Transcribing Baroque guitar music for low-G ukulele

Transcribing Baroque guitar music for low-G ukulele

This is an expanded version of the preamble to my first post of a piece by Gaspar Sanz: Passacalles sobre la D. I thought I’d write this post, because I recently came back to Sanz after over a year and couldn’t remember what I had done previously. 

I recently bought myself Rob MacKillop’s excellent 20 Spanish Baroque Pieces by Gaspar Sanz (Mel Bay, 2011). I was particularly entranced by this Passacalles in his book, which he arranged in campanella style for re-entrant uke. It was fascinating to see how following the tabs (whose appearance bears little similarity to the shape of the music) produced such a charming sound when played. 
Fig 1. Facsimile of Sanz’s original engraving. The score is very clearly etched, by Sanz himself, but “inverted” i.e. with the bass string at the top and so on.
Mordents are indicated by ⏑ under single notes, trills by T, and vibrato by inclined #-symbols.

Being an inquisitive type, I wanted to see for myself Sanz’ original for 5-string Baroque guitar (Fig. 1), and fortunately found both a transcription and a facsimile of the original. From this, it was but a small step to making my own transcription of the piece, but for the low-G or linear tuning. This article explains how I did it, the problems encountered, and compromises that have to be made.
I have not included references in the text, but there is a reading list at the end of the post.

Tuning

Fig. 2. Common tunings for the Baroque guitar.

In the Baroque period, a number of tunings (Fig. 2) were used on the 5-string guitar; they were similar to the first 5 strings of the modern guitar, but
(a) with double strings for each course, except normally the first; and 
(b) with the lower two courses strung an octave higher (re-entrant tuning). 
The re-entrant tuning (Fig. 2, stave 1) will be familiar to the ukulele player.
In one stringing variant (Fig. 2, stave 2) the 4th course was tuned in octaves, with the high string (requinta) nearest the 5th course, and the low string (bourdón) nearest the 3rd course. This means that to emphasise the high string one can use the thumb, and to emphasise the low string use a finger. 

Other tunings (such as octaves on courses 3 and 5) were used, but were rarer. Gaspar Sanz seems to have had octave stringing on course 3, and would emphasise the higher (requinta) when it formed part of the upper voice, and pluck both otherwise.
This arrangement of strings contrasts with the tuning of the lute and vihuela, which also had octaves on the lower courses, but with the requinta nearest the higher courses, meaning that the bourdón was the string that sounded most strongly whan plucked by the thumb. It seems that octave stringing was originally used because the necessarily thick gut strings were rather muffled in sound; the requinta was added to provide the higher harmonics.
I have yet to find an account of how the re-entrant tuning came into being. Perhaps being used to having a requinta on the lower courses, players came to like the higher brighter sound, and the bourdóns sounded too heavy for the instrument. It does not really lend itself to the lute / vihuela style of composition in which one can detect distinct voices. (The problems this causes in transcription are dealt with below.) It would, however, have been perfect for the campanella style, in which successive notes are played on different strings, and held as long a feasible, to give an overlapping bell-like or harp-like effect. The arrangements of Sanz’ pieces by Rob MacKillop for re-entrant uke are cunningly even more campanella-like than the originals, and show its beauty to the full.
There is a third, chordal style, which involves strums of 4- or 5-note chords, interspersed with single-note playing. This gives chords a very close harmony, with notes on the upper courses sometimes being duplicated by those on the lower courses: a “wall of sound”, with no obvious harmonic root.

Spanish / Italian Tablature

This tablature format uses numerals to represent the frets (Fig. 1). It looks rather like modern tabs, but the courses are “upside down”, with the bass at the top and the treble at the bottom. 
Because of the peculiarities of the re-entrant tuning, tablature is the only realistic way of representing the music in a playable format. If you used normal (mensural) notation you would have to insert all those little numbers in circles to indicate the strings.
Timing is given by small notes (etc) above the tablature, which stay in force until a new note length is shown. The note lengths show how long to wait before you play the next note, not (as in modern music) how long the first note is to sound for. There is no indication of voices, such as bass and treble.
Chordsespecially in strummed pieces, were shown in the abecedario system (Fig. 3), a shorthand in which a large upper-case letter represented a particular chord shape, mostly in nut or first position. These letters seem totally arbitrary, with representing the chord of G major on the guitar, = C major, = D major, and  = Em. Players of the Baroque guitar have to learn them; I just look them up for my transcriptions. You can find my concordance for abecedario for the uke player here. 

Fig. 3. The abecedario system in practice. 
The symbols in order of appearance are: O = Gm, M = Eb, H = Bb, I = A, F = E, = D. 
The tiny ticks on the bottom line show the direction of strum.
Graces (twiddly ornaments) are indicated by symbols in the text. I have made a reference table of how to interpret them derived from James Tyler’s Guide, and posted it here. I must admit that I tend to ignore graces when I first play a piece, as they can involve convoluted fingering.

Transcribing for the ukulele, low 4th

Fig. 4. Various tunings for the ukulele. The re-entrant is perfect for the campanella style and strumming. The linear tuning (low 4th) gives theopportunity for playing a bass line. The imaginary ukulele is the one I visualise when transcribing from Baroque guitar music. The 8-string ukulele tuning is one I am exploring for trying out the re-entrant 4th course.

As noted above, the re-entrant tuning of the Baroque guitar will be familiar to the ukulele player. The instruments are tuned to the same intervals, but with the ukulele 5 semitones higher (Fig. 4, stave 1). This means that one can get a rough idea of how a piece sounds on a re-entrant ukulele by ignoring the 5th string, especially if you have a “right-way-up” guitar transcription, and playing away, meanwhile trying to fit the 5th string onto the uke 3rd by moving up 2 frets. A good mental exercise.

When transcribing, I try to imagine that I have a 5-string ukulele tuned as in Fig. 4, stave 3. This helps especially in getting the 4th and 5th courses properly notated.

But … following this procedure rigidly when transcribing for the uke makes a very lumpy, jumpy piece. Apparently this was acceptable at the time, but I find it jarring to have a melodic or bass line suddenly jump an octaveI have therefore applied the following rules to my transcriptions for low4th uke:
  • The note positions on the Baroque guitar 1st – 3rd courses are transferred directly to the uke tabs. 
  • The note positions on the guitar 5th course are raised an octave for the uke transcription. As a rule add 2 to the 5th course position and play it on uke string 3 if available.
  • The notes on the 4th course are raised an octave on the uke if this would lead to a smooth scale fragment in the melody.
  • The notes on the 4th are maintained in the lower octave if they make a sensible bass line, especially when the piece is in lute style.
  • Anything can be modified to make the piece easier and more enjoyable to play and listen to.
  • The 5-string guitar chord shapes can give an incomplete chord voicing when transferred to the (4-string) uke, so I try to include all the notes where I can.

In conclusion: I admit this procedure is a compromise between what the composers intended and what fits on a uke with a low G string. Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoy playing the arrangements.


References and Sources

James Tyler’s A guide to playing the Baroque guitar (Indiana University Press, 2011) has become my go-to reference for this music
There is an article describing Sanz’ work and tuning here…
and a much fuller analysis of Baroque guitar tuning here.
Rob MacKillop’s 20 Spanish Baroque Pieces by Gaspar Sanz (Mel Bay, 2011) has some lovely arrangements for re-entrant Uke, with an emphasis on the campanella style.
A facsimile of Sanz’ original plates is available here …
and a right-way-up transcription here.
An interesting analysis by Clive Titmuss is here.
A whole collection of Baroque guitar pieces can be found here.
A masterclass on strumming chords (battuto) by Rob MacKillop can be seen here.

Tags: #baroque #guitar #music #transcribing #ukulele

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