“Ain schone kunstliche Underweisung”: Modelling German lute tablature in MEI

Authors: de Valk, Reinier / Schöning, Kateryna / Weigl, David / Lewis, David / Crawford, Tim / Lewon, Marc / Overell, Paul

Date: Wednesday, 6 September 2023, 11:15am to 12:45pm

Location: Main Campus, L 2.202 <campus:measure>


Among the lute tablature systems that were in use during the Western lute’s lifespan (ca. 1450-1800), German lute tablature, which was only used in German-speaking countries and fell out of fashion after 1600, takes a special place. It stands apart from the other main systems – French, Italian, and Spanish lute (or vihuela) tablature – in that it does not provide a visual representation of the instrument. That is: rather than using a set of letters or numbers (indicating frets) on horizontal lines (indicating courses), showing the lutenist where to place their fingers on the fretboard and which courses to pluck, German lute tablature ‘encodes’ all course-fret intersections with unique symbols (letters, numbers, and other). This renders the notation more abstract and less intuitive – even for lutenists.

While modelling the ‘staff-based’ French, Italian, and Spanish lute tablature systems in MEI is relatively straightforward (work on this is ongoing and already in advanced state), modelling German lute tablature brings along a number of specific challenges. In collaboration with the MEI Tablature Interest Group, an MEI model for German lute tablature is currently being developed. This is done as part of E-LAUTE, an international Weave (FWF/DFG/SNSF)-funded project that aims to investigate and unlock a corpus of music that is almost exclusively notated in German lute tablature, and for which such a model is indispensable.

In this paper, we report on the progress on this task, discussing the specific challenges we encounter, as well as our proposed solutions. Among these challenges are (i) the multitude of and variety in symbols used in the different sources; (ii) the absence of a staff, and, related to this, the issue of vertical positioning of the symbols; (iii) further development of the music notation engraving library Verovio to support and render German lute tablature, and the issues associated with this; (iv) automatic conversion of existing file formats for encoding (German) lute tablature into MEI, and how existing tools (Fronimo, luteconv, mei-friend) can be used in this process; and (v) the similarity of German lute tablature to keyboard tablatures, a substantial repertory, for which as of yet no MEI model exists, but whose implementation must be anticipated.

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