An Assessment of the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature

[The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature is arguably the earliest extant source for lute music in Western Europe and, even though it survives merely as a fragment, the only known specimen of the tablature system described in the Kassel Collum Lutine. In his article “Norddeutsche Fragmente mit Lautenmusik um 1460 in Wolfenbüttel” from 2011 Martin Staehelin presented this tablature and concluded that it was intended for the lute.[1] The fragment, which Staehelin dated to c1460, survived as a pastedown on a host codex from St. Cyriacus in Brunswick and is now at the Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel under the shelfmark cod. VII B Hs Nr. 264. For more information on the source see the introductory entry to this blog series.]

In his article presenting the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature Staehelin showed that this fragmentary source is currently the only notated example of a tablature system, which was already known in theory since Christian Meyer presented the Kassel Collum Lutine in 1994.[2] In a joint publication with Crawford Young in 2003 Martin Kirnbauer[3] gave a full reproduction and thorough analysis of this Collum Lutine, which explains the tablature system but does not give any practical example. The Wolfenbüttel Tablature exemplifies a lot of features presented in the Collum Lutine but which up to then could only be deduced to a certain degree from the description, while it clearly differs in other respects. The following discussion is dedicated primarily to a comparison between the two sources but also includes some food for further thought. Since these annotations turned out to be too elaborate for a single blog entry I decided to split them up. This first entry contains an overall assessment, while more details can be found in the ensuing ones (Open Heads and Chromatics, Dotted Rhythms and all the Rests, Clefs and Tuning, Finding the Fingering).

The Kassel Collum Lutine (“Lautenkragen”)

The Kassel Collum Lutine (D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31, fol. I, II, 1r-v) does not allow for a precise dating: neither the paper nor the watermark nor the writing hint to anything more specific than to the 15th century. Young/Kirnbauer tentatively narrowed this down to the 2nd half of the century [see Young/Kirnbauer, p. 187] and were able to connect the host codex to the Chorherrenstift St. Peter in Fritzlar, some 180 km south of Brunswick, where the Wolfenbüttel Tablature originated. The paper features an incomplete “ox head” watermark, which could be traced to the area of Piedmont / Vosges / Upper Rhine [Young/Kirnbauer, pp. 175-6].
The Kassel Collum Lutine consists of a folio-sized double leaf, which once was glued to inside of the cover of its host codex and—after having been detached from the cover—is now rebound to the front of the codex. A full colour reproduction of the opening showing the Collum Lutine (fol. II-1r) is given in Young/Kirnbauer on p. 172. The back of the leaf, which carries the title “Collum lutine” (fol. I-1v) is reproduced in black and white on p. 177.

Lute vs. Organ

The Wolfenbüttel Tablature does not carry any direct clue as for which instrument it was intended. Due to the use of mensural notation in the tablature Staehelin had followed up the idea that it might have been intended for the organ or another keyboard instrument, since the tablatures for these instruments customarily use mensural notation. However, by comparing the notation with the tablature system described in the Kassel Collum Lutine he made a convincing case for the five-course lute. The previous blog entries have proved this by showing that the entire surviving notation is fully playable on such an instrument and that it is not only suitable but also idiomatic—all of these being facts not to be taken for granted. The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature [WolfT] reveals connections to organ tablatures, nonetheless: The intabulations, despite their obvious lute idiom, have a number of shared notational signs and present numerous features in the instrumental treatment of pre-given material, which can be linked to typical organ arrangements from the same time, namely those of the Lochamer-Liederbuch [Loch] and the Buxheimer Orgelbuch [Bux]. Another, Northern Italian organ tablature from Perugia has an even more hauntingly familiar appearance:

Organ tablature from the late 15th century (I-PEc MS 3410(1-2-3-4-5-6), fol. 2v)

Organ tablature from the late 15th century (I-PEc MS 3410(1-2-3-4-5-6), fol. 2v)

However, as opposed to the notation of the Wolfenbüttel Tablature, which uses an “attack” or “strike” notation similar to later systems of lute tablature (where only the relative time interval between two struck notes or chords are given), the voice leading in the Perugia organ fragments is entirely clear and even goes so far as to differentiate the two lower voices, which share a system, by providing the contratenor in black notation. Also, it features vertical “tactus”-lines in regular intervals, much like Bux and Loch, but unlike Wolf. (Later lute tablatures, though, customarily use tactus lines.)

