Terzi’s intabulations

Giovanni Antonio Terzi published two books (1593 and 1599) with music for lute solo, voice and lute, lute duet and lute quartet. All lute duets are virtuosic diminutions on existing canzones, chansons and madrigals. This is a list of all the lute duets:

Intavolatura di liuto, libro primo (Venezia, 1593)

Vestiva i colli (Palestrina a5). Diminutions and intabulation of madrigal in different parts. For lutes a fourth apart.
S’ogni mio ben (Striggio a6). Diminutions and intabulation of madrigal in different parts.
S’ogni mio ben (Striggio a6). Diminutions and intabulation of madrigal in different parts. A second set of diminutions on the same madrigal.
Ancor ch’io possa dire (Striggio a6). Diminutions and intabulation of madrigal in different parts.
Susanne un jour (Lasso a5). Diminutions and intabulation of chanson in different parts. For lutes a fourth apart, diminutions for the lower lute.
Petit Jacquet (Correggio a4). Diminutions and intabulation of chanson in different parts.
Canzon (Corregio a4). Diminutions and intabulation equally divided between the parts.
Un altra canzon (Corregio a4). Diminutions and intabulation equally divided between the parts.

Intavolatura di liuto, libro secondo (Venezia, 1599)

Allermifault (Willaert a5). Diminutions and intabulation equally divided between the parts.
Liquide perle (Marenzio a5). Diminutions and intabulation of madrigal in different parts.
Non mi toglia il ben mio (Ingigneri a4). Diminutions and intabulation of madrigal in different parts.

It is noteworthy that many of the intabulations have the text per suonar solo, & a duoi liutti indicating that they can be played as solo pieces, too. The diminutions lack this text, suggesting they can only be played together with the intabulations and are not considered solo pieces.

In all but three of these pieces the two lutes have quite unequal parts. While one player can indulge in virtuosic diminutions, nothing but single-voice runs up and down the instrument, the other player has to labour on the intabulation of a French chanson or Italian madrigal. When listening to this music we get the impression that the virtuosic solo part is the more difficult of the two: all those fast notes! But lute players will know better, as the real hard work is making the intabulations sound like music. Many of the chords in these parts are very hard to finger, and to give each note its proper length is simply impossible.
But these intabulations are not mere accompaniments to the diminutions of the solo lute parts, as Terzi clearly indicated when he writes that they can also be played as solo pieces. Actually, many of the pieces for solo lute in these two books are intabulations with diminutions integrated into one piece; the impossibly fast combined with the impossibly hard to finger! See for example the wonderful Chi farà fede (Striggio a5) in the second book, which was written explicitly for liuto grande. Even on a small lute this is a challenging piece.

The intabulations can easily be dismissed as too difficult to finger and therefore not meant to be played literally. Instead, perhaps, we should see them as pocket scores of the original and adapt them to our own technical abilities and musical taste. We could for example read in them only the chordal structure of the piece and play them as proto-continuo: chords with as many of the original notes as possible, but without much regard to the underlying polyphonic structure. Or we can thin the polyphony till we have an intabulation with notes we are actually able to play. However, before we do so and rashly throw away much of Terzi’s hard work in making these intabulations so difficult, let us take a closer look at the intabulations and see how impossible they really are.

S’ogni mio ben

As an example I have put Striggio’s six-voice madrigal S’ogni mio ben, used by Terzi for two duets, above Terzi’s intabulation. You can download it as a pdf-file.  In comparing Striggio’s madrigal with Terzi’s intabulation we notice a several things.


There some differences between Striggio’s madrigal and Terzi’s intabulation. One has to careful in labelling these differences mistakes, because it is possible Terzi made his intabulation from a different version of Striggio’s madrigal than I am using.

I have found three notes in Terzi’s intabulation that I consider mistakes, so I have corrected these.
Of course, not all notes of Striggio’s madrigal are possible to play on a lute, so notes are missing. But I have counted less than ten of these.
Furthermore, there were three notes missing that could have been included. It is possible Terzi had a different original to work from, but it is also possible that he thinned out the chords here.
There were a few notes in Terzi’s intabulation that were not in Striggio’s madrigal. Where I failed to see a good reason for inclusion of these notes, I have placed these between brackets.
Lastly, in the final chord Terzi has transposed the Basso an octave down, exactly as a bass singer might have done.

Repeated notes

On a few occasions Terzi repeats notes that are tied in Striggio’s madrigal. This is a typical feature of many 16th century lute intabulations of vocal music. Perhaps the notes were struck again because on a lute they fade too quickly, perhaps the notes were repeated in print as a visual aid to knowing their lengths or perhaps they were written as an aid in the process of intabulating. However, in Terzi’s intabulations they are so rare that each instance deserves individual attention.

I have found two repeated notes that make sense, because they can not be sustained any other way (the d in the Alto in measure 6 and the d in the Basso in measure 26).
In measure 8 the g in the Canto is repeated from the preceding measure. Although this is a typical place to repeat notes in 16th century lute intabulations, in this piece it is the only instance in comparable places, so I judge this is an error in Terzi’s intabulation and put it between brackets.
I have found three more repeated notes that do not make much sense to me, so I have placed these between brackets, too.

