Lute tablature

They’re having a discussion at the lilypond
users mailing list
about how and whether to have a lilypond
mode for entering “ancient” lute tablatures.

Some people seemed to like the idea, but not to have much idea
what the place of lute tablature was in music history, so I
contributed a post. Someone else had written:

I am not at all familiar with these old tablatures, but they
look just amazing, so simply for typographic and aesthetical
reasons, these should be made possible with lilypond.

And I replied:

Actually, there are good musical reasons, too. In the 16th and maybe
most of the 17th, and in some places longer than that, the
dominant instrument which could play many notes at a time, at least in
the home, was the
lute, or various other plucked string instruments which could read the
same tablature.

So this means that lots of the kinds of music which would later be
published with keyboard accompaniment, which lilypond transcribes very
well, was published with lute tablature.

My edition
of all the part songs of John Dowland (which
many people think of as lute songs, but most of them are really
accompanied madrigals) is really incomplete, because I’ve
only transcribed the vocal lines, and in general not the lute

For a lot of them, the lute tablature is very little different from
just a transcription of the vocal lines, but in others there’s a lot
of decoration.

I’ve made some efforts to transcribe the tablature, but what I want
ideally is to transcribe what’s there, in an input form that doesn’t
require me to translate the tablature into notes, and then use that
transcription plus the tuning of the strings to produce both a
tablature that looks like the one in the facsimile and standard
notation that a modern keyboard player could deal with.

Lute players should note that I’m aware that tablature has different
information from notation: specifically that the beginning time of the
note is specified, but not the length of the note. However, I believe
that good keyboard players are just as capable as lute players of
making the decision about where to end the note; they just aren’t as
capable as players of 6-course fretted instruments of playing
tablature for 6-course fretted instruments.

There’s a red flag in there that I’ve been meaning to address for
some time — there are eminent musicologists who have studied
the period deeply who would disagree with my statement that “most of them are really
accompanied madrigals”. So I’ll tell you why I think that some other time.


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