English Renaissance guitar music from the Osborne Commonplace Book

English Renaissance guitar music from the Osborne Commonplace Book Here are transcriptions for ukulele of seven English Renaissance guitar pieces from around 1560. It is fortunate that the instrument, then often called the gitterne, was tuned the same way as the modern ukulele, but with paired strings on the 2nd and 3rd courses, and octaves on the 4th course.

I have recently been playing through the tablature books of Renaissance (4-course) guitar pieces published in the mid-1500s.  The composers / arrangers are French (Le Roy, Brayssing, Morlaye and Gorlier) and Spanish (Fuenllana and Mudarra). By the way, many of these have been transcribed in modern, classical guitar notation by Keith Calmes (see Resources page via tab above).

The Renaissance guitar began to be imported into England about 1550, and was regarded as something exotic and fashionable amongst the élite (Christopher Page, 2017: see image below). It also seems to have become popular with persons of the “middling sort” and possibly also with “common” people. (Well, this was a very class-conscious age, an attitude that has not entirely disappeared, just kept under cover.) The guitar’s popularity seems to have waned towards the end of the century, and it became superseded by the 5-course Baroque guitar in the 1600s.

The learned publication from which I have derived all of the historical information in this blog, and quite a bit of the musical insight too. My descriptions of the individual pieces, except where sources are cited, are largely my own, and rather more fallible.
Published by Cambridge University Press, 2017 (pbk).

The only English music for Renaissance guitar seems to be in manuscript, the main source being the Osborn Commonplace Book (c1560) from which Page prints a number of transcriptions. Fortunately, the book, now in Yale, has been made available online here. It includes 8 pp of music for 4-course guitar, as well as lute music, recipes, lyrics and letters. Each page carries 2 different numbers, but here I use the page label in the pdf facsimile (e.g. f 42 v) to discriminate between pieces having the same name.

To get to grips with the style and the (very neat) calligraphy in the MS, I used Page’s transcriptions as worked examples alongside the facsimiles. Then I went solo and transcribed a few more. Some transcriptions were straightforward: clear writing, fully barred, and with all the note lengths adding up to the correct total. Others were not fully barred, the bars being used only to separate sections, and I could not always make the note lengths add up. My comments for individual pieces point out what I have done.
Some of the pieces, of which I present only two (‘Morisco gallyard’ and ‘Hedgynge haye’), are basically strums which were presumably used to accompany songs and dances – a rôle reminiscent of that of the ukulele today. 
‘The hedgynge haye’ in the Osborn Commonplace Book, f 40 (pdf, ignore the page no. on the MS).
Very clear calligraphy (except the title). Note how concise, and paper-saving, this layout is. The bar separates the two lines in the tune.  
One piece (‘Pasy measure’) is basically an arpeggiated strum, using the chord sequence of the Passamezzo antico. The other pieces are more fully developed and mostly fall under the fingers whilst a chord is held – most convenient. They include divisions (diminutions) based mostly on scale fragments. In ‘Pavan f 42v’, §A”, there is some running up and down the first string, as was the style of the time. Today we would play in position.
Page points out that the Renaissance lute was played (by plucking with the fingers) mainly in an élite academic style, derived from ecclesiastical polyphony, and was not normally strummed. Chords arose as an overlapping of the different voices. The Renaissance guitar, however, had two rôles: as a “mini-lute” for formal music, and as a (presumably) strummed instrument for accompanying songs and dances. Most of the other transcriptions that I post are inevitably of the “posh” genre, as that is most of what has survived.
The strumming style could represent the continuation of earlier popular music, played on wire-strung instruments such as the citterne, which was carved from a single piece of timber and had the strings fixed to the bottom edge of the body rather than gut strings to the bridge. The music seems to be based on (“vertical”) chords rather than “horizontal” lines.
And now a few general comments on the harmonies and chord voicings. I am aware of the pitfalls of applying modern harmonic terms anachronistically to this music.
1. In the strummed pieces all four strings are played, providing chord inversions or, in ‘Morisco’, a drone on the 4th (which in the guitar would be octave Gs).
2. In the other pieces the chords are rooted; i.e. the bass note is the root note of the chord.
3. In ‘Morisco’ and ‘Pavan f 40’, both in the key of C, the chord of Bb is prominent, which I find unexpected. I must do more research to see if this was a common usage.  The Bb also occurs briefly in ‘Pasy measure’, in the key of D(m).
4. The chord of A in the key of D(m) is often voiced without the 3rd (A5 in modern symbols), so it could in some places be Am. Is this a hark back to times when harmonies consisted only of root and 5th?
5. In some pieces, this A5 chord is played twice in a cadence (e.g. ‘Pavan f 42v’, bar / measure 3), separated by a low G. This sounds very Medieval modal to my ears.
6. Pieces and sections in a minor key finish with the tonic major: the tierce de picardie. It was apparently considered bad form to end on a minor chord.

The transcriptions

1. Morisco gallyard

Transcription: Christopher Page (2017), p. 123.
I have followed Page’s transcription quite slavishly. He explains that this piece employs a style of simple strumming that harks back to earlier times, quite unlike the academic works of highly educated Spanish and French composers. Indeed, he says that the piece is a “blatant example” of the older style and is “seemingly designed to resist any but a vigorous and raking performance”. Uncomplicated as it is, I find it not always easy to keep count of the rhythms. The block chords can be strummed or “gripped” (plucked with thumb and fingers).

