Tomás de Santa María, Arte de tañer fantasia (Valladolid, 1565)


   But this kind of a partitura system, especially lacking bar lines, was not only more difficult to print but also extremely difficult to play from, which makes one wonder if they were designed for study purposes and not intended “as books of practical music.”1 Judd agrees: “there is no doubt that by the end of the sixteenth century, [partitura] score was a format associated with music for study.”2 This would be rendered impossible to play from even by today’s most informed keyboard performers. Godwin, however, believes this problem simply did not exist at that time. This means that those people must have approached the page either with eyes that could synthesize a whole bar at a time or else with a mind that thought so horizontally that it scarcely noticed orientation on the vertical axis.”3 Here is Ascanio Mayone’s (1570-1627) keyboard partitura clearly showing no regard for what the modern mind would consider as vertical alignment:

Title page and score notation from Andrea Antico’s Frottole intabulate da sonare organi (Rome, 1512)


Following is a 2-staff score system from Parisian music publisher Pierre Attaingnant’s (1494-1552) Quatorze Gaillardes neuf Pavennes, sept Branles et deux Basses Dances le tout reduict de musique en la tabulature du jeu d'Orgues Espinettes Manicordions et telz semblables instrumentz musicaulx. (Paris, 1530). It uses two 5-line staves—quite similar to the modern system—with a soprano clef for the right hand and tenor clef for the left:

(left) Hieronimo di Marcantonio da Bologna, Recerchari, motetti, canzoni (Venice, 1523) and (right) Pierre Attaingnant, Quatorze Gaillardes (Paris, 1530)


   All of them have regular, aligned barring. Strikingly quite modern compared to their contemporary notation systems, Attaingnant’s system, which was not accepted as general practice until about a century later, has chromatic alterations marked with b (flat), # (sharp), and a dot · as a cancellation of b or # but comes with a minor alignment problem. Since the notes in one part are placed as closely as possible to save space, the tones that must be played simultaneously do not line up vertically.
When it comes to the lack of strict alignment, the English sources do not disappoint. Bar lines are used inconsistently and sparingly in a system of two 6-, 7-, 8-line staves, not to mention the crooked, bent bar lines that are most often added by a later hand. It really shows that vertical alignment of rhythm between the voices was not a priority. Following are manuscript sources that feature this notational tendency—what Apel points out as early Tudor music (ca.1520-1560) of composers, Hugh Aston (1485-1558), John Redford (1486-1547), William Blitheman (1525-1591), Thomas Allwoode (contemporary of Blitheman), and John Sheppard (ca.1515-1558):4

London, British Museum Roy. App. 58 & 56 (ca.1520)

Add. 15233 (ca.1530)

Add. 29996 (ca.1550)

Oxford, Christ Church College MS 371 (ca.1550)

London, British Museum Add. 30513, Mulliner Book (ca.1560)

   In Italy was a system of 2 staves called intavolatura, as clearly seen in the second oldest publication of Italian keyboard music, Intavolatura cioè recercari canzoni himni magnificati (Venice, 1542) of Marcantonio da Bologna, notated in the keyboard-score format (to follow his Recerchari, motetti, canzoni from 1523).5 Titles like Intavolatura di cembalo or Toccate intavolate meant notation in a keyboard score, so on 2 staves.6 Even in modern writings, especially not tablature-specific, this type of keyboard score format print from Italy is labeled as “Italian organ tablature.” But as stated before, this is a purely national description, not notational (See Chapter 1, footnote 19)


Keyboard Partitura: A Staff for Each Voice

   What developed in Italy as an alternative to the 2-staff keyboard score system is the keyboard partitura—in which each polyphonic voice gets one staff—as seen in titles like Partitura di canzone or Canzone spartiti.7 Apel points out the very first known publication of keyboard music in the partitura to be Tutti i madrigali di Cipriano di Rore a quattro voci spartiti et accomodati per sonar d’ogni sorte d’istromento perfetto, published in Venice in 1577. It contains 36 madrigals by Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) in 3 parts (Libro I, Libro II, Altri) without any text, meant to be for the keyboard, the “perfect instrument”:

