Anchor che col’ partire from Tutti i madrigali di Cipriano di Rore a quattro voci spartiti et accomodati per sonar d’ogni sorte d’istromento perfetto (Venice,1577)
the first known music publication in keyboard partitura

(2) keyboard intabulations were realized by reading the parts from part books

In comparison to options (1) and (2), tablature (3) is the easiest. It was the new, cutting-edge notation of the day, so to speak, that made keyboard playing easier and more accessible. I could imagine it would have been similar to easy-learn apps and publications we have today, like “Keyboard Made Easy,” “Keyboard Intabulations for Dummies,” “Crash Course: How to Play the Organ like the Masters,” or a fast-learn app that claims to teach how to play the piano in a short period of time.


(3) keyboard intabulations were realized by playing from tablature

In the 15th century, a blind man could not be a farmer, carriage driver, craftsman, butcher, woodsman, horseman, servant or a soldier. Luckily one socio-economic function did not require sight from the labor or service provider, and it was being an organist. Because of the synoptic nature of the keyboard and the vocal-derivative, polyphonic, improvisatory nature of music at that time, one of a few blind man’s career options was to be the grand organist of the church in town or at a court.1 This is why young blind boys were musically trained from an early age. Following is a list of blind organists, to name a few, that I have compiled while carrying out this research:

Francesco Landini (Italian, 1325-1397): Florentine or Landini cadence attributed to him

Conrad Paumann (German, 1410-1473): recorded to have been a great organist of his day, from Nürnberg, buried in Munich

Arnolt Schlick (German, 1455-1521): organist, composer, lutenist

Antonio de Cabezón (Spanish, 1510-1566): blind from childhood, esteemed grand maestro of his day, organist to Philip II

Francisco de Salinas (Spanish, 1513-1590): blind from the age of 11, music theorist and organist, among the first to describe the meantone temperament

Antonio Valente (Italian, 1565-1580): organist, blind from childhood, invented the 1-27 number tablature for the keyboard in Intavolatura de cimbalo (Naples, 1576)

Pablo Bruna (Spanish, 1611-1679): organist known as el ciego de Daroca,2 stayed in his native Daroca all his life

Much of these composers’ music has been notated and preserved in tablature. This list is confirmed by Laurenz Lütteken in his book Music of the Renaissance: Imagination and Reality of a Cultural Practice:

Blindness as an attribute of instrumental playing is present in antiquity, but beginning in the fifteenth century assumed a more prominent role. There is an astounding succession of blind organists beginning with Francesco Landini, and in addition to Paumann, Arnold Schlick (d. after 1521), Antonio de Cabezón (d.1566), Francisco de Salinas (1513-1590), and Antonio Valente (d. after 1601); there are other blind instrumentalists, including lutenist Giacomo de Gorzanis (d. 1576/78) and vihuela player Miguel de Fuenllana (d. after 1590). These instrumentalists were placed in an imaginary relationship with Homer the blind poet, who himself is often depicted in Renaissance iconography with a fiddle.[…] The corporeal defect was understood in favorable terms, insofar as it caused their vision to turn inward and be represented in the sound of instrumental playing, which was thus infused with an incomparable virtue. The ambivalent potential of such a conception of music did not go unnoticed, for the lack of a correlation with nature also had its perils.3

However, this is a phenomenon that is no longer prominent in the later periods. Only in the late Renaissance and early Baroque was such a majority of blind keyboardists.

The case of (2) has been realized by placing the 4 parts of Anchor che col’ partire on a virtual music desk as follows; the parts are from the 1st edition of Antonio Gardano’s Madrigali a 4 voci, Libro 1 (Venice, 1547):

Chansonnier (1484) by Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517)4


This would have been as equally challenging as (1). As stated in Chapter 4, the first partitura only appeared in 1577, indicating that part-book realization on the keyboard would have been carried out prior to 1577. Tablature has preceded partitura by about 2 centuries. Partituras first came about in the late 16th century and became more prominent in the 17th century, staying in practice even into the 18th century.

Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch (Strassburg, 1607)


So what does Corrêa mean, “humane and merciful” and what is “the road previously extremely difficult and painful”?

   I had already established that the early keyboard repertoire has almost exclusively been vocal music, so how was vocal music realized or notated?—in part books, or in the case of well-known tunes, perhaps by heart. So what were some possibilities for vocal intabulations to be masterfully realized on the keyboard?

