Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Dunstaple or Bedyngham: O Rosa Bella

Is the Rosa of the title an actual rose, a rose seen as a symbol of romantic interest,
or the name of a young lady?

On a whim, I thought that I'd have a look at music written earlier in the Renaissance, and the name John Dunstable (or Dunstaple) (c 1390–1453) appeared. He composed mostly liturgical music, not really appropriate for the ukulele, so I chose this song, attributed to him. However, Wikipedia states:

"The popular melody O Rosa Bella, once thought to be by Dunstaple, is now attributed to John Bedyngham (or Bedingham)".

Bedyngham was an approximate contemporary of Dunstaple, and died c. 1460. I can find no images of either composer.

O rosa bella is a plaintive lament, appropriately in a minor key, but as was usual ending on the tonic major, the Picardy third. The first 7 bars seem to be an introduction, followed by the song, which starts in common time and ends in 6/4 time. Some of the words are spread over a lot of notes (melismas), but I have made no attempt to indicate them here.

This arrangement is made from a transcription for 3 voices by Elaine Fine here. In the original – you can find performances in various formats on Youtube – the voices interweave, and the first voice is not always the highest. In the arrangement I have indicated the first voice by upward stems, and the others by downward stems.

I have tried to imagine, possibly anachronistically, that the ukulele is a Renaissance (4-string) guitar, and tried to maintain as much of the original as possible in the idiom of the instrument. The music sounds a little strange to my modern ears, but I am not familiar with the music of the period – which, after all, was my reason for making this arrangement.

You can find the transcriptions here:

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Dowland: Piper's pavan (P8)

At last – back to my genius hero, John Dowland, and one of his most popular pavanes..

The title refers not to a woodwind musician, but to Captain Digory Piper (1559–90). He was a colourful Cornish sailor who was commissioned to harry Spanish shipping, but instead turned pirate and attacked vessels of friendly nations sailing in the English Channel. He was fortunate not to be hanged for piracy. Why Dowland dedicated this piece to him is not clear.

An Elizabethan pirate in full fig, and a dashing figure he cuts.
I can't find an image of Capn Piper, so this one (from elizabethanenglandlife.com) will have to suffice.
The pavane has three strains, of 8½, 8 and 8 bars. In the lute version, the first two strains have divisions (variations) by Dowland, the third a variation by another hand; they are challenging, and I have not transcribed them. 

I have set a stately pace of ♩= 38 bpm, which is near that of Nigel North's recorded lute performance, in which he uses a lot of arpeggiation, and adds ornaments as well. It's up to you to add your own!

If you have played other pieces by Dowland, in this blog or elsewhere, you may well notice something familiar in bars 5, 8, 11 and 24. This is what I have come to think of as the Solus cum sola motif, and I have written briefly about it here. Despite the self-plagiarism, this is an inventive piece, with unexpected turns of harmony and melody, and with some tricky timing. 

Below I summarise the harmonic changes in the ukulele transcription. The harmonies are derived from the lute originals, which are voiced more fully than is possible on a ukulele. My favourite moment is in bar 5: the Solus motif, played on the chord of B major, resolves to Am, and not to the E one might expect; thus the bass moves from B to C.

Am / /  E | Am / E / | A Dm Am / | Am / / / |
B  / Am / | Am / / G | Am Dm F Dm| E  / A / | A / 𝄂

C  / / /  | Bm / E / | Am / G Em | F#m / E / |
G  / / Am | E  / Em B| Em C Em B | E   / / / 𝄂

C  / / G  | G  E A5 / | Am / F  / | C  F / C |
F  / G E  | Am / F  C | G  Am E / | A  / / / 𝄂

You might want to conclude the piece on an extra, full A major chord (the Picardy third).