The chord sequence doesn’t seem to fit any of the common grounds:

bVII  | bVII  |bVII · I   | V        |
bVII  | bVII  |I · IV · V | I · IV · V | I · IV ·V | I     ||  × 2

2. The hedgynge hay

Transcription: Christopher Page (2017), p. 58
The hay was a simple rustic dance, and this basic chord sequence tune was probably strummed as an accompaniment – not all Renaissance guitar music was in imitation of the lute! Whether you strum with the thumb or the back of a finger nail depends on what sounds best your instrument: on the banjo using the back of the nail (even to pick individual notes) is called “frailing”. The 4th string acts as a drone, possibly harking back to earlier music. I imagine that the piece served as an accompaniment to a melody instrument such as a pipe or fife.

The chord sequence (ground) is that of a passamezzo moderno in C major (see next post).

A coincidence: I was trimming a recalcitrant thorn hedge whilst listening to a radio programme on dances mentioned in Shakespeare, when the meaning of “hay” was described. It is derived from the French word “haie” meaning hedge: just as when hedge-laying one weaves the stems in and out, so in dancing the hay the dancers weave in and out. This could be the “hey” of “hey nonny nonny no”.

3. Pasy measure (Passamezzo antico)

Transcription: Christopher Page (2017), p 124.
PASSAMEZZO (or “pasy measure”) was a fairly dance popular during this period. It could be in 4/4 or 6/4 time. Passamezzo antico was a ground on which variations were made (see next post), and had this basic chord sequence:
i     | VII   | i      | V    |
III   | VII   | i · V  | i    || 
This piece follows the pattern exactly (in Dm) in the first statement, except for the D major harmony in bar 8 – the tierce de picardie yet again. 
In the development, however, we have a variation thus:
i ·  IV  |  VII  |  i · vi  |  V   |
i ·  IV  |  VII  |  i · V   |  I   ||  [Fine]
An interesting lesson in the development of a standard harmonic sequence.

4. Saltarello and 5. Gallyard

Transcription of ‘Saltarello’ (notation for classical guitar): Christopher Page (2017), p. 5.

I used this to make the current version, but with the following changes:

a) Time changed from 3/2 to 4/2 as there are 8 crotchets (quarter notes) to the bar, and my setting software insists I make the adjustment.
b) Lengths of notes adjusted to what is achievable on the instrument.
c) I have indicated repeats by labelling the sections, rather than by either inserting repeat bars (a fiddle as the section boundaries are mid-bar) or adding by “bis” as in the MS.
I have transcribed the ‘Galliard to the Saltarello’ directly from the rather confusing (unbarred) MS facsimile. I have made “corrections” to make the structure similar to that of the Saltarello (but in a different rhythm), although there are only three rather than four sections. Not perfect, but the best I can manage.
The MS was probably no more than an aide-memoir to the scribe, who knew what he wanted it to sound like.
HARMONIES: an exercise in the three chord trick (G C D).
§A :  IV · I · IV  |  V         |  I · IV · V · I  |  I        |
§B :  V            |  V · I     |  I · VI · V      |  I · V    |
§C :  IV · V · IV  |  V         |  I · IV · V      |  I        |
§D :  V            |  V         |  I · IV · V      |  I        || ∥[Fine]
Very similar: §§ A, B, D (no § C)∥

6. Pavan f 40r

Facsimile: The Osborn Commonplace Book, f 40r (pdf).

Not an easy piece to transcribe, as there were only two “bar lines” in the whole MS, probably delimiting sections (which I have indicated by double barring in the score). 
There were some timing discrepancies, I believe, mostly where the scribe has forgotton to insert a third beam, as in (e.g.) bar 5, when compared with the similar bars 9 and 13. I am unhappy about the final 4-bar section, which sounds like a coda, and have omitted two semi-quavers from bar 19 to make everything fit: weird, but playable.
 I imagine that this MS was just an outline, and the performer would have played his own version as he saw fit.
This transcription does not show all notes to their full lengths, as the piece consists of block chords followed by runs of notes. I imagine that the player would have held the chords for as long as possible whilst playing the top line, but I have not indulged in notational trivialities to show all the detail.

7. Pavan f 42v

Facsimile: The Osborn Commonplace Book, f 42v (pdf)
This is a nice clear MS, and fully barred, though I have divided each of the original bars into two.
There are three sections set in Dm, the first a statement and the others variations on it.  The very simple harmonies, involve only Dm, C, and A, but with and unexpected Bb in bar 6, and with each section ending on D major. It looks rather like a variation on the passamezzo antico.

i   | i   | VII   | VII   | i   | VII · VI  |  V   |  V   |
i   | i   | VII   | VII   | i   | V         |  I   |  I   ||    x3 


I have combined all seven pieces into an omnibus pdf edition, to download free HERE (it’s about 1.1 MB).

If you would like the TablEdit files or MIDI versions, please let me know.

Have fun!

Tags: #commonplace #english #guitar #music #osborne #renaissance

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