(left) Title page and (right) a 7-bar sample of the keyboard partitura, keyboard score, and keyboard tablature in Early German style:
notice that all 3 examples are indicated as Tabulaturæ8


   By the 17th century is already an abundance of keyboard notation in 2-staff scores and multi-staff partituras. Following are some of the earliest keyboard partituras from Italian, German, and Iberian sources:9

Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565), Tutti i madrigali a quattro voci spartiti et accomodati per sonar d’ogni sorte d’istromento perfetto (Venice,1577)

Musica de diversi autori; la bataglia francese et canzon d’uccelli. Partite in caselle per sonar d’istrumento perfetto (Venice, 1577)

Antonio Valente (1565-1580), Versi spirituali sopra tutte le note, con diversi canoni spartiti per sonar negli organi, messe, vespere, et altri officii divini (Naples, 1580)

Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), Tabulatura nova (Hamburg, 1624)

Hans Steigleder (1593-1635), Tabulatur Buch Darinnen Daß Vatter unser auff 2. 3 und 4 Stimmen Componirt und viertzig mal Varirt würd (Strassburg, 1627)

Manoel Rodiriguez Coelho (1555-1635), Flores de Musica pera o instrumento de tecla et harpa (Lisbon, 1620)

Pablo Bruna (1611-1679), Música per a orgue, Biblioteca de Catalunya M729.f57 (Daroca?, 2nd half of 17th century: contributor, Gabriel Menalt, 1657-1687)

As stated before, the titles of the German partituras, Tabulatur, could be misleading. Apel points out the style of partitura notation of Scheidt as Anglo-Flemish usage, as Scheidt puts it in his own words: “The single voices are written here on five lines and not on six, as is the Anglo-Flemish usage. This has been done for the convenience of the German organists, most of whom are completely ignorant of the Anglo Flemish tablature.”10 This is clear since Scheidt was a student of Sweelinck and draws from the Anglo-Flemish tradition of notation. However, Apel points out that this type of notation was quite unknown in Germany.11 Following are examples of both keyboard score and partitura systems from Scheidt’s Tabulatura nova:

Keyboard Score: Notes on 2 Staves

   Following are the 3 earliest sources of keyboard score notation: Antico’s Frottole intabulate da sonare organi (Rome, 1512), Attaingnant’s Quatorze Gaillardes (Paris, 1530) on 5-line staves, and Recerchari, motetti, canzoni (Venice, 1523) of Marcantonio da Bologna on 6-line staves:

Title page and contents page of Tutti i madrigali a quattro voci (Venice, 1577)


Prior to 1577, madrigals only existed in part books, which means their polyphonic realizations were done by an ensemble—or rather—one keyboardist carrying out the task by reading the parts, or perhaps by heart. This point is essential in understanding the advent of the keyboard tablature and will be discussed with Tutti i madrigal as a prime example in Chapter 5.

Although Tutti i madrigali is considered the first music publication, the very 1st known printed keyboard partitura is found in Claudio Sebastiani’s Latin theoretical treatise Bellum musicale, (Argentorati, 1563):

   Perhaps the most successful and well-known case of engraving is the keyboard music of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643). His 2 books of toccatas were masterfully hand-engraved on copper plates and published by Nicolò Borbone (1618-1641), who lived at Frescobaldi’s house and was “paid” for his labor and craftsmanship by free lodging and lessons from Frescobaldi himself. Clearly this work was done under the composer’s supervision and approval. However, how often could the publisher work in such a focused, intimate environment with the composer like this? This is a rare case that worked out to leave beautifully crafted, timelessly preserved, and musically accurate works of Frescobaldi to posterity, but such highly costly and intense work could not have been affordable to all music publications.

Joan Cabanilles (1644-1719), Libro de obras de organo (Barcelona, 1722)
Passacalles de 1° tono
Biblioteca de Catalunya M38612


These 2 above given partituras are both manuscripts. Partituras took up more space on the page and required much more technical attention than tablature. Even when they could be successfully printed, a perfect line-up was hard to achieve.