Doubling notes

There are many notes in the tablature that belong to more than one voice, like in measure 3, third half note d; the 5 on the third course belongs both to the Quinto and the Sesto. I have counted 31 such instances in Terzi’s intabulation. In a vocal rendition of the madrigal this is no problem, as each voice has its own colour and can be followed easily, but in an intabulation on one instrument this makes the polyphony harder to follow.

Sustaining notes

It is impossible to give each note its proper length, so it is impossible to sustain all the voices and create a truly polyphonic structure. But, given the complexity of the score, a six-part madrigal, and the limitations of a seven-course instrument with only four fingers to hold all the notes, it is remarkable how much of the polyphony actually can be retained. I feel enough of the voices can be sustained to give at least the impression of polyphony. At some places Terzi has taken great pains to sustain notes. Take for example measure 20, third half note. This very difficult chord could have been fingered easier with the middle a and d as open courses. But then the g of the Alto could not have been sustained. Terzi has made a similar choice on the last chord of measure 30, where the f and d could have been fingered as open courses to create a much easier chord. Terzi has decided against this, in order to sustain the Alto and Tenore.

In the second book, Terzi uses plus-signs to indicate where you should hold your left hand fingers on the strings to sustain voices. So it is evident that he did care about playing the polyphony as well as possible.


So far Terzi’s intabulation is proving to be a very good one: most of the notes of Striggio’s madrigal are incorporated and enough of the voices can be sustained to give a convincing impression of a polyphonic structure. But in order to know how well this intabulation actually works on a lute, we have to judge the fingering. Now this is a very personal matter, dependant on one’s technical skills and on the size of one’s lute. Below the intabulation I have made a possible fingering. Fingerings are very personal, so this is not meant to be a universal fingering, but an attempt at showing how the intabulation could be played without adapting any notes of Terzi. I can play most, but not all of the chords on my 59cm lute. One of the very hard ones is in measure 18, fourth half note. I have even given two possible fingerings, but for me both are equally impossible at a realistic tempo. The same difficult chord appears again in measure 20 on the first beat, and, in fact, in more intabulations by Terzi. So we must assume he was aware of what he was writing. Another very hard chord is in measure 21 on the first beat. By leaving out for example the g (second course, fifth position), Terzi could have achieved a chord much easier to finger, but he did not. Again, he seems intent on retaining as many of Striggio’s notes as possible.


The question arises why Terzi has not provided us with a playable part. I think two answers can be given. The first one is, obviously, that Terzi must have been an extraordinary lute player. His technical abilities must have been outstanding, so perhaps for him this intabulation is playable. But even a lute player with a perfect technique can not sustain all the voices, and the signs in the second book indicating notes to hold, tell us that he did care about sustaining voices. So that leads us to a second answer to why Terzi did not simplify the intabulation into a part that is playable. I think simplifying the part in print would be considered a lie against the truth of music. What a player does in a concert is up to him; as long as his audience likes what he is doing he can get away with it. But printing a less than perfect intabulation is willingly making mistakes against the rules of polyphony, visible for the world and posterity. Music was a science, and especially the theory of the prima prattica was held in high regard, as we can learn from Artussi’s attack on Monteverdi’s madrigals (see G. M. Artusi – L’Artusi, ovvero, Delle imperfezioni della moderna musica. Venice, 1600). A composer was eager to show he understood the rules of polyphony, as many lute players did when they opened their books of lute music with polyphonic fantasias, followed by intabulations of vocal works and closing with dances and other light music. Terzi’s Libro Primo is a good example of this practice. And although his Libro Secondo is not, the index does give the pieces in this order of more learned music before the lighter pieces, showing Terzi understood what was important in music.

Practical solutions

After this examination we are still left with an intabulation we cannot play, whether due to Terzi’s perfect fingers or his unwillingness to print less than perfect polyphony. But we do have a better understanding of what Terzi thought important in his intabulation: polyphony. He has made every effort to preserve as many notes of the original as possible and to sustain these as well as possible. That means we should not play Terzi’s intabulations as proto-continuo by playing only the outer voices and filling the space in between with as many notes of the chords as we can manage or feel appropriate. If we want to adapt Terzi’s intabulation we should leave out notes with keeping as much of the polyphonic structure intact as our fingers are able to play.
Just so that you can have a feel of a possible solution I have made such a version of thinned out polyphony for S’ogni mio ben, one that leaves as much polyphony in as my fingers can manage. You can download it as a pdf-file. If your fingers can manage more, you should turn back to Terzi, but of you still have trouble playing my version, you can thin out the part even more. Added are Terzi’ diminutions on this madrigal titled Contraponto and Un’ altro contraponto. Enjoy!

David van Ooijen 2006

This article has appeared in May 2006 in volume XXXXI, No. 2 of the Quarterly, the news letter of the Lute Society of America.