Spanish Tablature Module: exercises,   excerpts

German Tablature Module: exercises,   excerpts

experiment results

The results of this experiment will be analyzed and discussed in Chapter 7 in detail.

Through this research I have experienced an immense artistic development. I have never embraced performance from original notation so intensively as I have in the last 2 years. It has given me new perspective and artistic growth, and I am very excited to share this experience and to inform others about this rather relatively unknown, unperformed, interesting notation for the historical keyboard.


   This research concerns the notation of early historical keyboard repertoire, namely tablature intended for keyboard instruments such as the organ, clavichord, and different types of harpsichords in the Renaissance and the Early Baroque period. However, its scope will definitely refer to the Middle Ages and High Baroque and even Modern periods. I will exclusively discuss the keyboard tablature notation system, and therefore, will refer to it simply as tablature. When the tablature notation for lute, guitar, vihuela, or other instruments are noted, it will be specifically mentioned, for instance, as lute tablature. As for the time period in question, 16th-century keyboard tablature will serve as a reference term to all keyboard tablatures from the early 15th to mid-17th centuries. The reason for this reference is that the majority of the keyboard tablature sources are from the 16th century, with additional sources from the 15th century and from the 17th century that are simply carrying on the 16th-century tradition.

   What inspired me to choose 16th-century keyboard tablature (henceforth, just tablature) as a master’s research topic is my first encounter with it about 4 years ago. It was a casual group class for harpsichordists during my previous studies before coming to The Hague. My harpsichord colleagues and I, along with our teacher, had a group class in which we all looked at simple madrigals in tablature notation from the Ammerbach Tabulaturbuch (Leipzig, 1571, first print).

In the lesson, we played 41 Isspruck ich mus dich lassen, which starts in the middle of p. 53 and should be read across the page divide to continue onto p. 54.


   After a discussion and an intense observation, all of us went to the harpsichord and started reading it through, one voice per person. Four of us were able to decipher and play a 4-part madrigal in tempo, successfully. Next it was 2 voices per person, and 2 people were indeed able to play the 4-part madrigal with relative ease. The assignment for our next gathering was to practice, each person playing all 4 parts alone. Unfortunately, our next gathering of examining and furthering our ambitious tablature playing did not take place, but from this experience, I learned that tablature playing is not only possible but also quite fun, as uncomfortable as it is at first. One thinks of the 4-part textures quite differently when they are notated with letters vertically and linear at the same time, and I felt that this kind of attempt is a worthwhile experience for every historical keyboard player, especially when one claims to intend to deepen his or her understanding of authentic performance practice.

   This first encounter sparked my curiosity and led to more questions that started this research process, such as “is playing from tablature notation perceived as an impossibility today?” “why is tablature reading not a part of the current performance practice dialogue?” In the early stages of my curiosity when I shared the idea of this somewhat obscure 16th-century keyboard tablature as performance notation, I was confronted with attitudes of dismay, disbelief, or dismissaldismay from those who have seen it before and thought it would be excruciatingly cumbersome to learn it; disbelief from those who did not believe it was possible at all; and dismissal from those who thought it would be a waste of time to pursue something that seemed so irrelevant and unattainable. This kind of attitude inspired the little rebel in me to prove them wrong. For some reason even before diving into the sources, I had a strong feeling and conviction that this kind of original notation would have been what the 16th-century keyboardist played from. Through this research, I would like to not only debunk the myth that tablature playing is impossible and unattainable, but also present from historical, musicological, and practical evidence that it is useful, beneficial, and relevant to study, play, and perform from it within the context of Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIP).

   I will closely examine the original sources of 16th-century Spanish and German tablatures— Libro de cifra nueva para tecla, harpa y vihuela (Alcalá, 1557), Obras de Música para tecla, arpa y vihuela, de Antonio de Cabezón (Madrid, 1578), Facultad orgánica (Alcalá, 1626), Das Buxheimer Orgelbuch (ca.1460), Ammerbach Tabulaturbuch (Leipzig, 1571; Nürnberg, 1583), and Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch (Straßburg, 1607)—and discuss them in detail. In addition to the theoretical findings and analyses, I will present detailed results of my performance from tablature notation from my first-year harpsichord master recital that took place on May 22, 2019, at the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague. The program, titled Notatie der Toetsenkunst 1460-1750, 1 took inspiration from this research. The pieces in the 50-minute program were performed entirely from original notation,2 3 of which were from tablature:


program booklet


№ 181. Min hertz in hohen fröuden   score   video

from Das Buxheimer Orgelbuch (1460), German tablature manuscript.


Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565)   score   video

Num.55. Anchor che col’ partire. à 4.

from the Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch, Straßburg, 1607. German tablature print. Intabulation.           


Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1560)   score   video

Quatro favordones del sexto tono                                                                                                     

from Obras de musica para tecla, arpa y vihuela, Madrid, 1578. Spanish tablature print.                           


Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)   score   video

Toccata Nona in F                                                                                                                             

from Il Secondo Libro di Toccate, Canzone, Versi d'Hinni, Magnificat, Gagliarde, Correnti et altre

Borbone revised edition, Rome, 1637. Staff notation engraved print.                                                           


Jean Henri d’Anglebert (1620-1691)   score   video

Prélude in C                                                                                                                                       

Chaconne du Vieux Gaultier in C                                                                                                       

from the Rès 89ter manuscript. Notation non-mesuré; staff notation manuscript.                                                  


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)   score   video

Harpsichord Concerto in F-Major, BWV 1057, Leipzig, 1738/1739.

Staff notation autograph manuscript.                        

(without tempo indication) - Andante - Allegro assai


   The pieces that are not notated in tablature still have a role to play in the coming discussion. For instance, the toccata by Frescobaldi is one of the prime examples of alternative notation and publication method of keyboard music outside the Spanish and German tablature method. The pieces by d’Anglebert were hand-written transcriptions for the harpsichord from lute pieces notated in lute tablature and show how lute music and notation translate to harpsichord notation. The autograph full-score of the Bach concerto includes Bach’s hand-written musical notes in German tablature—all of these will be discussed in detail in the following chapters.

   In addition to my performance, I have devised and carried out an extensive experiment to put the tablature notation into practice: I have created 2 one-hour modules with original excerpts (one in Spanish tablature according to Obras de Musica, 1578; the other in German tablature according to Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch, 1607) to try out with different people. My target participants were basically anyone—not only harpsichordists, organists, pianists but singers and instrumentalists of any level (beginner, intermediate, advanced or amateur, professional) but with non-keyboardists and even non-musicians with absolutely no prior knowledge of music notation. The results were astounding and confirmed exactly what the 16th-century sources said about the tablature notation.

Notatie der Toetsenkunst 1460-1750
May 22, 2019
photography by Jan Hordijk