This connection of the Wolfenbüttel-system to organ tablature is not a one-way road: it has long been surmised that the early keyboard tablatures were also suitable for performance on other instruments with the lute taking the lead. The oft-quoted colophon to Bux 17 (fol. 7r-8r) “in cytharis vel etiam in organis” might hint at the possibility that a performance of this arrangement (and probably others like it) was intended for the lute just as much as for the organ [see also Young/Kirnbauer, p. 12, FN 10]. A number of other factors support this notion, not the least being the fact that many known organ virtuosos were also proficient on the lute. The first name that comes to mind is Conrad Pauman, who is the acknowledged spiritus rector behind the early collections of German organ tablatures and who apparently did not only play the organ masterly, but also a number of other instruments—most prominent amongst these the lute. Furthermore he is credited with the invention of the German lute tablature notation, a tablature system which is clearly based on a five-course instrument.[4]

When the lute first made an appearance as an instrument for polyphonic solo arrangements in mid-15th century central Europe the organ could already look back on well more than a century of polyphonic extemporary improvisation and a documented practice of instrumental arrangement of vocal music. It therefore seems plausible for the early solo lute repertoire to have been oriented on the example of organ intabulations, especially since the first prominent arrangers of solo lute pieces themselves were also organists. The earliest extant examples of lute music in the Wolfenbüttel fragments were consequently approached in much the same way: The largely two-voice structure of the intabulations, which is only expanded to a fuller texture when idiomatically suitable, the already mentioned opening pick-up gestures, the cadential ornamentation of the cantus line and the occasional bursts of fusae all bear a semblance to arrangements in Bux and Loch. Last but not least Hans Newsidler’s comment to his 1536 edition of lute intabulations bears more than a hunch pointing to the leading role of organ practice still in the early 16th century:

“Fancies, preludes, psalms and motets, which were held in highest esteem by the most illustrious and best of organists, are here transformed with particular diligence in the organistic manner and ornamented for the proficient and experienced in this art and presented for the lute.”[5]

Dating the Kassel-Wolfenbüttel Tablature System

Once established around the beginning of the second half of the 15th century (possibly by the aforementioned Conrad Pauman) the system of German lute tablature seems to have dominated the transmission of lute music in German-speaking countries. Staehelin therefore concludes “daß es vor der Paumannschen Tabulaturform eine ältere, damals ebenfalls verbreitete, aber bis heute wegen vielfältiger Quellenverluste kaum faßbare Schriftpraxis von Lautenmusik gegeben haben muß” [Staehelin, p. 84], that is that the Kassel-Wolfenbüttel-system must pre-date Pauman’s invention and that the two sources at hand currently represent the sole surviving testimonies of a notational system for the lute that was more widely spread prior to the advent of the German lute tablature. Nonetheless, the two surviving specimen seem to date into the second half of the 15th century, thus probably overlapping with the competing system of German lute tablature, which must have been on the rise around this time. Staehelin suggests that the Wolfenbüttel fragments, which appear to have belonged to a substantial collection since they show signs of great routine and professionalism, might date as early as 1460, since all the pieces included are transmitted in parallel manuscripts around the same time [Staehelin, pp. 83-4].

