Ralph Maier

Assessing Textual Value: Vihuela Intabulations and the Music of Josquin

In the years following his death, the music of Josquin enjoyed widespread circulation throughout Europe in both manuscript and print. On the Iberian Peninsula, where the vihuela de mano witnessed a level of popularity comparable to today’s iPod, the enormous publication runs of the seven known vihuela books published between 1536 and 1576 were integral in the transmission of Josquin’s music within the Spanish urban class.1 Roughly seventy percent of the music in these books finds its genesis in vocal models. Josquin is represented in some sixty pieces, including eight near-complete mass settings by Diego Pisador. Since tablature notation requires the precise rendering of pitches to specific positions on the fingerboard, intabulations provide valuable insights into the unwritten practices of ornamentation and musica ficta (accidentals) by the generation of musicians immediately following Josquin. This notion, though admittedly contentious, has not gone unnoticed by modern scholars. Willi Apel was one of the first to point out the usefulness of intabulations with regard to contemporaneous ficta practices, noting their unequivocal renderings of pitch. Howard Mayer Brown spent much of his career defending not only the value of intabulations, but the role and status of instrumentalists against that of their singing counterparts.


More recently, intabulations have been a crucial source in the reconstruction of lost vocal works.3 These views have found their culmination in Robert Toft’s Aural Images of Lost Traditions, whose findings have done much in reconciling modern editorial practices with the workings of sixteenth-century musicians and theorists, and serving as a reminder of the flexibility with which singers and players practiced their art. In his New Grove article on ficta, Edward Lowinsky’s dismissal of intabulations as the speculation of a musical culture removed by both geography and generation is representative of a once widespread attitude still present in corners of the academic community. These concerns are perhaps most clearly articulated in Lewis Lockwood and James Haar’s preface to the Mass Hercules Dux Ferrarie of the New Josquin Edition:

...the instrumental intabulations of portions of the Mass found in the publications of Narváez, de Vaena, Pisador, and Fuenllana are important as later evidence of the widespread reception of the Mass but their value as textual sources for an edition of this or any other vocal work of the period is extremely limited. It is true that their notation is unequivocal with respect to accidentals, but they represent the practices of solo instrumentalists operating within the digital practicalities of their instruments, thus operating on premises quite different from those that must have governed the judgments about unwritten accidentals in vocal ensembles of Josquin’s time.4

Pisador, Libro de música de vihuela (1552): frontispiece

Contrary to these remarks, the convergence of vocal and instrumental traditions can be readily demonstrated in the lives and activities of the vihuelists themselves. The imperial privilege granted by Emperor Charles V for the publication of the Seys Libros del Delphin acknowledges Narváez as a composer of “many masses and psalms and other works that are sung by Our Holy Mother Church,” and one who has “studied the practice and art of music, both composing works in measured notation for voices as well as in ciphers to be played on the vihuela.” 5 Both Narváez and Fuenllana were professional musicians employed at court, and as such were expected to work with singers and provide new arrangements and fresh compositions on an ongoing basis. It seems therefore unlikely that an otherwise strict arrangement of a vocal work would include either chromatic alterations or ornamentation completely disconnected from vocal practice. On the contrary, the ornamental practice found in these works demonstrates a relatively conservative approach, especially when compared to the vast array of ornamental figures found in the contemporaneous treatises of Ortiz and Ganassi. Fuenllana discouraged the indiscriminate use of ornamentation for fear of “obscuring the truth of the composition.” 6

Perhaps one of the most persuasive arguments in favor of the reliability of the vihuela prints is in the consistently high quality of the prints and the contents of the books themselves. With the exception of Pisador, whose compositional skills demonstrate those of an enthusiastic amateur, the musical contents of the vihuela books is of the highest quality, and the prints contain remarkably few errors. In the case of Milán, Narváez, and Mudarra, the composers included corrections at the end of their books, confirming an active role of the vihuelists in the publication process. The four extant copies of Fuenllana’s Orphénica Lyra in Madrid contain concordant corrections done painstakingly by hand with ink and paper patches. In this sense at least, there can be little doubt to the overall reliability of the vihuela books.