   In the case of German tablature, how the Early style progressed to a New style consisting only of letters may appear bizarre to the modern mind. One might think that it would progress away from letters to notes on a staff, but one has to keep in mind that with the technological limitations in the 16th century, the staff was “a source of trouble, especially in printing music.”13 Saving space and ink on the page, and thereby, reducing the high cost of printing was a decisive factor in the rise and continuous use of the New German Tablature. Even after its decline, it still came in handy as in the case of J.S. Bach resorting to the letter tablature in the lack of sufficient space on one of the pages in the Orgelbüchlein (see image in Chapter 10). A thorough survey of all the notational possibilities for the keyboard in the 16th century convinces me that tablature was meant as practical and humane performance notation—or why else would the publishers take the trouble to create clear vertical alignments, a practice that has been so blatantly ignored by other non-tablature sources of the time?

Chapter 4

Matters of Printing
Composition, Notation, and Technology in 16th-Century Europe

   Before we ask why this type of notation became conventional in the 16th century, it is important to note what composition was back then. As mentioned in the previous chapters, early keyboard music was derivative of vocal music: “intabulations of vocal works and dance variations are very common and even the early abstract pieces can often seem like transcriptions of choral works.”14 The derivative, polyphonic nature of keyboard music is the key to understanding composition and notation in the 16th century.

   In Notenschrift und Musizieren: Das Problem ihrer Beziehungen vom Frühmittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert,15 Tappolet points out that after monophonic vocal music notated in “antique choral notation” and the advent of polyphonic vocal music in mensural notation, followed instrumental music with the need to be notated.16 The first appearance and usage of instruments was to accompany and support the voice. For long the instrument accompaniment has been left to improvisation. Even when not accompanying the voice, instruments still played in the style of vocal music, so the division between instrumental and vocal music was not as sharp as it is today.17 This is why multi-instrumentality was so common in the Renaissance and Baroque period. Instrumentalists in the 15th-17th centuries were able to not only sing but also play multiple kinds of instruments ranging from strings, winds, lutes, and the keyboard. Since even soloistic instrumental playing was improvised, there was no need for notation. However, in the 15th century emerges a specific type of instrumental notation as instrumental music won more musical meaning and significance as a genre, so a more differentiated notation developed for different types of instruments. For the player was important to get the right grip on the instrument, so a type of grip script (Griffschrift)18 on a tabula, table or a board, plank (Griffbrett), was developed, hence the name tablature (Tabulatur).19

   It is crucial to understand where the keyboard tablature as a notational system stands in light of all the other systems that were present in 16th-century Europe. Before an in-depth study, one may assume that it took a long while to arrive at the present-day standard keyboard score. As Apel and Parrish point out, this was already achieved by the early 17th century when the two 5-line staves became the standard notation for the keyboard (see Chapter 1, footnote 11). However, the system of two 5-line staves was already employed in Andrea Antico’s Frottole intabulate da sonare organi published in Rome in 1512:20

Canzona : 1. Alla dolc’ ombra – prima stanza / Non vide ’l mondo – seconda stanza from Tutti i madrigali a quattro voci (Venice, 1577)
music to be read across the page divide

Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch (Straßburg, 1607)
Num.10. Sextus Tonus. transpositus per quarta superiorem.Andrea Gabrieli (1533-1585)


   Some may argue that it was an archival notation,21 and that may be true, but I am strongly convinced that it was a performance notation. The music-desk size of the manuscripts and printed materials show that it was not just purely archival, but paper and ink was invested to make it performance material.22 Judd agrees, “Multi-faceted notions of what is signaled by the phrase “reading music” exist both within and without the musicological community. There does appear to be some level of consensus among musicologists and historians of the book who work in early print culture that musical notation implies realization in performance.”23 The printed keyboard tablatures of the 16th century indicate rhythm very clearly and are seemingly more performance-friendly than other concurrent systems of notation—all the more reason that it could be considered as a part in one's historical keyboard training.

