Intabulations in the 16th and 17th centuries


1 [01:36] In some cases of chamber music, the choirbook was meant to be put on a table, having musicians reading it from different directions. For example, the The Firste Booke of Songes by John Dowland (London, 1597) [imslp]

2 [06:00] Concerning the Spanish vihuela tablature, Neapolitan lute tablature, and German lute tablature, see below in the Appendix.

3 [08:00] Concerning the Spanish organ tablature, see below in the Appendix.

4 [12:20] Concerning the the German lute tablature, see below in the Appendix.

5 [12:33] The earliest print of the so-called Italian intavolatura is Andrea Antico’s Frottole intabulate da sonare organi, libro primo (Rome, 1517).

6 [13:35] This example (with added graphics and animation by Early Music Sources) is taken from Alexander Silbiger, “Is the Italian keyboard ‘intavolatura’ a tablature?”, in Recercare, vol. 3 (1991), pp. 81-103.

7 [14:07] Concerning the the "Old German organ tablature", see below in the Appendix.

8 [14:51] Concerning the the "New German organ tablature", see below in the Appendix.

9 [15:04] In the Düben collection for example, there are many organ tablatures which function just like a score; with up to eight voices, with the text of the vocal parts, and with the figures of the basso continuo. See for example [in the link, click "Browse volume" to see the manuscript]

10 [16:05] Bernardo Strozzi, Affettuosi concerti ecclesiastici [the book never saw light. The text is found in Pratorious's Syntagma Musicum III (1619) in the section about Basso Continuo] [imslp]: "Die Tabulatur aller Parteyen ist zwar vor dieser Zeit erfunden worden, daß man sie sollte recht schlagen, wie sie abgesetzt stünde, und war gar wol gethan, und wer sie recht verstehet, und extempore daraus wol schlagen kan, der folge ihr auffs beste er immer kan. Aber dieweil es ein gar schwehr ding ist, und auch langweilig, dieselbe secur zuschlagen, und die Menschen so sie erfunden und gelehret waren, zuvor gestorben, oder auffs wenigste gar alt ist, so wer es von nöthen, nachdem das Alter mangelt, sich der Mühe auch zu uberheben." / "To be sure, the score of all the parts was invented in an earlier time, and one was supposed to be able to play from it accurately as written, which was actually even well done; whoever has a good grasp of it and can play well from it extempore should follow it as best he can. But because it is so difficult and wearisome to play from it competently, and because the people who invented and taught it are now dead, or at the very least quite old, whoever thinks this is necessary should spare himself the trouble, due to this shortage of old masters [or who is not old enough themselves] ."

11 [17:20] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Cappricci (Rome, 1624) [imslp]: "A GLI STUDIOSI DELL'OPERA. Perché il sonare queste opere potrebbe riuscire ad alcuni di molta fatica, vedendole di diversi tempi, et variationi, come anco pare, che da molti sia dismessa la prattica di detto studio della partitura..." / "To those who study this work, Since for certain [players] the performance of these pieces might be very difficult, either on account of their various tempi and variations or because many [players] have abandoned the practice of performing from score..."

12 [17:32] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Fiori Musicalli (Rome, 1635) [imslp]: "...stimo di molta importanza à sonatori, il praticare le partiture perche non solo stimo, à chi ha desiderio affatticarsi in tal compositione ma necessario Essendo che tal materia quasi paragone distingue e fa conoscere il vero oro delle virtuose attioni dal Ignoranti..." / "...This I consider of great importance for players: to practice playing from score, not only because I commend it to those who wish to engage themselves exhaustively in such composition but [also it is] necessary, since such quasi exemplary material distinguishes and makes known the true gold of virtuosic actions from [the actions of] the Ignorant…”

Furthermore, Samuel Scheidt published his music in full score in Germany in 1624, and wrote that the “English or Dutch” tablature with 6 lines for each hand [what we call “the Italian intavolatura”] is not good enough for polyphony because the voices cross each other and it’s not clear enough. One should use either a full partitura (the way he used in his publication), or what we call nowadays “the new German organ tablature”. Samuel Scheidt, Tabulatura Nova (1624, Hamburg) [imslp].


08:07-08:50 - Both the "literal transcription" and the explanation concerning the Spanish tablature are not accurate: According to the system each voice should continue playing until a new note is given or a pause is marked. It is in fact equivalent to a modern score in it's details. Many thanks to Matthew Provost to point this out to me!