The most significant source for the vihuela intabulations of Josquin is Pisador’s Libro de música de vihuela (1552): his strict arrangements of eight near-complete masses and six motets comprise about 60% of the book’s contents, by far the most attention lavished upon Josquin by any vihuelist. While Pisador’s 26 fantasias and smattering of variation sets may indeed display the best efforts of an amateur, his transcriptions demonstrate a remarkable level of instrumental ingenuity and fidelity to their vocal models, though a musically satisfying performance of these arrangements on a single instrument is not easily achieved. Here, the suggestion of textual compromise at the expense of digital practicalities is hard to accept, especially in light of Pisador’s uncompromising instrumental renderings. A close reading of Pisador’s intabulation of the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie, for example, demonstrates an adherence to the vocal model bordering on the dogmatic, an attitude that is reinforced by his prefatory remarks on Josquin that 'none of this composer’s music should be discarded.'

Bermudo, Declaración (1555): intabulation charts

Juan Bermudo, whose Declaración de instrumentos musicales (1555) represents the most significant Spanish treatise on vihuela intabulation and tuning, advises its reader “do not forget the music of the great musician Josquin, [with which] music began.” 7 Nevertheless, Pisador’s contributions, well-intended as they may be, are not without problems. The relatively high level of dissonance of many of his arrangements, the occurrence of frequent and often jarring cross-relations, and the use of melodic chromaticism is unusual among vihuelists and sets Pisador apart from his contemporaries. As Robert Toft has suggested, many of these eccentricities find support in contemporaneous theoretical writings, and as such offer viable alternate readings to current practice. Still, the idiosyncrasies of Pisador’s intabulations are aggravated by frequent errors - missing measures, repeated measures, notes set on the wrong line of tablature - and the editorial challenge is in assessing which of these oddities are intentional and which are not.


While our assessment of Pisador may rest in part on a comparison between his own arrangements and those of his contemporaries, then how do the general practices of other vihuelists compare to our own modern editions and to what extent might instrumental considerations play a role? Perhaps more importantly, how were vihuelists able to realize the accepted theoretical precepts of their day within an instrumental framework? Narváez’s Los seys libros del Delphín (1538) represents the earliest source of vihuela intabulations of Josquin. Current thought places its completion, preparation, and editing no later than May 18, 1537, sixteen years after Josquin’s death in 1521. The contents of the book – a mixture of instrumental fantasias, variation sets, songs, and a cosmopolitan selection of intabulations of sacred and secular music including Josquin’s Mille regres: La canción del Emperador – is music of the highest quality whose continued longevity rests at least in part in Narváez’s deft balancing of the purely conceptual with the instrumentally idiomatic. Nevertheless, an analysis of his mass intabulations reveals many digressions from their vocal models- alterations in rhythm, the simplification of parts, embellishment of the superius, even the omission of notes in the cantus firmus- all in the service of a more playable rendering of the music’s often dense textures. In this regard, there can be no disputing Lockwood and Haar’s observations regarding digital practicalities: such passages offer little insight into unwritten vocal practices. But can the same be said of Narváez’s choices regarding ficta? On the vihuela, as on any fretted instrument, the raising or lowering of single notes within a multi-voiced texture is usually accomplished by moving a left-hand finger to an adjacent fret, and only rarely presents any technical hardship. Example 1 presents an excerpt from Narváez’s intabulation of Josquin’s mass section alongside a hypothetical intabulation based on the New Josquin Edition. Both the Altus c-sharp in measure 26 and the superius f-sharp in the following measure conform with Juan Bermudo’s observation that, "whenever we produce an octave, whether it is in a clausula or in passing, approaching it from a sixth, it will be done from a major sixth, which is called perfect and is closer to the octave than the minor sixth. If a major [sixth] occurs in the music, then no remedy is necessary, but if it is minor it is to be remedied in the upper voice with the black key that is mi….” 8 In practice, however, the application of ficta has no impact on playability and no bearing on Narváez’s rendering:


