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Saturday morning quotes 6.30: Intabulation

December 10, 2016

lochamerSince most of Mignarda’s repertory consists of the historically-appropriate arrangement of polyphonic music for solo voice and lute, today’s post revisits the art of intabulation with a few historical examples that reinforce this essential practice.

Intabulation is the age-old art of making arrangements for a single instrument of music originally written in separate parts in separate books, and meant to be performed by different individual voices or instruments.  The format is attributed to Conrad Paumann (c. 1410 – 1473), a blind organist and lutenist who apparently devised the system and dictated the essentials to a scribe.

The system of intabulation is in no way meant to be a reduction of the music it displays.  Quite the contrary: To realize an intabulation effectively a thorough understanding of the conventions of performing polyphonic music is essential.  Time and again, we are called upon to explain this fact to lutenists, keyboardists, and even to uninformed musicologists who accept the received but faulty idea that intabulation represents a simplification of polyphonic music.  It most certainly does not.  Effective realization of an intabulation demands an understanding of how to differentiate separate parts and how to sustain these parts to the best of our ability on the instrument of our choice, whether lute or keyboard.

A primary source representing lute intabulations of mid- to late 16th-century polyhony, and a source which we mentioned in recent memory, is the set of manuscripts of music copied by (or for) Edward Paston (1550 -1630), a gentleman and amateur musician who adhered to the Catholic faith during the late Tudor-Stuart period, a time when personal religious practice could be life-threatening.  The Paston manuscripts have been amply studied and have received some attention as the source of a number of unica by William Byrd:

“Appleton Hall in Norfolk was one, the home of Edward Paston, member of a distinguished family best known for the 15th-century “Paston Letters”. At court in the 1570s Paston had been known as something of a poet, but he had soon retired to the quiet life of a country squire, a life that allowed him to practise the old religion with less interference and to indulge his hobbies, poetry and especially music. He had a mania for copying music; perhaps a third of all the surviving manuscripts of the time were written by his personal scribes, and we know from his will that cupboardsful of others existed which are now lost.”

– Joseph Kerman, “William Byrd,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980), 5:543.

Some of the surviving manuscripts from the Paston collection are held by the British Library, and in them we find a rich selection of polyphonic music by Tallis, Taverner and Byrd, as well as the best continental composers. Among the secular songs, Mass movements and motets, we find “Ne timeas Maria”.


British Library Add. Ms. 29246, f. 32

“Ne timeas Maria” is set by our old friend Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548 – 1611), whose setting of “O magnum mysterium” was featured here recently.


The four-voice motet bears the inscription, In Annuntiatione Beatæ Mariæ, or for the Annunciation.  The text is from The Gospel according to S. Luke, Chapter 1, verse 30, as the Angel Gabriel addresses the Virgin Mary:

30 And the Angel said vnto her, Feare not, Marie, for thou hast found fauour with God.

31 And behold, thou shalt conceiue in thy wombe, and bring forth a sonne, and shalt call his name Iesus.

King James Bible, 1611

The same story is told in other seasonal settings, including the carol, “The Angel Gabriel“, from our 2008 recording, Duo Seraphim.  The Latin text used by Tomás Luis de Victoria for his setting of “Ne timeas Maria” is from the Vulgate and is as follows:

Ne timeas, Maria;
invenisti enim gratiam
apud Dominum:
ecce concipies in utero,
et paries filium,
et vocabitur Altissimi Filius.

Fear not, Mary,
for thou hast found favour
with the Lord;
and behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb
and bring forth a son;
and he shall be called the Son of the Most High.

Luke is also the source for the Magnificat (Maries song) and Zacharias’ song, both texts set by a great many composers and also published with variations for solo lute as in the linked examples by Nicolas Vallet.

The Paston intabulation of “Ne timeas Maria” is written in Italian tablature, or more rightly, Spanish tablature, since Edward Paston was known to have spent time in Spain and was likely influenced by the medium used by Spanish musicians.  While setting only the lower voices of the four-part motet, interestingly,  Paston’s intabulation begins by including the cantus in the lute part, which is abandoned after the first few measures.  The intabulation follows the part music very closely with minor differences in choice of accidentals and in passing notes, which could mean the Paston scribe had access to a different source of the motet.

Tomás Luis de Victoria set the motet in high clefs but, when transposed down a fourth according the principles of chiavette, the motet agrees with the intabulation with a lute tuned in G. Adjusting the measures and reducing time values to a modern convention, you can compare the Paston intabulation with a direct intabulation from the part-music here.  And you can compare the result with our performance of “Ne timeas Maria” – with added vocal decoration – on our recording Duo Seraphim.




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