I had an in-person conversation with Medieval organist and active performer of early keyboard repertoire, Catalina Viscens. She pointed out the possibilities of a keyboard realization of music in the 15th-16th centuries. It had to be done:

(1) by heart—improvised, perhaps by a skilled maestro, who not only had talent, intuition, stylistic understanding, and knowledge of counterpoint but also probably was trained since a very young age

(2) by reading the parts, also by a skilled keyboardist of all the qualities from (1) and with an extraordinary skill and understanding

(3) by reading the tablature, the easiest method that does not require training or talent from (1) or (2), also possibly done by novice, amateur players

The case of (1), metaphorically expressed by a black screen below, explains why there were so many blind organists in the late Renaissance and early Baroque period:

 (1) keyboard intabulations were realized by heart or improvised

Engraving on a copper plate, M. de Vos pinx. J. Seidler auth. scalp. (Antwerp,1584) Berlin Kupferstichkabinett


The following are images of a group of vocal students at the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague singing polyphony from parts on one music stand:

Num.55. Anchor che col’ partire. à 4. from the Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch, Straßburg, 1607


Understanding music realizations and practice of the day really makes clear what Corrêa means. Tablature was a novelty, an easy, practical, pedagogical notation that made what was exclusively only possible by the talented, trained elite accessible to a wider public of students and amateurs.

   The tablature offered clear notation of the sound, so the invention of this notation was not accidental but was a result of the style inherently built within instrumental music. With the technological advances described in Chapter 4, 16th century was when the middle class started to make music.5 In the Medieval times, performers, entertainers, fiddlers, minstrels, trumpeters, and pfeifers cared less about notation but rather improvised and accompanied festive dance music on their instruments, which did not require music notation. 6 They were all career musicians, so to say, but the rise of tablature and the notation and distribution of music brought a new group of learners and amateurs to the music-making culture. Ife and Trudy explain this new trend in music making and learning:

For there to be music there have to be players, but there does not have to be a composer, if by a composer we mean someone who writes music with pen and paper. If he is playing alone or following a predetermined harmonic sequence, a keyboard player, unlike an instrumental ensemble of several players, needs no written-out music. It is safe to assume, therefore, that the bulk of keyboard composition in the sixteenth century was improvised, [ … ] Fr. Tomás de Santa María’s treatise was, after all, primarily aimed at teaching the art of ‘tañer fantasía,’ composing extempore at the keyboard, and the examples he supplied in the text are a unique record of this tradition and testify to the high degree of sophistication that was expected. Nor can blind men like Salinas and Cabezón have had much use for composition with pen and paper.
The importance of improvisation, and the close relationship that existed between composition and performance, may therefore go some way towards explaining why keyboard music survives in comparatively small quantities from sixteenth-century Spain, though other factors must also be involved, [ … ] More significantly, though, improvisation tells us a great deal about the music that has come down to us. When improvisation is the norm, written music is the exception, and we have to ask what caused the exception to be made. Written music must often have served to assist the memory, but disseminating music in written or printed form implies the existence of a public. This in turn raises the question of who the music was intended for. Who were the people most likely to benefit from having the music written down for them?
Two obvious candidates are the learner who needs things to play while he is learning and the amateur who lacks the skill to improvise his own repertoire. 7

Doderer and Ripoll agree that Obras de musica (1578) holds a significant pedagogical value. Cabezón, like other Spanish composers of the time such as Juan Bermudo, Miguel de Fuenllana, and Tomás de Santa María, “was in the habit of making the vocal-polyphonic universe accessible to his pupils by means of transcriptions for keyboard instruments (“poner en el manichordio”) and, as a preliminary stage of pure instrumental composition, of composition oriented on the instrument itself. Additionally, in the intabulations, Antonio used the possibility of employing not only the limited, stereotyped glosas and figurations, but rather enriched the respective model with exceedingly imaginative diminutions and embellishments as well as melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic variants.”8 Corrêa explains the long road to mastery on the organ and the ease of tablature for students on that road:

Chapter 5

A Humane and Merciful Method
A Pedagogical Approach


   The first and foremost purpose of the tablature at the time of its invention was to preserve composition to teach pupils. In his “Prologue in Praise of the Tablature” in Libro de tientos y discursos de musica practica, y theoríca de organo, intitulado Facultad organica (Alcalá,1626), Francisco Corrêa de Araujo (1575-1655) expounds,

