The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature

Incipit of "Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn"—Wolfenbüttel, Staatsarchiv VII B Hs. 264, fol. B' (reproduction with permission of the Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel)

Incipit of “Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn”—D-Wa cod. VII B Hs Nr. 264, fol. Bv (reproduction with kind permission of the Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel).

In 2012 I came across the article “Norddeutsche Fragmente mit Lautenmusik um 1460 in Wolfenbüttel” (“Northern German Fragments of Lute Music c.1460 in Wolfenbüttel”) by Martin Staehelin.[1] I was immediately taken by the presentation of these previously unknown fragments of a tablature from St. Cyriacus in Brunswick, which survived as pastedowns in the original binding of the host codex that is now in the Wolfenbüttel Staatsarchiv under the call number VII B Hs. 264. The fragments consist of two folios with five mostly fragmented intabulations of polyphonic secular songs. In his article Staehelin conclusively shows that the tablature, which looks quite unlike any other known lute tablature, must have been meant for this instrument: He draws a connection from the “Wolfenbüttel Tablature” [Wolf] to the so-called “Kassel Lautenkragen”—the latter of which only describes a tablature notation for a five-course lute for which, however, no notated example was known up to Staehelin’s find. The similarities are striking. (The “Kassel Lautenkragen” (D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31, fol. I, II, 1r-v), which was first discussed by Christian Meyer in his article from 1994,[2] was presented with a thorough description and interpretation, including a facsimile depiction by Crawford Young and Martin Kirnbauer in their joint publication “Early Lute Tablatures in Facsimile” from 2003.[3]) Apart from a detailed description of the host codex and an interpretation of the tablature, Staehelin’s article also gives a black-and-white facsimile of the source as well as preliminary transcriptions of the pieces.

Staehelin’s find and his assessment of the fragments leaves a plenitude of material for further research and additional observations, which he actively encourages.[4] The preliminary transcriptions also allow for refinement and elaboration, and can result in very idiomatic arrangements for a specific instrument and playing technique. A close examination has shown that the pieces are fully playable and that they feature almost flawlessly notated settings of well-known secular songs which are presentable in polyphonic transcriptions. The settings consist of two voices—cantus and tenor in essence—but include full chords every now and then, as well as a contratenor voice that comes and goes, much as in organ tablatures of the time. Apart from shedding light on early Renaissance lute technique, intabulation and diminution practice the arrangements also provide new and maybe surprising information on seemingly well-known songs.

Over the next five blog entries I will present the five tablatures from the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature in a colour scan (presented here with kind permission of the Wolfenbüttel Staatsarchiv), diplomatic transcription and polyphonic edition. The individual blog entries will also discuss additional findings on instrumental idioms and provide new information that feeds back into our understanding of the model songs. This research on the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature features as an important chapter in my dissertation thesis “Sources and Practices of Instrumental Music in 15th-Century Central Europe” (University of Oxford, supervisor: Reinhard Strohm). As part of my work in the past year and a half I have put all of the tablatures to a practical test by performing them in concerts. After having reconstructed the missing parts in three of the five pieces, I also made a premiere recording of the entire source, which will be released as part of a CD within the year and which also fulfils a practical part of my thesis. I had already recorded one of the tablatures (“Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn”) in advance as a sound sample for the research project “Musical Life of the Late Middle Ages in the Austrian Region” (Vienna University, Birgit Lodes, Reinhard Strohm & Marc Lewon) which will be published shortly and made freely accessible online.