APPENDIX - Quick guide to the different notation systems

Plucked instruments:

In the numerical tablature [so-called Italian] the six lines represent the six courses of the lute, having the top line as the lowest course. The notes are represented by numbers, that indicate which fret must be stopped, having zero as an open course, one as the first fret and so on. The rhythm is indicated by signs above the tablature, each sign applies until it is replaced by another sign. A line signifies a semibrevis, line with an additional stroke a minima, two strokes semiminima etc.

See here (right and above) the intabulation of Anchor che col partire made by Antonio di Becchi (Libro primo d’intabulatura da leuto, 1568) [imslp].The so-called Spanish vihuela tablature (mainly by Luis Milán [imslp]) is similar to the Italian one only that the courses are arranged in a reverse order.

The so-called Neapolitan tablature, which is believed to be the earliest numerical tablature, is similar to the Spanish tablature only that an open course is notated with “1” instead of “0”.

The so-called French lute tablature is just like the Neapolitan tablature only that there are letters instead of numbers (“a” being an open course, “b” being the first fret and so on). Also English music, such as of John Dowland, was printed using the French tablature (just one reason that the distinction between the kinds of tablatures based on nationality is not so accurate...). See here (right and below) is Anchor che col partire in a "French" tablature from Jean-Baptiste Besard's Thesaurus harmonicus (1603) [imslp].

[paragraph contributed by Lukas Henning:] The German lute tablature system was originated in the 15th century, and according to Sebastian Virdung was invented by the German organist Conrad Paumann. It makes due without lines as every possible position on the fret-board is assigned a specific symbol and can thus also be conveniently dictated. See here (left) a diagram found in Sebastian Virdung's Musica getutscht (Basel, 1511) [imslp]. The downside is that it requires the musician to memorize every single symbol as the symbols themselves don’t contain any inherent indication of the note they are associated with (e.g. the symbol for g is »5«, the a above is »k« and the b-natural above that is »u«). This tablature system remained a standard in German-speaking countries for most of the 16th century. Here below is once again Ancor che col partire but in a "German" lute tablature by Melchior Neusidler Teütsch Lauttenbuch (Straßburg, 1574).

See on this link a guide to playing the German lute tablature by the Lute Society of America.

Spanish keyboard tablature:

The lines represent the different parts. Typically there are four: Soprano (Tiple), Alto (Contraalto), Tenor (Tenor), and Bass (Baxo).

The pitches are represented by Arab numerals, as follows: 1 = F, 2 = G, 3 = A, 4 = B, 5 = C, 6 = D, 7 = E. The representation of the notes on the different octaves is as follows (see below on the left).

The notes can be altered with sharps or flats. A flat might be placed in the beginning of the piece, to affect all the B notes (the number “4” in this notation) like in mensural notation. In the example below there is a natural sign, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Mensural signs are found before the score. Note values are similar to those used in mensural notation and are indicated above the measure. If nothing is indicated above the first measure, and only one pitch or chord appears in it, then it’s most likely a semibreve. Once a note value appears, it represents the smallest rhythmic value that will take place until further notice. If a note is not interrupted by another note or a pause, it should keep playing.

Rests are marked with a “/”, and a comma sign prolong the note before with a ligature. See below the beginning of Anchor che col partire in an arrangement by Antonio de Cabzon from his Obras de Musica para Tecla, Arpa y Vihuela (1570) [imslp]. Further important sources for the Spanish tablatures is Francisco Corrêa de Arrauxo, Facultad Organica (1626) [imslp].

New German keyboard tablature:

Appeared at the last quarter of the 16th century and replaced the Old German tablature (see below). The first publication using the new system is Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach's Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur (Leipzig, 1571) [imslp]. Here is the beginning of Anchor che col partire in an intabulation found in Bernhard Schmid's Tabulatur Buch (Straßburg, 1607) [imslp]

There are lines as the number of parts; typically four, but could be more as well as less. Each line includes letters that signifies the pitches, and above them note values.

The pitches are represented by the same letters that are used today, with a distinction between b = always b-flat, and h = always b-natural (take care, handwriting varies greatly...):

And here are the explanation of the pitches as well as note values as appear in Ammerbach's Ein new künstlich Tabulaturbuch (Nüremberg, 1575) [imslp]:

The Old German keyboard tablature is very similar, only that the top line is written in mensural notation while the other voices are written in tablature. See here an example from Arnolt Schlick's Tabulaturen etlicher Lobgesang (Mainz, 1512) [imslp]: