Clefs and Tuning

[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. For more information on the source see the introductory entry to this blog series.]

The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature features an array of 5 keys at the beginning of each system of notation (g-c-f-cc-gg):

D-Wa cod. VII B Hs Nr. 264 (Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature), fol. Av—clefs.


The clef to the lowest line is slightly misleading in that it is a lowercase “g” instead of a capital “G” or better even: a “Γ” (“Gamut”). The context, however, clarifies that the “g” stands in lieu of a “Gamut”, since the next higher octave is represented by lowercase letters, where the same sign (a lower case “g”) would have appeared again. Wolfenbüttel does not stand alone: The Buxheimer Orgelbuch has a very similar notion for notes below “c”, which are not specified but receive the same letters as in the octave above and must be detected from musical context. The Kassel Collum Lutine supports the reading in Wolfenbüttel even and spells out the names of all clefs (Gamaut, Cfaut, [f]faut, ccsolfaut, ggsolreut):

D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31 (Kassel Lautenkragen), fol. II—clef-names.

D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31 (Kassel Collum Lutine), fol. II—clef (“Claves”)-names (reproduction with kind permission of Amadeus Verlag).

The low c-clef in this notation is so unusual and unique that Kirnbauer commented: “on the Kassel page a clef for Cfaut (c) is also indicated, which, by contrast, is not found in any other source.”[1] The position of this clef in a space and not on a line adds to the confusion and led to a number of misreadings in the first transcription of the tablature by Staehelin.

The Kassel-Tuning

D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31 (Kassel Lautenkragen), fol. II—open string tunings (transcription in blue).

D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31 (Kassel Collum Lutine), fol. II—open string tunings (transcription in blue), (reproduction with kind permission of Amadeus).

When the tablature system was only known through the description in the Kassel Collum Lutine Kirnbauer stated on p. 186: “The given tuning—Gam(maut), Cfa(ut), Ela(mi), alam(ire), dla(solre)—can be interpreted in two ways: either as the relative interval sequence from low strings to high as fourth, third, fourth and fourth, in other words, the five upper courses of a six-course lute. Alternatively the tuning gives the sounding pitches G-c-e-a-d1 as the lower five courses of a six-course G-lute.” The problem with the second tuning is the position of the third, which disagrees with the surviving evidence on early lute tunings: “The noticeable difference with the third course, e instead of f, is difficult to explain for the tuning G-c-f-a-d1 is already given in 1482 by Bartholomé Ramos de Pareja for a five-course lute (“lyra”) in his De Musica Tractatus sive Musica practica.” [Kirnbauer, p. 186]. This conundrum can be solved when the low tuning with “e” instead of “f” is viewed as the “normal” set-up for the upper five courses of a bass lute in D: (D)-G-c-e-a-d1. If the open course “e”, however, was changed to “f”—as was suggested by Kirnbauer—some of the chords (or “concordancie”) in the Wolfenbüttel Tablature would be rendered unplayable. It is therefore conclusive that the interval structure of the tuning for the Kassel-Wolfenbüttel system was meant to be: fourth, third, fourth, fourth—just as it is given in the Kassel Collum Lutine.

Another reason for the interpretation of the tuning by Kirnbauer as a “bass lute”, is that it “would be useful for accompanying a sung or played top part and/or to perform the lower parts (tenor and contratenor) of a piece” (p. 186). This argument is undermined by the fact that the surviving tablatures in Wolfenbüttel clearly are solo arrangements, which feature all voices including the cantus-line. It appears that the first assumption is correct: The “Gammaut” merely marks the lowest string of the instrument—just as the fiddle tunings in Jerome of Moravia’s treatise always call the lowest strings “Gamut”, while clearly they could not have sounded as low as a G, even when assuming a wide and flexible range of pitch standards at the time. The note names for the open strings in the Kassel Collum Lutine would thus have to be read as relative intervals. This does not need to mean that players were expected to transpose: It could merely indicate that the lowest available string on any given instrument was simply called “Gamut”.

The resulting tuning fits the evidence neatly: The (slightly later) system of German lute tablature clearly supports the idea that the lowest course was added last, which would leave us with a five-course lute standard for much of the 15th century, comprising of the upper five courses of the later six-course lute. The five-course instrument would have had its lowest string at a pitch around c or d, thus sounding a fourth or fifth higher than notated. This “transposition” would also be in line with a reasoning that was summarized in an article by Kees Boeke, resulting in the assumption that the chanson repertoire of the 15th century (before the advent of a class of bass instruments) was customarily transposed up by a fourth or fifth.[2]

Marc Lewon

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[1] See 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°), p. 184, in: Young, Crawford & Kirnbauer, Martin (eds.): Frühe Lautentabulaturen im Faksimile / Early LuteTablatures in Facsimile (= Pratica Musicale, vol. 6), Winterthur (Amadeus) 2003.

[2] Boeke, Kees: „Agricola and the ‚Basevi Codex‘. Some considerations about the performance of chansons“, in: Alexander Agricola – Musik zwischen Vokalität und Instrumentalismus (= Trossinger Jahrbuch für Renaissancemusik, vol. 6), Kassel et al. (Bärenreiter) 2006, pp. 171-83.


2 thoughts on “Clefs and Tuning

  1. Pingback: An Assessment of the Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature | mlewon

  2. Pingback: The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature | mlewon

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