A similar situation can be found in Example 2, where Narváez introduces successive c-sharps in the Bassus. As before, the addition of sharps is of no technical consequence, and is representative of contemporaneous theoretical practice. Echoing remarks made by Ramis de Pereia (1482), Tomás de Sancta Maria’s Arte de tañer fantasía (1565) informs the reader that “…when any voice forms re ut re, sol fa sol, or la sol la, the ut, fa, and sol are, for the most part, sharped both in the natural and in the accidental [modes]. The explanation and the reason for this is the grace of the solfa and also because they look like clausulae, the sound of which is always sharpened.” 9 As before, Narváez’s version satisfies the requirements of contemporary theory and either reading is comfortably played:


While the previous examples illustrate situations in which the introduction of accidentals have no technical impact, what is to be made of instances in which they are present despite the player’s comfort? In the following example, the subsemitonal approach to the octave through the introduction of the Altus f-sharp results in an abrupt, disconnected shift from the upper to lower fingerboard of the instrument. Had technical expediency been the determining factor, Narváez may have preferred the NJE’s f-natural, since its placement on the open fourth course of the vihuela would have resulted in an easier, more fluid solution. Clearly, the dictates of sound theoretical practice superseded instrumental expedience here:


If these examples help lend credence to the value of tablatures for the provision of musica ficta, how might vihuela intabulations shed light on the equally problematic question of vocal ornamentation? Numerous theoretical sources and anecdotal evidence point to the widespread practice of a flourishing tradition of ornamental embellishment and today’s performer is often confronted with an alarmingly vast array of ostensibly sound choices. Diego Ortiz’s Trattado de glosas sobre clausulas (1553) includes some 305 variations on 33 clausula figures, as well as 184 embellishments on simple melodic intervals.

Ortizcover Ortizdivisions

Ortiz, Trattado (1553): frontipiece and divisions


Equally thorough is Sylvestro Ganassi’s Fontegra (1535), whose manuscript appendix alone includes 175 divisions on one basic clausula form, and is unique in his demonstration of ornamentation formulas in which the breve is divided into five, six, or even seven beats. As enticingly rich as these sources may be, they cannot be approached without a modicum of caution, and even the most effusive tablature renderings of Josquin – or any sacred vocal music of the period – is rarely subject to the level of florid ornamentation one might otherwise conclude. While Ganassi’s treatise offers valuable insights into non-written practices, the lack of any comparable procedure in any of the Spanish vihuela sources in manuscript or print raises some doubt as to how widespread his practices really were, and his frequent admonitions to let the reader be guided by discretion and good taste – a common thread running through all the sources – cannot be viewed without some small degree of irony.10


Ganassi, Fontegra (1535): frontispiece

If Ganassi and his contemporaries seem to offer little clear guidance on the suitable placement of ornaments within the musical structure, the ornamental procedures contained in the vihuela prints are as instructive today as their authors had originally intended. Not surprisingly, the range of ornamental figures encountered is as varied and diverse as the personalities of the vihuelists themselves, and a comprehensive description would be far beyond the scope of the present study. Nevertheless, a survey of the prints reveals a number of what must certainly have been stock ornamental figures, some of them commonplace, and some more personal. Using the literal intabulations of Pisador as a starting point, the following examples may help to illustrate some of the ways in which vihuelists applied ornamentation to their transcriptions. In Example 4, Narváez uses theopening motive of Josquin’s Hossana as an opportunity for light embellishment. This common figure, identified by Tomás de Sancta Maria as a simple quiebro, finds regular use throughout Narváez’s works and reminds us of a reoccurring sentiment among many of the sources that it is better to be a master of a small number of ornamental figures than to perform a great variety of them poorly. Rather than deploy the quiebro between parts in an imitative fashion at the outset of the piece, Narváez opts for an occasional occurrence the figure, convincingly evoking the spontaneity of vocal performance while preserving the integrity of Josquin’s model. Additionally, the reoccurrence of the motive later on provides Narváez with a means of preserving the clarity of the voice-leading:

Example 4

with the upper parts in such close quarters, his alteration of the Superius second course f to a first course g allows him to avoid a potential distortion of the counterpoint.