Following is my summary according to what I understood divided the different national styles for keyboard music:

Il Secondo Libro di Toccate, Canzone, Versi d'Hinni, Magnificat, Gagliarde, Correnti et altre (Rome, 1637)


   The practicality of a numbered or lettered tablature system eased many complications in printing. The pages could be set from a fairly small fount of blocks by a printer who was not a musician (with this logical, tablature was a scientific method of notation which reduced the risks of misprints in a work done by a non-musician compositor). In the case of the Spanish keyboard tablature because it relates to pitches in polyphonic music, not necessarily to a keyboard instrument, it could be read by other polyphonic instruments such as the vihuela or the harp. “Publishing music in a form which makes suitable for performance on several instruments”24 was a good sales strategy, and this type of notation employed by Spanish publishers made printed music versatile and accessible to the public. Ife and Trudy conclude, “Economy of effort and expenditure were undoubtedly achieved by the use of the cifra nueva,” and putting the repertoire of each instrument at the disposal of other instruments simplified and standardized the process of the notation system.25

   Both Libro de cifra nueva (1557) and Obras de musica (1578) hold great pedagogical value and were primarily meant for learners and amateurs. Juan Bermudo’s Declaración de instrumentos musicales (Osuna, 1549; revised 1555) is an example as those of Virdung and Agricola. As one of the earliest exhaustive sources on instruments from the Iberian Peninsula, Declaración contains 9 organ pieces. Ife and Trudy point out that Tomás de Santa María has consulted the Cabezóns in the writing of Arte de tañer fantasia (Valladolid, 1565).26 As for printing technology and legibility, the tablature system comes in far handier than the other systems of staff notation which were concurrently in use with the tablature notation in Spain. For example, Juan Bermudo and Tomás de Santa María employed the “choirbook notation” (partitura) but without bar lines or any vertical alignment between the voices.27


Pierre Attaingnant, Quatorze Gaillardes neuf Pavennes, sept Branles et deux Basses Dances le tout reduict de musique en la tabulature du jeu d'Orgues Espinettes Manicordions et telz semblables instrumentz musicaulx (Paris, 1530)


   Coming from vocal literature, especially from the rise of motets in 1250-1450, a period directly preceding the rise of keyboard tablature (e.g. Das Buxheimer Orgelbuch, 1460), there are 2 possibilities for notation of (vocal) polyphony:29

1) score arrangement: voices are written one underneath the other, most often without regard to the vertical alignment of tones

2) part arrangement: each voice is written in a separate book, i.e. part books of madrigals, where there is absolutely no visual vertical alignment of the voices (more common)

The second type of notation was meant for ensemble realization of written music, however, most likely performed by a solo polyphonic instrument such as the keyboard before the advent of tablature30 (or perhaps this caused the invention of tablature, rather). Therefore, the possibilities other than tablature to notate music for the keyboard come down to:

1) keyboard score: entire texture in (1 or) 2 staves

2) keyboard partitura: one staff for each voice in the polyphony (usually 4 staves) commonly found in 17-th century Spanish and German keyboard music

Apel summarizes notational systems since the beginning of Western music to the 17th century as the following:31



The presence of the bar lines in Mayone’s partitura do little good, and in all 16th-century partituras, there is the issue with reading different clefs—a major hurdle to today’s performers. This is a printing convention to eliminate the ledger lines as they take up more space. But this system requires more complications in preparing the plates and makes the pages look busier and messier.33 However, we cannot deny this system that has preserved a very large amount of 16th-century keyboard music. Godwin’s advice to performance practice is to follow the intervals rather than individual notes:

The only way to overcome the situation is to respond not to the position of a note on the staff, but to its position relative to the previous note: to play or sing ‘by interval’ as one does when transposing. If one can do this—and it is not hard—baritone, mezzo-soprano and even French violin clefs hold no terrors. Playing by interval can give a feeling for line that is easily lost when each note is merely an information symbol, capable of virtual isolation from its fellows. Connected with this is the advantage of doing away with tied notes, which are after all mostly dotted notes that have the misfortune to look different in a modern edition. Once one is back to the old rule of one note, one sound, rhythmic subtleties and cross-rhythms become far more apparent.34

