Playing polyphony on the lute

Cartoon by David Hill

In the previous blog I looked at historical evidence for fingering chords and some scale passages. But lute music is usually polyphonic, so how is the polyphony notated in lute tablature, and how can we best interpret it? Tablature was apparently invented at around the same time that lutenists started playing all the parts of a composition with their fingers rather than just one or two parts with a plectrum. Music for voices was published in partbooks, where each singer could see only their own part, not a score (showing all the parts) as is common in modern times. If you’re a lutenist (or organist) you can’t play from several partbooks simultaneously (see “Palestrina composing” above), so you need a notation which allows you to see all the parts in some kind of score. Tablature provided the solution.

But the problem with tablature is that it only shows the fastest-moving note value at any given point and shows you only where notes begin, not where they end. You might think that this is not important, bearing in mind the short sustain of a note on the lute (as opposed to the organ, or bowed instruments) but our lutenist predecessors were rather preoccupied with this problem and offered various solutions.

Keep your fingers on the string

The most basic form of advice offered to beginners is to keep a finger on a string as long as possible, until it is needed elsewhere.

For example Besard (1603, translated by Dowland in Varietie of Lute Lessons, sig.Cv.) says “Generally take this for a Rule, the fingers must not be taken from the strings, without it being necessary”.

But the advice to hold notes, taken literally, sometimes leads to undesired consequences, for example in Galilei’s Recercare del ottavo tono (1584, p.87, here translated into French tablature for clarity), where if we hold the first three notes for the whole of the first bar we create an Eb major chord, when in fact those notes form a motif which is imitated in bars 2-3. The effect of holding all the notes which can be held is shown in EX1a, the correct interpretation is shown in EX1b:It’s interesting to note that in EX1a, although many of the notes can be held, only two should be (the first note of bar 2 and the corresponding first treble note of bar 3). When playing from tablature it is essential to develop a good instinct for the implied voice-leading.

Hold marks

A more nuanced approach is seen in many printed books and manuscripts which have “hold marks” showing where notes should be held.

Vincenzo Galilei’s Fronimo (1584) is a very thorough guide to intabulating vocal music for the lute and he places great emphasis on holding notes to maintain the correct voice leading. His hold mark is a little cross, placed either next to the note to be held, or at the point where it needs to continue to be held. Here is an extract from the first piece in the book, a Ricerca by Annibale Padovano (bars 17-22):

In the first bar, both notes marked can be held as indicated, but in the remaining four cases it is physically impossible to hold the relevant finger in place. In fact in the complete piece there are 60 hold marks and 12 cases where actually holding the finger on the note is impossible (plus a few more which are extremely awkward).

How can we explain this? Was Galilei incompetent? Why would he put hold marks where it is physically impossible to hold the finger on the note?

I think the answer is that lute tablature is not just a diagrammatic notation showing where to put your fingers but actually a kind of “short score” which allows you to see all the parts at once, so you can see what the music is.

As an aside I note that this may also explain some impossible or near impossible chords in intabulations, and may mean that you can adapt the music slightly to the lute as you go, rather than mechanically attempting to play all the written notes.

This distinction between what the music requires and what is physically possible on the instrument is neatly illustrated by one of the earliest lute manuscripts to show hold marks, which uses two types of them in a very sophisticated way.

In the Capirola lute book (c.1517) there are two types of hold mark, one for music, one for fingers (excerpt from Recerchar secondo, bars 30-57):

The short sloping lines (e.g. in the first two bars) indicate held notes. This kind of hold mark is essentially a musical indication, showing which notes are to be sustained.

The U and inverted U signs are indications of left hand fingering – the little dashes next to some notes indicate which fingers to hold down (i.e. whichever fingers are holding those notes) and the U signs indicate the duration of the hold.

This is sometimes a matter of left hand technique rather than a musical matter, for example, bars 35-37.

The little dash tells us that the finger which holds the second fret on the third course is to be held down through these two bars; and Recerchar terzo, bars 2-3:

where the hold signs tells us to hold whichever finger is used for 7th fret first course until we get back to it again two notes later. This is brilliant – just what I tell my lute students!

Afterword: the lute and the organ

An organ note sustains as long as the finger is held down, whereas the plucked sound of the lute decays quickly, even when the finger is held. But they share a problem, which is that there comes a point where you can’t keep the finger down – then what do you do? Even quite “easy” lute pieces have places where the notes simply can’t be held as one would wish. Modern playing of all instruments tends towards continuous legato. But articulation is essential for musical understanding, and when playing polyphonic music we have to make some intelligent choices about where to hold or not hold notes.


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