You can find the transcriptions here:
(A corrected version was loaded on 11/04/18)

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Sanz: Maricapalos (Marizápalos)

María Inés Calderón, known as 'La Calderona' and 'Marizápalos' (1611 – 1646).
She was a mistress of Philip IV of Spain, and later forced into becoming a nun.
Gaspar Sanz, who was tutor to her son, wrote a saucy romanca (ballad) called Marizapalos,
about a priest's niece, who falls for a young man.
They may not be the same person, but it's reason enough to show her image here.
Taken from Wikipedia.

Here is a nice jaunty little tune, and not too difficult to play if you (temporarily) ignore the ornaments. I chose it because Clive Titmuss in this article identified it as one of Sanz' better pieces. The spelling with a "c" is that on Sanz' original plate, but that with a "z" seems to be the more modern version.

There are seven sections, each divided into two sub-sections of 8 and 10 bars. The piece is mostly in 3/4 time, but each sub-section begins with a bar in 2/4 time, so it is easily spotted.

The whole piece approaches the "lute-style" or, I suppose, "vihuela-style" of writing. Unlike other Sanz pieces, there are no obviously campanella or strummed passages, and no slurs are specified. Even the abecedario N9 chord (Amaj on the uke) in bar 80 is not shown with a strum indicator.

After the statement of the melody in §A, §§B, F and G are composed of (almost Renaissance?) divisions (diferencias) in the form of scale segments.

In the transcription I have probably been optimistic in specifying the lengths of some of the fingered notes: I just hold them down for as long as I can (tenuto). This gives a hint of the campanella sound.

The graces have been interpreted following James Tyler's recommendations in A guide to playing the Baroque guitar, summarised here. Incidentally, the trills are generally played as inverted mordents, but if occurring at the end of a section should be prolonged: I have indicated this by an additional "tr" after the mordent. Vibratos, indicated by “vib”, were apparently at this time used as an ornament, and not used throughout a piece as we might nowadays.

You can find the transcriptions here:

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Colista: Passacaille dite Mariona

Johannes Vermeer: The guitar player (1672)
I couldn't find an image of Colista, or a facsimile of the original,
so here's probably the most famous painting of a baroque guitar

Here is another foray into the transcriptions, expertise and learning of James Tyler in his A guide to playing the Baroque guitar (see Resources page). The mariona of the title was a sort of raunchy, body-popping dance popular in the Spanish theatre; consequently, we are enjoined to play the piece with panache.

The graces, dynamics and accent marks are those recommended by Tyler. In particular, the hemiola rhythms (in effect, altering the beat in short passages from 3/4 to 2/4) are shown partly by accents, and partly by the relative strengths of the down strokes (strong) and the up strokes (weaker). The stokes are usually made with the backs of the finger nails, but a circled T indicates a softer down stroke with the pad of the thumb.

There are twenty 4-bar variations based on the harmonic movement I, V, vi, IV, V, I (C, G, Am, F, G, C). At first I thought that this looked like a fairly easy piece, but played at the speed recommended by Tyler I can assure you that some of the variations certainly aren't.

I must admit that I do find it difficult to enjoy even the easier parts of this piece, but it does come with the recommendation of Tyler; furthermore the composer, Colista, was highly regarded by Corelli, Sanz and Purcell – so who am I to judge? It seems to me like a series of worked examples of all the things that a Baroque guitar could do: well-spaced notes, rapid short notes, strumming, altered rhythms (hemiola), syncopation, and campanellas (which I have tried to reproduce as accurately as possible.)

My problem may be that the variations are only 4 bars long, and each whizzes past before you can get a mental grip on it. I find it helps to repeat each variation before moving on to the next. In the print copy I have made the lines 4 bars long, to make the structure more obvious.

Anyway, see what you think.

You can find the transcriptions here:

Friday, 2 March 2018

James Tyler: Baroque guitar graces

In his book A guide to playing the Baroque guitar, James Tyler gives an invaluable account (pp 18 – 20) of the kind of ornaments or graces used on the guitar at the time. Graces were known in Italy as abilimenti or tremoli; in France as agréments; in Spain as habilidades or affectos.

I have made myself this useful reference table from his considered opinions.