Tablature [La Cifra] in music was a very humane and merciful device used by masters with the young and with those of little skill. In view of the need for such people to remember their lessons, and to add that which they lack in order to be proficient, and in view of the great difficulty (not only for beginners but also for those more advanced in music) in preparing to play any organ work, no matter how small and easy it might be; a new manner of symbols was invented through divine inspiration, providing the necessary remedy for these problems, which, while bringing about the same effects (in such perfection and elegance as that of mensural notation and without the loss of the musical jewels contained therein), would reduce that difficulty and discouragement to great ease and smoothness, making level and easy the road previously extremely difficult and painful.9

If I went up to keyboard players at my conservatory and asked them to play the following intabulation of Cipriano de Rore’s Anchor che col’ partire, they would consider my demand inhumane and unmerciful, and impossible:

Anchor che col’ partire parts
Antonio Gardano, Madrigali a 4 voci, Libro 1 (Venice, 1547)


Such figuration of parts was quite common in the 16th century as seen in the Cantvs-Altvs-Tenor-Basis configuration in the copper plate image and the Cantus-Altus-Tenor-Bassus figuration from the late 15th century, below. The challenge, though, was that at the keyboard it had to be realized by one individual.

Note the deliberate irregularities, freedom and dissonance treatment and accompaniment. Note the embellished passage, the melodic line, the repetition and imitation, the passage now slow, now fast, now complex and intricate: the pleasant little morsel, the sweet treat, the little toy, and a thousand other tidbits that the eminent in art disclose each day. Understand […] the genera and their intervals, the proportions and their numbers […] Observe the beginning, middle and end of the measures, and all the rest that is contained therein, observing arsis and thesis, what voices sound together and the location of each. All of this we, the masters, achieve in organ playing with great difficulty and at the end of many years of study, while there are many who not even in all their lives can attain immediate comprehension of four simultaneous unadorned voices; yet it is through the tablature that students in a very short time of study have succeeded in understanding (not only unadorned but what is even more) embellished passages.10

His 4th chapter in Facultad organica is entirely on very detailed explanation of playing from tablature, the clear indications of 4 voices on 4 lines, bar lines, numerals (los numerous), downbeats, and note values. He continues: “Once you know this and have this book, and the clavichord [el monacordio] which may already have the number written on each key, (unless you can remember) in the verset or work you must seek out the numeral corresponding to the key you wish to put down, and you must hit it with the fingers, and the hand.”11 This description is almost reminiscent of how children today mark their positions on violins or cellos with stickers. He is clearly talking to brand new beginners, and this marks huge strides in keyboard pedagogy. He continues to explain, finger numbers, 1-5 (1, thumb; 5 small finger), ornaments like quiebro and redoble (to be executed right hand with finger 3; left hand with 2), quiebro for the organ (el organo)and redouble on the clavichord (el monacordio), to ornament “at the beginning of the work, whether it is a tiento […]” and “If it is the soprano that enters alone without accompaniment […]” but this will all be discussed in more detail in Chapter 9.

   In closing, the pedagogical merits of tablature cannot be denied. Venegas de Henestrosa, in his detailed preface to Libro de cifra nueva para tecla, harpa y vihuela (Alcalá, 1557), extolls the advantages of tablature for the beginning learner and the more experienced. Ife and Trudy observe, while his Libro de cifra was a wonderful pedagogical source for beginners and amateurs, it also served as an important source of music by the major composers of the day (Pere Alberch Vila, Francisco de Soto, Francisco Fernández Palero, and most importantly Antonio de Cabezón), especially the ones whose work we would not be fortunate to have, had they not ended up in Venega’s anthology.12 Even in one of the earliest known basso continuo treatises, Cento Concerti Ecclesiastici a Una, a Due, a Tre, & Quattro voci. Con il Basso continuo per Sonar nell'Organo of Lodovica da Viadana, tablature is painted in a positive light as “easy” and “better.”13 According to many secondary sources on the history of Western music that I consulted, more than one source points out that after the period of keyboard tablature as notation, 1430-1571 (preceded by ars nova, 1309-1351), directly follows the wide practice of basso continuo from 1600 on, as the next musical phenomenon and practice after the time of keyboard tablature.14 Since the Early Music Revival in the mid-20th century, basso continuo and realization of figure bass in an informed improvisatory practice has become the norm in the HIP practice. It has been systematically studied from original sources, and conservatory curricula have trained students to attain historically informed practice of basso continuo. Performance from tablature and original notation could become our next initiative. There are plenty of evidence and original sources addressing this practice that we may consider embracing.

72 Anchor checol partire. from Ammerbach Tabulaturbuch (Nürnberg, 1583, 2nd print)