Enrique Valderrabano’s arrangement of Josquin’s Agnus dei (Example 5) illustrates another significant facet of intabulations, namely the elevation of the ornamental figure to a role of structural significance. Valderrabano’s figure – a variant on Sancta Maria’s glosa – provides the framework for a large portion of the embellishment found in the work, and appears to have been one of the composer’s favorites. Its frequent reiteration across all voices, in imitation and in various permutations over the course of the work goes beyond the simulation of an improvised performance but instead seems an attempt to emulate the style of the original model. Again, the underlying aesthetic principal regarding the choice of ornamental figures would seem to be that less is more.


Example 5


So does this bring us any closer to a more complete understanding of Josquin, and how are we to assess the value of these intabulations? As in any human endeavor, these works are beset with compromises, fallibilities and differences of opinion, and even the most historically informed rendering of any music of the past is speculative by nature. While the vihuela intabulations may only offer us a glimpse of the performance of Josquin’s music through an instrumentalist’s lens, we may take some solace in the fact that these works represent the efforts of some the leading musicians of their day, during a time in which the music of Josquin was part of a living culture. And while the search continues, intabulations are a constant reminder that our present notion of a fixed musical text would have likely held little currency in the sixteenth century.


1. John Griffiths, “At Court and at Home with the Vihuela de mano,” Journal of the Lute Society of America, 22 (1989),8-10.

2. See for instance Howard Mayer Brown, “Embellishment in Early Sixteenth-Century Italian Tabulations,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 100 (1973-1974), 49-83; also Howard Mayer Brown, “Accidentals and Ornamentation in Sixteenth-Century Intabulations of Josquin’s Motets,” in Josquin des Prez. Proceedings of the International Josquin Festival - Conference held at the Julliard School at Lincoln Center in New York City, 21-25 June 1971. Ed. Edward E. Lowinsky and Bonnie J. Blackburn (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 475 - 522. On the training of lutenists, see Victor Coelho, “Raffaello Cavalcanti’s Lute Book (1590) and the Ideal of Singing and Playing,”in Les concert de voix et des instruments a la Renaissance. Ed. Jean-Michel Vaccaro (Paris: CNRS Editions, 1995), 423-42.

3. A reconstruction of Josquin’s lost motet based on Valderrabano’s intabulation for two vihuelas may be found in Victor Coelho, “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 a Jean-Michel Vaccaro. Ed. Francois Lesure and Henri Vanhulst. Klincksieck, 1998, 47-65. For a reconstruction of Rodrigo de Ceballos’ Pues ya las claras fuentes, see John Griffiths, “The Transmission of Secular Polyphony: Esteban Daza and Rodrigo de Ceballos,” in Encomium Musicae: Essays in Honour of Robert J. Snow, Ed. David Crawford and G. Grayson Wagstaff (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2002),321-40.

4. New Josquin Edition 11.1,44.

5. Juan Ruiz Jiménez, “Luis de Narvaez and Music Publishing in Sixteenth-Century Spain,” Journal of the Lute Society of America, 26-7 (1993-4),4-5.

7. See Dawn Astrid Espinosa's translation and commentary of Bermudo's treatise in Journal of the Lute Society of America 28-9 (1995-6),65.

8. See Robert Toft, Aural Images of Lost Traditions. Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

9. In Toft, Aural Images, 25.

10. Hildemarie Peter, ed., Sylvestro Ganassi: Regola Rubertina, Daphne and Stephen Sylvester, trans. (Berlin-Lichterfeld: Robert Lienau, 1977), 87-9.

Ralph Maier