Ornament Common symbols * Examples of how played † Comments


# ♯

Thumb off neck, hold finger tip down and jiggle

Vibrato was not played throughout a piece as we would now, just as an ornament


︶ ︵
(joining 2 or more notes)

C h D (h E ...)
E p D (p C ...)

Produces dynamic rhythm effects as 1st note louder than the rest


::    ⋅/⋅

Hold chord and play notes in pattern ad lib

You need to see Tyler's book


t   T   •   x   ∙/∙

(It: trillo, tremolo. Es: trino, aleado)
— main note trill (It)
C h D p C ... Normally 3 notes (when it is the same as an upper mordent); at cadences continue the pattern; used in Italian music

— upper note trill

D p C h D p C ...

(Fr: tremblement) Normally 4 notes; at cadences continue the pattern; used in French music


|  v  +    ‿   ##

C p B h C

(Fr: mortellement or pincé) Also lower mordent


(Es: esmorsata, apoyamento, ligadur. Fr: cheute)

— descending app.

t    x   )   ,

︶   ︵

D p C

— ascending app.

︶ ︵

B h C

? play more languidly

* As you can see, symbol use is a minefield. Also, some composers used a general purpose symbol meaning "use any grace you fancy". One just has to rely on the learning of the editor.

† Explanation of the examples:
1. Assume key of C major
2. Notes written in the score are bold red (e.g. C),
3. The first note in a sequence is plucked, the rest are rapidly hammered on (h) or pulled off (p), to form a clear unit.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Gaspar Sanz: Fuga 1 por primer tono (1: 16)

Facsimile of Sanz' original engraving.
He thoughtfully preceded the tabs with a statement of the theme in musical notation.
A simple fugue wholly in the idiom of lute and vihuela music, with none of the strumming that is so typical of the Baroque guitar. I have tried to indicate the overlapping lines by stem direction; there are also some bass notes.

Presumably, “primer tono” in the title means “first mode”, which would at that time have been the Dorian mode, and hence Dm in the original, and Gm in this arrangement. I guess that fuerte means loud, and suave means smooth or soft.

It is a pleasure to play on the low-G uke, although one does have to use "unusual" fingerings to maintain the lines.

Comparing the second bar of the theme with the second bar of the fugue, one can see that on the 1st and 3rd beats, the melody is harmonised with higher notes on the 1st string.

The indefatigable “Luthval” can be heard performing the piece on baroque guitar here .

Since Sanz' guitar had re-entrant tuning, I have tried playing the original on a re-entrant ukulele, but have been unhappy to find sudden octave jumps that break up the lines. It is instructive, and great fun, to play Rob MacKillop's version of Fuga for re-entrant uke (see Resources page), which he has ingeniously adapted to the campanella style avoiding any nasty jumps.

You can find the transcriptions here:

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Names of notes in scientific and Helmholz notation

When I'm doing transcriptions for ukulele from tablatures for lute or guitar, I have to know how the instruments are tuned. This can be a problem for Renaissance or Baroque instruments, as the various composers assumed different tunings.

One minor irritation is that modern writers on the subject of tuning use different systems of nomenclature: the scientific and the Helmholtz (in its various versions). Wikipedia provides accounts of both systems, so I have made this concordance that would be relevant to ukulele players. I'm going to print it out and stick it on my wall for reference.

For my own use, I will keep to the scientific, as all you have to know is middle C = C4, and the rest progresses from there.

Scientific pitch notation (Wikipedia)
Helmholtz pitch notation (Wikipedia)


Scientific:   C0   C1   C2   C3   C4   C5   C6   C7   C8   C9    
Helmholtz:    C〟  C、   C    c    c'   c"   c"'  c""  c""' C"""  

For the record, you might like to know that the standard guitar tunings are as follows in the two systems:

1 = E4 = e'
2 = B3 = b 
3 = G3 = g 
4 = D3 = d 
5 = A2 = A 
6 = E2 = E