   This detailed survey of the partituras really reveals why Venega’s cifra nueva gained favor in16th-century Spain. Although in general, tablature notation by nature has the disadvantage of needing to be deciphered at the instrument, (i.e. a lute tablature could only be realized on a lute) and therefore, cannot be played by other instruments or sung by a singer, it was relatively easier to read than a contrapuntally divided multiple-staff partitura for the keyboard—a system of notation that also stayed in practice well into the 18th century. Following are manuscripts in partitura from the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Spain:


Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), Tabulatura nova (Hamburg, 1624)
(left) 2-staff keyboard score and (right) 4-staff keyboard partitura

   Although the partitura was new in Germany at this point, other national systems had already adopted the partitura as a common method of polyphonic notation for the keyboard. A 4-staff score with different clefs for keyboard music may seem far-fetched to the modern keyboard performer, but what if we attempted to think like the 16th-century keyboardist? Godwin explains this is all a matter of mindset:

Evidently players up to and including Scheidt’s time had an utterly contrapuntal approach, which we should seek to emulate, perhaps even in playing their less polyphonic pieces and continuo parts.

This tells us something about their psychology. Just as music lagged behind the other arts (experiencing its classical renaissance, after all, only in 1600), so musical perception continued for a long time to bear witness to an earlier, ‘medieval’ frame of mind: one which in certain respects was less ‘holistic’ than our own. It is a frame of mind which cannot conceive of History, only of Chronicles; one for which a biography was a list of events, not a rounded ‘character’: and one which, I am convinced, heard separate melodies where we hear chord-progressions. How aptly this fits with the medieval Cosmos, in which the songs of the Planets and the Hierarchies blend without confusion as they circle the Earth! 35 And it may be no accident that music became ‘vertical’ during the era of the Copernican revolution.36

Printing Technology and Music Notation

   The invention of the movable-type printing press by Johann Gutenberg (1390s-1468) in Germany around 1440 revolutionized printing technology in 15th-century Europe. His woodblock printing based on screw presses and hand-molded metal printing matrices—the movable type—drastically reduced the cost of printing. The 16th century was the thriving start of publication and distribution of theoretical and practical treatises. The reason for our rather detailed survey of the score and partitura systems in this chapter was to compare them with the tablature system, which is far more printer-friendly. The tablature system could be accommodated by movable type, and the continuity of the staff lines between the notes did not have to be inserted, which made printing so much simpler.37 Without the staff lines getting in the way, the tablature system offered economy of space and required less complicated printing techniques than staff notation.38 Ife and Trudy explain:

It is a relatively simple matter to print music consisting of one voice per stave, either by printing the staff lines first and then overprinting the notes, or by casting type with the note heads and stems super-imposed on short segments of stave. Neither system is without its production problems—accuracy of alignment in the first case and of punch-cutting in the second—but a relatively small number of characters can be used to reproduce a vocal line with a full range of pitches and note values. [This explains why there were only vocal part books in the 16th century.] […] Keyboard music, however, involves special problems in that a number of notes can be sounded simultaneously by one player, and anything up to four or five voices may need to be printed together on one stave. To print all the possible combinations of pitches and note values, rests, accidentals and other indicators by moveable type would require a fount with an impossibly large number of different sorts. […] The best way round this problem is to engrave the music, since this permits one detail to be superimposed upon another as in a manuscript. But engraving is inherently costly in materials and expertise, and music engraving requires not only a skilled engraver but one with a knowledge of music, and no Spanish printer published engraved music in the sixteenth century.39

Pablo Bruna (1611-1679), Música per a orgue (Daroca, 2nd half of 17th century)
Tiento de 1° tono mano derecha
Biblioteca de Catalunya M729.f57

Images are reproduced here for the purpose of this research with permission from Bibloteca de Catalunya, permission granted, 13 February, 2019.

Andrea Antico, Frottole intabulate da sonare organi (Rome, 1512)