Maria Intabulations

In 1511 Sebastian Virdung published his Musica getutscht und ausgezogen in Basel. This treatise in dialogue describes various types of musical instruments and teaches the student to transcribe vocal music for organ, lute and flute. One of the pieces transcribed into German lute tablature is O haylige onbeflecte zart junkfrawschafft Marie. This intabulation is full of mistakes. These mistakes were brought to light as early as 1512 by Arnolt Schlick. His response teaches us something about the way we should treat intabulations.

In Italian and French tablatures each course of the lute is represented by a line. Numbers or letters on these lines indicate at which fret to stop the courses with the left hand. It is impossible to write two symbols on the same course at the same moment in time; the space on the page is already occupied, just as the course is already used for another note. In German tablature, on the other hand, every position on every course has its own unique symbol. The mistake to write music with two notes on the same string to be played simultaneously is easily made, therefore. Virdung uses a system of German tablature in which each vocal line is transcribed into its own line of tablature, with its own line of rhythm signs above it. The result is like a score of four staves in tablature. This makes reading the polyphonic structure of the piece easy, but playing the piece from this score perhaps more difficult. This process of intabulating, although straightforward because of its direct relation to the score in mensural notation, is prone to mistakes that result in unplayable lute pieces.

As an example, you can see the beginning of O haylige onbeflecte zart junkfrawschafft Marie, both in the facsimile and in a transcription into French tablature and score:

Virdung Facsimile

Virdung TranscriptionFirstly, Virdung asks for two notes to be played simultaneously on the same string in numerous places. That is impossible to play. See for example measures 4, 7 and 10. On each occasion I have placed the two symbols Virdung wants to be played simultaneously next to each other in the transcription, centred under their shared rhythm sign. There are many more such places in the rest of the intabulation.

Another thing Virdung did not take into account is the playability of his intabulation, as it has many chords with stretches for the left hand that are not feasible. See for example measures 6, 8 and 10. Again, there are more examples in the rest on the intabulation.

There is a third issue Virdung did not think about, and that is how long a note can be held. In his German tablature score each note is given the same length as in the vocal original. But if we compare the French tablature with the score in staff notation, it is clear many notes that should be sustained cannot be held physically because in the meanwhile another note is to be played on the same course. This is a problem Virdung’s intabulation has in common with other 16th century intabulations of vocal music, and it is up to the performers to find a solution for each individual instance. To find clues about what 16th century lutenists thought about these problems is valuable for our playing today. That is why we turn to Schlick’s answer to Virdung.

I think it is safe to assume Virdung did not play the lute. His knowledge probably went no further than the ability to transcribe vocal pieces into German tablature, one voice at a time, without combining those separate voices into a playable piece. I am not the first to notice this, as barely one year after its publication Arnolt Schlick launched a vicious attack on Virdung in his own treatise Tabulaturen etlicher lobgesang und lidlein uff die orgeln und lauten (Mainz, 1512). There must have been bad blood between Virdung and Schlick, perhaps there had been some incident between them when they worked as colleagues in Heidelberg earlier in their careers, as Schlick’s criticism is unnecessarily harsh. Schlick maybe also overreacted because in Virdung’s treatise there is a sneer to an ‘unnamed, self-proclaimed famous and artistic master’ who doesn’t make distinction between the chromatic genes and musica ficta. This was because, Virdung says, the ‘mirror (Spiegel) has grown dark’. That seems an obvious attack on the blind Schlick, who recently had published a book on organ building entitled Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten (Heidelberg, 1511).

Personal vendettas aside, Schlick does have a point about Virdung’s intabulation: it is unplayable and obviously the product of theoretical knowledge only. What is interesting for us is that Schlick thought it was important to preserve the polyphonic structure of the vocal original in the intabulation. We can conclude this from the fact that Schlick regarded all the mistakes in the intabulation made by Virdung as ‘quite inartistic, wrong and corrupt’. Not just the places where there are two notes to be played upon one string and the impossible chords, but also the places where the notes could not be given their proper lengths. That is a lesson we should take at heart when making or playing intabulations of vocal pieces ourselves: give each note its proper length as can be found in the vocal original. This might seem obvious, but it should serve as a guidance in making fingerings for the left hand.

Schlick in his treatise of 1512 not only writes about music, but he also gives us music to play. One of the pieces is the song Maria zarrt, set for lute and voice. To continue the 16th century’s tradition of intabulating vocal music, and commenting on each other’s work in word as well as music, I have made a version for lute solo of this piece for you to enjoy.

David van Ooijen January 2008

– Blume, Friedrich: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Kassel, 1966)
– Brown, Howard Mayer: Instrumental Music printed Before 1600 (Harvard University Press, 1965)
– Lenneberg, Hans H.: The Critic Criticized; Sebastian Virdung and his Controversy with Arnold Schlick (Journal of the American Musicological Society. Vol. 10 No 1. Spring 1957)
– Schlick, Arnolt: Tabulaturen etlicher lobgesang und lidlein uff die orgeln und lauten (Mainz, 1512)
– Virdung, Sebastian: Musica getutscht und ausgezogen (Basel, 1511)