The Arrangements

Even with only five mostly fragmented pieces on just two folios the variety of arrangement styles is flabbergasting: Every intabulation has a very distinct style, while sharing certain generic aspects. Thus the repertoire appears both coherent and varied at the same time: While WolfT 3 („Gruß senen Ich im hertzen traghe“) has a very Bux-like feel to it, with its pick-up motif, its bursts of fusulae and its quick runs, WolfT 4 („Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn“) appears almost mechanically simple and as if it was arranged as a generic student example over a pre-given tenor line: It employs the ever same cadence formulae, has no fusulae and only has added contratenor notes on the first and last positions of a melodic line. In some respects it resembles the more elaborate WolfT 5 („Ellende du hest vmb vanghen mich“), which also appears to have been created only upon a pre-given tenor voice and which in its surviving part also does not employ note values beyond the semiminim. It seems to prefer long and fairly slow runs and in this is reminiscent of Bux-arrangements on the same tenor line. Both, „Ich fare do hyn“ and „Ellende“ only appear as monophonic songs in parallel sources. All polyphonic settings of “Ellende” in Loch and Bux were made for keyboard instruments and always present a new counterpoint. Unlike the other three arrangements in Wolfenbüttel, which clearly are intabulations of polyphonic chansons and all of which are based on a pre-existing cantus-tenor setting, WolfT 4 and 5 seem to be new, purely instrumentally conceived polyphonic arrangements upon the tenor line. WolfT 2 („Myn trud gheselle“) is a very chordal setting at least in its surviving parts, while WolfT 1 („Cum lacrimis“) might be the most unusual of them all: it draws on strange harmonic turns—possibly triggered by a desire to fill in split dyads with fitting notes, which then result in full chords including thirds—surprising use of ficta and a strong contrast between chordal and monophonic passages. Despite its limited scope the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature provides us with more than just a glimpse of early intabulation and playing techniques for the solo lute of the 15th century.

[14.05.2015]: On idiomatics

While it has been shown that WolfT shares a number of characteristics with organ tablatures of the time (namely the use of mensural notation and partly the style of diminution) it also features gestures that are idiomatic to a five-course lute (played with a plectrum) as it is depicted in the Kasseler Lautenkragen—the Collum Lutine). Particularly the fact that the lowest two courses clearly show octave strings in the Collum Lutine has certain implications and might hold unexpected consequences. I would like to thank Lukas Henning and Ricardo Leitao Pedro for their input during the “Intabulation Class” I held on the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in the summer semester of 2015: Practical experiments showed that the octave strings on the lowest courses apparently were used by the intabulator to complete otherwise incomplete melodies in the cantus line. To name but a few instances where this idiomatic use of the instrument’s specific setup is employed: “Cum lacrimis” (WolfT 1) in the seventh to last measure (= tempus) has an ornamented bit of tenor line that should lead into the cantus line on the first beat of the next measure. The entry of this bit of cantus is postponed and rather surprisingly comes a beat late. Since we have to assume octave courses on the two lowest strings, however, the tenor note on the first beat six measures before the end already includes and contains the cantus note, even though it is not notated in the tablature. Another example is measure 3 of “Gruß senen Ich im hertzen traghe” (WolfT 3), where an f’ is inserted into the melodic gesture of the cantus line by the octave string on the second course, rendering the line more elegant;

Marc Lewon

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, vol. 15), Berlin 2012, pp. 67-88 (text and edition) and pp. 141-4 (facsimile).

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

[3] Kirnbauer, Martin: “IV. 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. 171-90, in: Young, Crawford & Kirnbauer, Martin (eds.): Frühe Lautentabulaturen im Faksimile / Early LuteTablatures in Facsimile (= Pratica Musicale, vol. 6), Winterthur (Amadeus) 2003.

[4] The first source, crediting Pauman with the invention of the German lute tablature is Sebastian Virdung in his “Musica getutscht” (fol. Kiiijv). For a summary on Conrad Paumann, see: Wolff, Christoph: “Paumann, Conrad”, in: Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 12, 2014,

[5] Newsidler, Hans: „Ein newgeordent künstlich Lautenbuch. Der ander theil des Lautenbuchs“, Nürnberg (Johann Petreius) 1536, fol. Air.


One thought on “An Assessment of the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature

  1. Pingback: The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature | mlewon

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