This research started on a whim, a simple curiosity, a novel fascination, and on a trigger to prove a point. It was simply going to be a performance-related academic topic; however, it ended up consuming a big part of my life in the past 2 years and became an animated subject in my artistic studies as a whole. The most rewarding part of it was to share with others what I discovered and formulated. Especially the interactions with non-HIP people were priceless; it assured me that the type of music I play and the time period I am interested in still appear fascinating to the “outsiders” who do not study it. With this research, I would like to inspire my fellow harpsichordist colleagues and historical keyboardists to live, experience, and rediscover our music through this unique type of notation.
16th-century keyboard tablature notation is still relevant in today’s performance practice training. As a performer of a historical keyboard instrument and a student in the art of early music, I find this topic to be significant to me. I can remember that it was only about 5 years ago, when I started forcing myself to play from original notation (i.e. the many-lined staves of Frescobaldi, the right-hand C clefs in German keyboard music, etc.) as much as I could. It was not only possible but very instructive in deepening my understanding of the music in terms of performance practice. With this research, I was able to explore further and take the challenge of tackling tablature notation, which I found more difficult than the other notational adjustments I had to learn. Notation is what preserves music and facilitates music-making. A close study and understanding of notation definitely enlightens one’s musical performance. Music notation is a multi-faceted, widely researched topic. Although there is less research specifically about keyboard tablature, in the light of studies on music notation and the perception and cognition of notation, whether it be of modern guitar-tab reading or an early music approach to playing from original sources, it was my intention to present the playability of tablature notation in this research, as obtaining this ability will be so invaluable to the historical keyboard player.
“One can do thorough scholarly work, and build beautiful reproductions of old instruments, and still make no real contact with the past. It is the use not so much of the head or hands, but of the imagination which will help us to a better understanding of the consciousness of our forbears”1—with this research, I have attempted to force myself into the shoes of a 16th-century keyboard player, at least in terms of what I see and understand, looking deeply into the cultural, technical background and Zeitgeist. In my many discussions with teachers and experts in historical keyboard performance, I learned that since the Early Music Revival in the last century, we as an HIP community have come a long way. Just 50 years ago in the Netherlands in order to complete a master degree in harpsichord performance, one had to write out the continuo realization; at that time realizing continuo from figured bass alone was “a myth.”2 However, now basso continuo is systematically taught in conservatories, and it is not even questioned, if one must learn how to realize figured bass. In fact, one harpsichord colleague likened tablature reading to continuo playing in one of the experiment sessions—that once one gets used to it, it becomes "sight-readable." The same goes for improvisation. A few decades ago, it was not a big performance topic within HIP curricula although it is such a historically noteworthy art of performance, but now it is taught in early music programs in conservatories often along with basso continuo, counterpoint, and partimento.3 The topics that were “neglected” or considered “impossible” years ago in the HIP community are now in our curricula, and we study and perform these forms of playing without any questions or doubts. I have noticed this trend of “becoming more authentic,” so to say. Even in the last decade, harpsichord major students were a bit older than students from other music departments, coming to the harpsichord after their studies on either the piano or the organ. But in recent years, I have met so many young colleagues who started out directly on the harpsichord in their early teen years—how much of a head start they have in encountering and growing in their HIP experience! Tablature playing may be an obscure art now, but it is possible that the next generation of pre-teen harpsichordists will play through Cabezón’s 2 or 3-voice keyboard arrangements as if that was the norm.