Viola da gamba tablature

December 29, 2009

Unlike my other blog on Japanese Textiles which often seems set to blossom into three figures daily for the number of people reading it, this blog scores a mere handful of readers at any one time. Not that that concerns me too much, since like any journal its purpose is largely for me myself. Too frequently in the past I’ve considered my progress on gamba to be insubstantial and less than what it should be; who or what drives me to compare myself with others is a whole other ball game. I’m certainly gaining clearer insights into why I get intimidated by my own seeming lack of progress on the gamba and certainly the smallest bit of feedback from readers here is incredibly inspiring and motivating. It’s been a quite a few years since I consciously did some inner work along the lines of The Artist’s Way (and the sequel Walking in the World); I think I’m overdue for a bout of that, especially given the death of my father eighteen months ago. I’m not doing any Buddhist sitting meditation either, which dives “beneath” the TAW process straight into the inner peace without any of the “working out” process. I found it useful yesterday to read weblogs created by students of TAW; the evidence is there for all to see of the private and personal impacts of it on individuals’ creativity. 

Viola da gamba tablature

Like most viol players, I got exposed to viol tab in my beginner viol days but never followed through on it. I can now see a lot of potential benefits from taking it more seriously: exposing myself to more Hume and Ferrabosco in particular; I like playing detective; it would be nice to move past ordinary viol tuning to other tunings; the pieces are short enough for me not to be too overwhelmed; I can incorporate technique (playing which note where on the bow); I ought to be composing myself; it might help with the necessary skill of memorisation; it allows me not to worry about playing with others; it translates beautifully into videoclips, as Ben Torrey has so admirably shown.

The Manchester Gamba Book 

The Manchester Gamba Book is such a massive volume it demands respect, as well as engendering curiosity. Its clear original handwritten score is encouraging since you don’t feel an editor has mediated it for you. An admirable goal would be to decipher a piece a day, so I’m writing out the tab with its staff notation transcription above it into my little manuscript book. The first section of pieces is in ordinary staff notation and having briefly looked at some of them already, I’ve come across other published versions of Woodicock for example by Patrice Connelly, Alison Crum and the Newberry Simpson in my music library. So far so good. I also dragged out my Martha Bishop and Carol Herman tutors, along with an American Lute Society book of lute pieces by Pickering and others for lute which I’ve never touched (though have dutifully stuck the errata in the right places). Normally I play around with some of this stuff in a very basic way, then get intimidated at the first difficult point. I note with great satisfaction that some of the MGB is now on the American VdG Society website. The significance of MGB is all the more obvious when I see how dependent Martha Bishop has been on it for her anthologies. I’m a great fan of Hume but d like to get stuck into more Ferrabosco (the consorts are somewhat dense and unforgiving), using the tab as a way into the consorts perhaps, if only to better understand how he wrenched music towards the instrumental away from the vocal, in a similar way to Hume putting Dowland and the lutenists on notice about moving away from lute to viol as chief recreational instrument of the period.

Mr Elliot Oxon, [Untitled], III-13, p.43

So I transcribed Mr Elliott Oxon into ordinary notation so I could see what I was doing. I know I’m supposed to dive straight in and leave staff notation behind, but I need to wean myself of it rather slowly. With this particular piece, I need to keep redoing it to get the rhythms right. One Blessed Reader of this blog has reminded me that each piece in this collection has important secrets to give up and he’s right.

Tobias Hume, I’m falling

With that heavy lifting done, I then opted for I’m falling by Tobias Hume, working it up to a good tempo. It’s on the first page of Martha Bishop’s Tab for One. No great shakes, but I might be on the tab road again!

Wm Kingelake, A Sarabande (III-3)

Inspired by Ben Torrey’s videoclip of the same piece, I jumped a lot further into the book than I thought possible to Lyra-Way or Bandora Sett tuning, which is mainly built around the Fmaj chord: from top string down, DAFCFC. Again, I wrote out the tab and staff notation into my little manuscript book, such is my peculiarly personal way of doing things.

I’ve made a singular turning-point today:  the tuning as shown by Martha Bishop in her Tab One book on page ix contains a typo. This typo unfortunately dispirited me so much last time I looked at tab, I gave up on it. I was so convinced I was right, but had no way of proving it. That someone as great and wonderful as Martha could be wrong didn’t make sense. However Martha herself provides the clue in her intro to Tab Two, where it’s shown correctly. The tuning for the third string is an F and not an E. But I’m still not quite there yet: the written-out tab is right, the staff notation is right, but playing the notes on my viol following the tab sounds wrong. Declaring publicly that I can’t seem to tune my viol properly sounds ignominous. But it sounds perfectly fine when I follow the staff notation. I’m not deterred; everything will turn out in the wash, so much so I’ve moved on to another Lyra-Way piece. Kingelake (I’m sure no other music of his has come down to us) has some topicality; the small village of Kinglake was destroyed, and many of its inhabitants died tragically, this time last year in the massive bushfire storms in Victoria.

G. Willis, Corant. III-14, p.44. 

The Lyra-Way tab pieces in Manchester include ornaments, something I’m not quite ready for just yet. The American Lute Society book has not included the ornaments for beginners either, so one step at a time. But this Corant bounces around the fingerboard in a similar way to the Kingelake and as I predict exploits the F maj arpeggio. Good string crossing practice. This will probably lead to Mr Tho. Martine’s A thump.

 John Moss, Alman. Bibliotheque Nationale Res.860. 

This nice Gmin piece from 1671, both in tab and staff notation, was included in the VdGSA News of March 2000, by way of advertising the Society’s microfilm collection and its rental program.


The Manchester Gamba Book, with an introduction by Paul Furness. Peacock Press, 2003.  Some of these pieces are up on the Viola da Gamba Society of America’s website. Go to “Music” and follow the prompts.

Martha Bishop, Tablature for All! English Country Dances. Book for D instruments. Self-published, 1993. 26 dances, set for two or three instruments (e.g. melody, chordal accompaniment and bass line) so it’s great for two or three or more people.

Martha Bishop. Tablature for Two: collected, edited and composed by Martha Bishop. Self-published, 1980. Various tab tunings, starting with pieces by Hume in ordinary viol tuning in tab, with pieces by the likes of Ford and Ferrabosco following, including Martha’s own interpretations of well-known tunes in difficult tunings.

Carol Herman, Alphabet Soup: a Tablature Primer for Viols. Albany Ca: PRB Productions, Educational Series no.2, 1990. Carol used to do a mean intro to tab for viol students. Here she has composed easy melody lines (in both D and G instrument versions) with an accompanying bass line. A good primer before tackling the Bishop anthologies.

Karen Myers, ed. The First Book of French Tablature. Lute Society of America, Special Publication 1993. 25 or so lute pieces without ornaments (Pickering, Playford et al.), one to a page. Nice big print, as are the others here. A useful final two pages of blank tab paper for your own efforts.




One Response to “Viola da gamba tablature”

  1. Ros Says:

    Hi Rod,
    Following on your comments re your blog readership, I’ll delurk to say I’ve been enjoying your Christmas adventures with the viol. My viol path to self-improvement involves playing along with CDs. The Jordi Savall recording of the Lawes consorts are great for working through. I’m also looking out for CDs with bass duets (other than Marais), so do blog about any of those you’ve found. Enjoy next week’s early music workshop.

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