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A Guide to Understanding

Lute Manuscript
A French and Italian Comparison

By: Barbara Dubravec & Lillia Woolschlager

Table of Contents
Prologue 3

Day One: Italian ... 4

Lesson One .. 4
Lesson Two .. 5
Homework . 6

Day Two: French . 7

Homework 8

Born in Florence in the late 1520s, I began playing and studying lute at a young age. I was
always fascinated with the strings and how their lengths compared to each other, creating the
proportions that they do. I believe the lute to be a superior instrument, most apt at expressing the
affections of harmonies, such as hardness, softness, harshness and sweetness and consequently
shrieks, laments, complaints and weeping, with such grace and wonder.1 I played and wrote for many
patrons in Piza, Florence, Venice, but my most influential patron (and most profitable) was Giovanni
de Bardi in Piza. He endorsed my studies with the theorist Zarlino, and from there I could write more
creatively for the lute. However, the total lack of imagination and blind acceptance of questionable
theories has led to me to pursue my own experiments and studies. My son Galileo, who has shown to
have a particularly good mind for such matters, has already started to aid me in these experiments and
mathematical pursuits. His curiosity has lead him to ask question my systems of notation, as my
scribbles in the margins of my Lute books are of the French system. I encountered French lute writing
by Sermisy, which caught my interest and sparked curiosity about notation systems. I have since been
transcribing the different systems in my French and Italian part books, in an effort to better
understand the relationship. The discourse of a two-day period where my son learned the different
lute notations made me realize the benefit and need for such a guide. What follows is a dialogue of
the two-day process teaching my son, Galileo.

Vincenzo Galilei Oxford Music Online.

Day One: Italian
Galileo, having dismantled several of my lutes for experiments, came to me with a desire to actually
learn how these sounds translate into music, and learn more about this music. It was about time as his
younger brother Michelangelo is already showing a talent for musical performance. Following is the
best system I devised for teaching those who dont have as brilliantly musically and mathematically
inclined minds as my children.

Lesson One: Reading

First of all, we need to know how the strings on a lute work.
There are many lutes in tuned in different systems, but the strings are always tuned with the same
intervallic relationships: 6 pairs of strings tuned in fourths, with a third in the middle.2

C A D G Low
C A D G High

Galileo, with his curious experimental nature, wanted to figure out why every tuning system doesnt
work for every piece. So he did what he does best and experimented on each different tuning structure.
I recommend that if a lutist is unsure of the key that a piece is written in, that they do the same to
determine which system the harmonies work best in.

Next, we must understand how the notated music indicates which strings we play and which frets will
be used. In manuscript, horizontal lines represent the lute strings, with the top line showing the lowest
sounding string and the bottom line being the highest sounding string. Many beginning lutists may be
confused by this upside-down system, but my sharp son picked up on this quite easily.

Once he understood how to read the lines accurately, our next step was to know how to read the
numbers written on the horizontal lines.
The numbers on the lines represent which fret on the fingerboard that the lutist would play.
Depressing the string at these specific frets will decrease the length of the string, creating a higher
pitch in specific interval than the open string. Galileo was particularly fascinated with this concept,
especially the physics behind the relationship between string length and pitch.

About the Lute The Lute Society,

0 = open string
1 = 1st fret
2 = 2nd fret
3 = 3rd fret
4 = 4th fret

Lesson Two: Rhythm

Now that we have the notes, we of course, need rhythm.
Above the written lines, you will see stems with flags. One flag indicates one full beat, two flags will
be an equal division of one beat, 3 flags divides the beat into four equal parts, and no flags indicated
two full beats. Galileo ques

= two beats

= one beat
= two divisions of a beat

= four divisions of a beat

Unless a new beat division is indicated, the previously written rhythm continues. Based on these
notations for rhythm, the lutist should be able to tell how many beats in a measure. The measure
consists of the amount of beats in between the vertical lines. However, I indicated in my piece
Amarilli that there are three beats in a measure, just to make sure the performer can play accurately.

Galileos biggest challenge in our lessons was bringing out the melody and putting together the
separate voices. I explained that to understand the rhythm in context, you should always consider the
different voices present and how they interact with each other. For example, sometimes a measure
may contain a repetitive steady rhythm (such as each beat in two divisions consistently) and therefore
that line would be kept in one voice.

In the example above, these are notated as division of two and would be kept in the bass line.

Galileo, excited by this newfound understanding, asked if he could play some of my other works to
demonstrate his newfound skill. Not wishing him to scribble on my original manuscripts, as he has a
propensity towards altering and experimenting things, I gave him some of my printed examples of my
work. As I thought about which ones to give him, I decided upon the following as useful examples to
solidify understanding.

From Ecco (Galilei)

1. How many beats are in each measure?

2. In measure one, which voice should the fastest rhythms stay in? Consider voice-leading and
3. Transcribe the example.

From Artemisia (Galilei)

1. Transcribe into a four-voice texture for singers.

Day Two: French
The next morning Galileo was absent at the start of breakfast, a relief as the start of the day usually
entails a repeated existential crisis about the harmonia of the sun, heavens, and Earth. I discovered
later it was because his new-found zeal for Lute entailed him combing through my vast Lute collection.
He came with a book of lute music, not written with numbers but instead letters. He kept guessing
what it meant and how he might read it, and I let him speculate for a while. When he really could not
figure it out on his own, I explained that it is simply the French way of writing lute tablature. I
remembered my encounters with Sermisy and his music, and began structuring lessons to teach my
son the French style of lute manuscript.

In the case of French notation, the lines are flipped and there you may notice that there is one less
line in the notation. So the highest line represents the highest sounding string, but the lowest line is
actually the second lowest sounding string. When the lowest string is used, it will be notated below
the lines as a leger line. I suppose this is the French thinking that the lowest string is rarely used, so
they would rather not notate it.

Specifically looking at Tant que vivray by Sermisy, every rhythm is indicated. However, he does not
write in bar lines other than when certain sections should be repeated, so you must carefully keep
track of where you are in the music.

Once again I gave Galileo an example to try on his own to make sure he really understood how to
read the music.


From Tant que vivray (Sermisy)

1. Is this Italian or French style lute notation? List the differences between the two.

2. Galileo asked what this symbol means: *

3. Transcribe.
* This symbol is a fermata, which indicates the end of the piece. It also indicated that the last plucking
should be allowed to ring until the sound dies naturally.

Thanks to the inquiries and curiosity of my son, Galileo, the above method should be detailed enough
for any beginning lute player to understand, read, and transcribe any Italian or French lute manuscript.

Galileo, ever the pragmatic, remarked about how the French system is much easier and more intuitive
to read and understand. While it is heartening to see an open mind having an appreciation for Sermisy,
something that cannot be said for many of my Italian colleagues, we must remember that this is
because the French are not as sophisticated as Italians. After all we are the ones descendant from the
Greco-Roman Empire. Soon hell be saying the Earth should travel around the sun!