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Saturday morning quotes 3.17: Acknowledgement

September 7, 2013

Having just published Volume Two of our series Harmonia Caelestis: An anthology of 16th-century sacred music for voice and lute, we belatedly came across a pertinent reference that ought to have been included in the bibliography.  The source was not quoted or referenced in any way in our work, but it provides such clear reinforcement to our approach that we devote today’s post to quotes excerpted from the article.

The author is musicologist and lutenist, Victor Coelho, Professor of Music at Boston University, and the article is “Revisiting the Workshop of Howard Mayer Brown: [Josquin’s] Obsecro te Domina and the Context of Arrangement,” in ‘La musique de tous les passetemps le plus beau’: Hommage à Jean-Michel Vaccaro, ed. H. Vanhulst, F. Lesure & V. Coelho. Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1998: 47-65.

The focus of Coelho’s article is the importance of intabulations of vocal polyphony in the context of 16th-century music, and how Howard Mayer Brown led the way toward recognizing historical lute tablatures as a source of critical information concerning analysis, application of accidentals and overall performance practice.

As musical descendants from vocal music, intabulations were accorded a place of distinction over abstract instrumental works, adding legitimacy to printed books of lute and vihuela music.  They allowed the player to present himself as a consummate musician and helped raise the status of the lutenist during the sixteenth century to the venerable title of musico, as opposed to a mere pulsatore – the term sometimes given to lutenists in sixteenth-century documents. (p. 49)

Intabulations were as much a reservoir of information as a performance medium – a form of scoring polyphonic music on a single stave at time when music was normally printed in individual part-books.  While the skill of intabulation was synonymous with the skill of composition in the 16th century, far too many modern musicologists have ignored or dismissed the value of this important historical resource.

The treatises devoted to the art of intabulation…confirm the importance of this exercise as a part of musical pedagogy and leave no doubt that intabulators must be well-trained, well-read and well-rounded musicians.  As in any repertory, intabulations vary in quality, ranging from brilliantly ornamented arrangements by professionals to elementary noodlings by amateurs.  But they are almost never the result of some dumb plucker trying to place vocal music into tablature because he cannot read mensural notation.  Obviously, to intabulate one must be able to read the original, understand its contrapuntal and formal structures, and arrange parts into score. (p. 49)

Why was such an important source of information dismissed by specialists in historical music who really should have known better?

But to editors of Renaissance music and to the more conservative streams of source-based musicology, it was the intabulations that were fundamentally flawed.  After all, intabulations are still arrangements that are at least one or two generations removed from the original.  They were disregarded as processed, not all-natural; tap water, not eau de source.  More importantly, it was feared that these derivative works would undermine the established opinion and best efforts of historians to provide a cogent, unified, and air-tight history of Renaissance music.  By revealing the plurality of approaches that were possible to arranging a single vocal model, intabulations threatened the notions of textual authority, of what is central and what is peripheral.  They introduced the uncomfortable idea of the ‘open score’ that might eventually chip away at the wissenschaftlich editorial practices in making monuments that formed the bedrock of the musicologist’s training.  Intabulations were seen as the little anarchists trying to overthrow the international editorial committee; as rioters looting the palace. (pp. 51-52)

Coelho’s article acknowledges Howard Mayer Brown as the clear-thinking champion of intabulations as a valuable source of information.

…And it was Brown who was empowering all of these previously undervalued Italian lutenists and peripheral Spanish vihuelists…to whom he granted voting privileges on issues of musica ficta, ornamentation, paraphrase technique, compositional process, performance practice, and transmission of repertory.  Shouldn’t instrumentalists have a say in how music actually sounded? (p. 52)

We urge you to peruse Victor Coelho’s publications where you can find more of his insightful and incisive writing on music old and new.

  1. Good argument. I remember Dowland’s realization of the bass of Caccini in MB.

  2. Dan Winheld permalink


    “Shouldn’t instrumentalists have a say in how music actually sounded?”

    “Intabulations were seen as the little anarchists trying to overthrow the international editorial committee; as rioters looting the palace.”

    I hope to read more of Victor Coelho’s works- have already read some of his work in other individual pieces, more will be better.

    Every time we lutenists play a note, we strike a blow for individual freedom, chaos, & diversity as well as reestablishing the correct musica ficta!
    Brothers and Sisters Unite! Down with the Corporate Choirmasters!

    This humble “pulsatore” (great term!) will be striking a blow for Freedom of Expression this afternoon, 4 pm, PDT, at The Musical Offering in Berkeley, part of their “Music in the Garden” Series. Including many intabulations by J.P. Paladin, Francesco, Marco, and- in my opinion, one of the greatest of them all- the immortal Miguel de Fuenllana.


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