation does not depict the notes in a symbolic way as we are used to in the vocal music. It simply represents the position of the fingers on the fingerboard of the instrument. In this step you will also find out how such an intabulation can be done.

In this video Michal Gondko from the Ensemble La Morra plays out of the manuscript Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, F IX 56, fol. 1r a lute version of the French three-part chanson Ami Souffrez, probably composed by Pierre Moulu. We will also listen to a intabulated version of the four-part dance Chorea intabulated by Michal Gondko especially for this course from the part-book-manuscripts Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, F X 5–8. The Ensemble La Morra performs this renaissance dance (Corinna Marti, recorder and Michal Gonko, lute).

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From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel