Transcribing Renaissance music for the low-G ukulele
This is a brief account of the process that I adopt in making my low-G ukulele versions of this wonderful old music. Well, I say brief, but it is quite a long post now I come to think. I have also made a pdf version, which you can download here.
Transcription involves getting the original copied as accurately as possible in a different, more appropriate, format. Arranging involves estimating the length of time that a note is sounded, fitting music for 6- (or more) course instruments such as lute or vihuela on a 4-string instrument such as the ukulele, and sometimes simplifying the most difficult parts. The most abundant music available (in print or online, transcribed or in facsimile) is for the lute, but there is plenty for the vihuela and Renaissance guitar as well.
Most published versions of arrangements of old music for the ukulele give staves for the full notation and tabs in parallel. The tabs may be a reduced version indicating just the fingering, but not the note lengths, so you have to read notation and tabs staves simultaneously. My intention in this blog is to give the fullest version of the tabs, with note lengths, voices, ligatures etc., so that they can be used alone. It’s not possible, however, to show all the subtleties, so the notation will be the definitive version.
This means that I’m being a lot more prescriptive than the original composers: they just showed the bare bones of the music, and left it to the player to use his or her own ingenuity and experience to interpret it. So here is a caveat: my transcriptions are just my opinions. You may have different ones. You only have to compare modern transcriptions of the same piece, by trained musicians rather than by an amateur like me, to see how different they are from each other – even though they have all the right notes in the right places.
The first string is represented by the space above the top line of the stave, down to the 4th string at the bottom. The facsimile above shows one and a half pieces in Adrian Le Roy’s Quart livre de tablature de guiterre, pub 1553. The letter forms are squashed but clear. The c has a flat top to distinguish it from the e. (When we get to manuscripts later, we will see that letter forms are not always so clear.)
Concordance of the various symbols used in Renaissance lute and guitar music in print and MSS (French format). One may need to halve the lengths of the notes in the originals, as Poulton and Lam did in most of their transcriptions. The first finger dot indicates un-accented notes, assuming that it is weaker than the thumb.
Looking at bars 1 and 5 in line 1 in the facsimile above, it is pretty obvious that the notes on strings 2, 3 and 4 should be held through the bar whilst the melody is played on the top string. In line 4 bar 5, the melody is held on the top string throughout the bar.
When it comes, however, to the bass line (on the 4th string) in this bar we have a problem. In this notation system, rests are implied by a gap, just as an extended note is. So:
(a) is there a minim (half note) rest in the first half of the bar, before we play two crotchets of c a, or
(b) do we extend the e from the previous bar?
The obvious thing to do is to try it out on your ukulele and see what seems best. Or, you can find a recording online by an expert, and see what he or she does. Valéry Sauvage (a k a “Ukeval”) is a really excellent and productive exponent of this music, and it is worth searching his YouTube channel.
Clef: it is traditional and convenient in music for guitar and banjo to write the music on the treble clef, but an octave higher than it actually sounds. When I started transcribing this is what I did, as you will see from the first posts on the blog. There were, however, just too many ledger lines.
Later transcriptions I have posted are true pitch, with middle C (the one on the first ledger line below the stave) = C4 = string 3. This means the low G string for which I write only needs 2 ledger lines. I am grateful to Bill1 on the Ukulele Underground forum for pointing out the inconsistency, and the value of true pitch notation.
(For the lute transcriptions by Poulton and Lam, shown below, the great stave is used, which is OK for understanding a composition, but impossible as a performing copy for a lutenist.)
For more information I refer you to A guide to playing the Baroque guitar by the late James Tyler (Indiana University Press, 2011), which I found invaluable.
Much of this account also applies to music written for the vihuela, a Spanish instrument tuned like a lute, but with a body more like that of a guitar. The tablature was written in numbers rather than letters, and the string order was reversed, with the treble at the bottom. This post is long enough already, so I will just deal here with lute music in French tablature.
If you are lucky enough to have a Renaissance guitar (I recently treated myself to one) most of the transcriptions will fit perfectly. The only problem is that on a tenor uke you can stretch to an extra fret, so in a few places my arrangements feel a bit uncomfortable on the guitar.
(b) The uke obviously has no 5th and 6th strings, so where possible we have to move notes on them up an octave and enter on strings 3 and 4, which might already be occupied.
The second step is to identify the voices. If you have a piano transcription in parallel with the lute tabs (as in Poulton and Lam, see below) this is quite easy. In general there will be a “melody” line on top, a bass line (guess where), and one or two middle lines or chordal harmonies, all rather like the Le Roy pieces mentioned above, but more complicated. It’s probably best to metaphorically ink in the top voice first, then the bottom voice, and finally see what one can do to fit in the middle parts. It will never be as full a version as the original, but it does help in our understanding of the music. By studying the tabs of composers such as Le Roy and Morlaye for the Renaissance guitar you can see how the masters managed the compromises.
The third step is to refine the arrangement by
It may make the piece easier to play, or more complete, if you transpose the piece to a higher key, to make more use of the higher frets on the ukulele or to fit some lower notes in.
My observation of lute pieces is that the chords (in our modern way of looking at music) are generally rooted in the bass. Often in one’s uke arrangement one wants a bass note as part of the rhythm (the boom in boom ching), and the ukulele doesn’t have it. I then use another note from the chord on the bass (4th) string. So, in the chord of D or Dm, I will use an A rather than the absent D – not perfect, but better than nothing. (This is also what composers for the Renaissance guitar did.)
Symbols and handwriting in MSS
The forms are pretty close to those used in fingering MSS scores. It is confusing at first that the c-symbol resembles r, the f can look like ß, the i like y, and the k like a mistake in writing an l. Even now, in my head, I say “r = 2″ rather than “c = 2″. Why they weren’t written as clearly as those in Le Roy’s books from the 1550s, I don’t know – tradition, I suppose.
An example: John Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavan
One of many MS versions of Lachrimae Pavan. Note that the second flag looks a bit like a ß with a long stem: this is a shorthand version of the crotchet (quarter-note) flag, which should look rather like an “F”. The MS versions of even shorter notes look like a stem with a wiggly line, and are not always easy to interpret. In flagging adjacent notes of the same length, the tails are joined as in modern notation, to give the “gate” or “grid-iron” format.
This facsimile can be seen in full here: https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-DD-00005-00078-00003/18
The same 4 bars in my arrangement for ukulele, with a low 4th string.
This example shows amongst other features:
[For definitions of G2, G3, etc, see this blog post: