Lute Music from the Zeghere van Male MS

In the Middle Ages the Belgium city Bruges was a city flourishing with trade in what was one of the most urbanised areas in Europe. Flemish cloth, a high quality woollen material, was exported to the whole of Europe from Bruges. But the following centuries brought revolts, epidemics, political unrest as well as wars and reduced the importance of Bruges. In the 16th century Bruges recovered to an extent. But by then the city had clearly lost its leading position to Antwerp. However, Bruges remained important as a regional centre with many international commercial contacts and a flourishing arts sector.

One of the 16th century merchants in Bruges was Zeghere van Male. In 1542 he commissioned a set of four part books, together over 1200 pages with 229 compositions. These pieces offer an overview of the most important musical genres of the first half of the 16th century: Latin masses and motets, French chansons, Italian madrigals, Dutch polyphonic songs and instrumental ensemble music. Composers represented in the so called Zeghere van Male manuscript (Cambrai, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 125-8) are for example Josquin, Mouton, Willaert, Sermisy, De Hondt and Hellinck. Interestingly, there a few unica in the manuscript. These are pieces that are not found in any other source. Perhaps they were written especially for this manuscript or perhaps they were copied from a source now lost.

For a colloquium on this special manuscript, organised by the university of Leuven and held in Bruges, I was asked to play some of the instrumental pieces on lute. I intabulated ten dances and three polyphonic pieces without lyrics. Perhaps these latter were written as instrumental fantasias, but their evocative titles could also suggest they were vocal pieces of which the lyrics were not copied into the manuscript. All of the originals had four independent voices and were therefore written for four separate instruments or voices. However, after a little work some turned out to be quite enjoyable lute pieces. To illustrate the process of intabulating from part books, you can see here the beginning of Pour Avoir Mys in the original notation:

in modern score:

and finally the whole piece in my arrangement in tablature (pdf-file). You can see most of the notes in the original can be played on the lute, although later in the piece I do leave out notes that are impossible or very awkward to play. I have interpreted the so-called black notation in the original as triplets in the opening phrase in the bass, but the black notation in the contratenor, transcribed as a triplet in the modern score, is changed into a dotted rhythm in the intabulation. In the intabulation you can find added sharps at the end of measures two and three in the tenor and at the end of measure four in the contratenor. These musica ficta confirm the tonality and are appropriate here in my view. There are many small choices and changes throughout the arrangement. When working on this arrangements, or with existing 16th century lute intabulations and their vocal originals, we can come a step closer to a lutenist living and working in Renaissance Europe.

There is one more noticeable feature about the Zeghere van Male manuscript. It’s pages are littered with cartoon-like illustrations of singing cattle, fishing bears, misbehaving dogs and jolly figures. These are the drawings you find on this page. You can buy these images as postcards from Alamire.

David van Ooijen 2008