Finding the Fingering

[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.]

In contrast to other known lute tablatures the Wolfenbüttel-Kassel system seems to be the only one that does not provide definite instructions for the left hand fingering. Lute tablatures usually work like coordinate systems, where the strings (or rather: the courses) are represented by a range of parallel, horizontal lines while the intended fretting is indicated on said lines by letters or numbers. German lute tablature admittedly looks very different but employs the same system, in essence, combining both the information for the horizontal (which string) and vertical position (which fret) into one symbol that represents both. These systems do not tell us which finger should be put there, but they convey information on where on the fingerboard the intabulator intended a certain note to be fretted. This is crucial as there often is more than one possibility to play a certain note on the lute.

The Wolfenbüttel system appears to present the arrangements in mensural notation, thus in a system, which is not dependent on a certain instrument or tuning to be intelligible and which certainly does not seem to offer any clue for intended fingerings. The Kassel Collum Lutine is a lute-neck diagram just like those, which are customarily found in didactic lute manuals to explain the system of German lute tablature (such as Virdung, Newsidler, Gerle, etc.): A schematic drawing of a lute neck with six to eight frets shows the symbols representing every possible position on the fingerboard. The only difference to the Kassel Collum Lutine is that it gives the proper note names instead of symbols. These note names correspond to the notes employed in the Wolfenbüttel Tablature. Because of this direct correspondence it would be possible to attach a certain note in the tablature to a certain place on the fingerboard and thus also provide a definite fingering for the left hand. But what about notes that have more than one possible position on the fingerboard?

D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31 (Kassel Lautenkragen), fol. II-1r—diagram of the lute neck with marked positions marked on the frets.

D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31 (Kassel Collum Lutine), fol. II-1r—diagram of the lute neck with positions marked on the frets (reproduction with kind permission of Amadeus Verlag).

Those “ambivalent” notes, which are duplicates to notes in a standard position are found in high positions on the fingerboard. In the Kassel Collum Lutine they are marked with a little hook above the note name. The key to the diagram identifies these diacritic signs as “signa equivalencia”.[1]

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

D-Kl, 2° Ms. Math. 31 (Kassel Collum Lutine), fol. II—singna equivalencia (reproduction with kind permission of Amadeus).

“Equivalentes”-positions have to be used occasionally in the surviving parts of the Wolfenbüttel Tablature in order to render certain chords playable, but they are not marked there. This is not surprising since it is difficult to imagine how the signa of the Kassel Collum Lutine could have been applied to a mensurally notated example, especially for individual notes within chords. They seem to have been reserved for marking written-out note names. Nevertheless, the use of these signa clearly indicates awareness on behalf of the inventor or the scribe that certain notes can be portrayed in different “equivalent” ways on the lute. They seem to have intended a more definite indication for the left hand fingering, much like the system of German lute tablature—a fact, which was also pointed out by Kirnbauer (p. 188).

In my conversions to French lute tablature I chose to mainly employ the fingerings for the standard, non-equivalentes positions on the fingerboard, only resorting to equivalentes when I wanted to place certain concordancie (dyads or chords) on neighbouring strings to avoid “splits”.

Finger versus Plectrum

A few early sources of lute music have already been suspected to reflect arrangements for the plectrum lute.[2] The Wolfenbüttel Tablature, however, appears to me the most convincing candidate by far. The supporting evidence was assembled in the course of the preceding blog entries, which were dedicated to the individual pieces in the source. It boils down to a few characteristic features and tendencies, namely a) to reduce the number of voices of the original chansons from a three voice texture to a contrapuntal core of cantus and tenor in the arrangements and only to include contratenor passages whenever idiomatically suitable, b) to propel the counterpoint either by full chords, which are arranged so that they can be strummed with one stroke across neighbouring strings, which c) are bridged by monophonic runs, or d) by splitting up the two lines of cantus and tenor in such a fashion that the voices are driven along alternately. These features all in all describe a playing technique, which lives up to its 16th century name: “Lautenschlagen” (“striking the lute”) and which lends itself to plectrum technique. Staehelin’s early dating of the Wolfenbüttel Tablature and his suggestion that the system might pre-date the invention of the German lute tablature also places the arrangements in a time when plectrum playing would have been considered the norm.

Of course the surviving fragments of the Kassel-Wolfenbüttel system could turn out to be later and finger technique could turn out to have already been a standard by the mid-15th century. The fact that only two sources for this practice survive could also indicate that they were amongst the earliest witnesses of a change in lute technique that was just starting at that time: the paradigm shifting changeover from monophonic/heterophonic playing with a plectrum to polyphonic arrangements, played with the fingers. Hans Judenkünig’s remark from 1523 seems to suggest, that the technique of plucking the lute strings with fingers came in conjunction with the invention of the system of (German) lute tablature and that the latter might thus be equaled with the concept of portraying polyphonic arrangements soloistically on the lute: “Everyone knows that in recent years, within a man’s memory, tablature was invented for lute and [finger] picking, and the old players played everything with a feather, which is not [as] artful.” [Kirnbauer, p. 187]

However, Judenkünig might not have been familiar with solo lute techniques almost a hundred years before his time, which might have included polyphonic arrangements for the plectrum lute. Even though we have no clear evidence for it, it is technically possible and perceivable and the Wolfenbüttel Tablature is a convincing candidate for a source, apt for both plectrum and finger technique—albeit a finger technique that was only one step away and still within shouting distance of the plectrum.

Marc Lewon

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[1] See also 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. 179, in: Young, Crawford & Kirnbauer, Martin (eds.): Frühe Lautentabulaturen im Faksimile / Early LuteTablatures in Facsimile (= Pratica Musicale, vol. 6), Winterthur (Amadeus) 2003.

[2] Suggestions for sources for the plectrum lute focused on the Pesaro-manuscript (see Ivanoff, Vladimir: Das Pesaro-Manuskript: Ein Beitrag zur Frühgeschichte der Lautentabulatur, Tutzing (Hans Schneider) 1988 (= Münchener Veröffentlichungen zur Musikgeschichte 45) , S. 147-162 and Ivanoff, Vladimir: „An Invitation to the Fifteenth-Century Plectrum Lute: The Pesaro Manuscript“, in: Coelho, Victor Anand (Hrsg.): Performance on Lute, Guitar, and Vihuela. Historical Practice and Modern Interpretation, Cambridge 1997 (= Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice 6), S. 1-15 and the Thibault-Tablature (Marc Lewon’s personal research), doubts are cast by Young/Kirnbauer on pp. 138-9.

2 thoughts on “Finding the Fingering

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

  2. Pingback: The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature | mlewon

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