The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature

The fragment consists of two paper leaves without watermarks (approximate size: 22 x 15,5 cm) from a larger source which was cut up for use as binding material. The host codex comes from the monastery of St. Cyriacus in Brunswick (which is why Staehelin refers to the source also as the “Braunschweiger Fragmente”, i.e. “Brunswick Fragments”) and now belongs to the Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv-Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel (D-Wa cod. VII B Hs Nr. 264). The main body of that codex was most likely written and bound in 1485 in the Brunswick area, if not in the monastery of St. Cyriacus itself (letter N in this cityscape from 1550), and it is likely that also the fragments of the lute tablature come from there. This is supported by the spelling of the incipits, which also points to the Low German region. Staehelin dates the tablature to c1460 due to the fact that most of the concordances to these pieces can be found in manuscripts between 1450 and 1465 and that they must have been considered outdated by the time the collection was scrapped for binding material in 1485.[5] It therefore would be the earliest source of lute music in existence and would date to a time, when the majority of the lute iconography shows the use of a plectrum rather than the fingers to pluck the strings.

Brunswick in a map from 1578 with St. Cyriacus at the far right (source: Heidelberg University Library)

Brunswick in a map from 1578 with St. Cyriacus at the far right (source: Heidelberg University Library)

The Wolfenbüttel Tablature as a Lute Source

The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature is the earliest known example of a notation which is described in the Kassel Lautenkragen (late 15th century). The most striking feature of this notation is that it does not provide a specific setting of the piece in question on the fingerboard of the instrument, as is the case with every other known lute tablature system. Instead it gives the impression of mensural notation on an 8-line system which seems reminiscent of organ tablatures from the same time. Unlike those, however, the notation does not differentiate between individual voices nor does it show voice leading. Instead it presents—like all lute tablatures—an “attack” or “strike” notation, which only shows the placement of the next note or chord in relation to the preceding one. Voice leading is left to the discretion of the players who would discern it by ear from the musical context.

At first glance the notation appears confusing and decisions whether certain notes are meant to be played together or one after another seem difficult. But once it is realised that individual notes are always intended to be played separately and that chords are always combined with a stem in the notation, it becomes possible to decipher a clear musical text. When played on a 5-course lute with the 3rd placed between the second and third courses (e.g. the upper five courses of a lute in G: c-f-a-d’-g’ or, probably more common in the 15th century, in A: d-g-b-d’-a’) it turns out that every note and chord of the tablature is playable without much effort. This is a strong point in favour of attributing the tablature to the instrument of the lute, since not every chord imaginable using notes from the tessitura of the instrument can actually be played. The “lute tablature” by Sebastian Virdung (Musica getutscht, Basel 1511, fol. Miii’-Miv) convincingly demonstrates this fact by presenting the player with several impossible fingerings where multiple notes are meant to be played simultaneously on the same string—a mistake which could only have been made by a mechanical transcription of a four-voice setting to German lute tablature by a non-player. (In Virdung’s defence, an alternative explanation for this conundrum could be that he was thinking of an interpretation with four players, each one performing only one line.) Moving the 3rd between open strings up by just one course already renders several chords of the Wolfenbüttel Tablature unplayable, thus showing that the arrangement was made to fit the standard 5-course lute tuning as it is described in sources such as the Kassel Lautenkragen.

Analysis of the lute pieces in the Wolfenbüttel Tablature has resulted in a multitude of findings, which can only be hinted at in this entry, but which I will examine more closely in the following entries addressing individual pieces. I will dedicate a concluding blog entry to a summary of the new findings (see: An Assessment of the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature with the subchapters: Open Heads and Chromatics, Dotted Rhythms and all the Rests, Clefs and Tuning, Finding the Fingering) with further analysis, explaining the close relationship of the tablature to the Kassel Lautenkragen in more detail as well as pointing out special notational features, such as the lack of the punctus additionis and the principle of naming the lowest note on a given instrument “Gamut” with no regard to absolute pitch. I will also demonstrate the consequences of the intabulation processes, which show a strong connection to contemporary German organ arrangements of the same pieces in sources such as the Locham Song Book (D-Bsb Mus. ms. 40613) and the Buxheim Organ Book (D-Mbs Cim. 352b) and playing techniques, which suggest that this source could have been intended for performance using a plectrum.

The content of the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature

The tablature features five polyphonic intabulations (of which three are incomplete) of secular songs, all of which can be found in concordant sources of the time. They are comprehensively listed in David Fallow’s “Catalogue of Polyphonic Songs”[6]. The following list is linked to the separate blog entries that deal with each piece individually. I keep the foliation introduced by Martin Staehelin:

1. Cum lacrimis (fol. Ar-Av) – end of the secunda pars and the entire “tertia pars” of an intabulation of Johannes Ciconia’s ballata “Con lagrime bagnadone nel viso”;

2. Myn trud gheselle (fol. Av) – prima pars of the German song “Mein traut geselle”, which can be found in the Locham Song Book [Loch] and the Buxheim Organ Book [Bux] in almost identical three-voice settings;

3. Gruß senen Ich im hertzen traghe (fol. Br) – complete tablature of “Groß senen”, which survives as a three-part song in the Schedel Song Book [Sche];

4. Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn (fol. Bv) – complete tablature of “Ich far dahin”, which is otherwise only transmitted as a monophonic song in Loch and as a quotation in two quodlibets from the Glogau Song Book [Glog];

5. Ellende du hest vmb vanghen mich (fol. Bv) – beginning measures of “Elend du hast umfangen mich”, which only survives in a monophonic version in Loch and has a number of organ intabulations in the Loch and Bux.

Finding a Name

Since both, the newly found “Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature” and the tablature system itself, which is explained in the Kassel Lautenkragen, up to date did not have “official” names, I propose and use the following terminology: The tablature fragments found in the host codex D-Wa cod. VII B Hs Nr. 264 are summarised under the name “Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature” (English) / “Wolfenbütteler Lautentabulatur” (German). The tablature system receives a name combining the two currently known sources with this notation: “Kassel-Wolfenbüttel Tablature System” (English) / “Kassel-Wolfenbütteler Tabulatursystem” (German).

Marc Lewon

(2014-10-15) PS: The contents of the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature have since been recorded and can be found as a world premiere recording on the CD “Kingdom of Heaven – Heinrich Laufenberg” (Ensemble Dragma, Ramée 2014) on tracks 02 (Myn trud gheselle), 06 (Gruß senen Ich im hertzen traghe), 09 (Cum lacrimis), 13 (Ellende du hes vmb vanghen mich), and 15 (Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn). For more information see this new post: A Premiere Recording of the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



[1] Staehelin, Martin: “Norddeutsche Fragmente mit Lautenmusik um 1460 in Wolfenbüttel”, in Kleinüberlieferung mehrstimmiger Musik vor 1550 in deutschem Sprachgebiet”, Series IX, “Neue Quellen des Spätmittelalters aus Deutschland und der Schweiz” (= Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Neue Folge, Band 15), Berlin 2012, pp. 67-88 (text and edition) and pp. 141-144 (facsimile). I would like to particularly thank Martin Kirnbauer and Crawford Young who had made me aware of this article. I would also like to thank Catherine Motuz, who previewed these blog entries and provided valuable adviceconcerning presentation and language.

[2] Meyer, Christian: “Eine Lauten-Unterweisung aus dem späten 15. Jahrhundert”, in: Musik in Bayern 49 (1994), pp. 25-33.

[3] Kirnbauer, Martin: “The Earliest German Sources of Lute Tablature: The Kassel “Lautenkragen” (D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31), the “Königstein Songbook” (D-Bsb, Ms. germ. qu. 719) and the Regensburg Drawing (D-Rp, Ms. Th. 98 4°), pp. 171-190, in: Young, Crawford & Kirnbauer, Martin (eds.): Frühe Lautentabulaturen im Faksimile / Early LuteTablatures in Facsimile (= Pratica Musicale, vol. 6), Winterthur (Amadeus) 2003.

[4] “der Leser sei freundlich aufgefordert, die Vergleichsrecherchen selbständig zu unternehmen”, Staehelin: “Norddeutsche Fragmente”, p. 79.

[5] For a complete description of the source, see Staehelin: “Norddeutsche Fragmente”, pp. 67-69.

[6] Fallows, David: A Catalogue of Polyphonic Songs, 1415-1480, New York (Oxford University Press) 1999.

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