Choosing who to arrange next

Choices, choices, choices. Who to arrange next?  From left to right:

  • Intabolatura de lauto (in 4 volumes) by Francesco da Milano (ca 1497 – 1543)
  • Tres libros de musicaa en cifras para vihuela (in 3 volumes) by Alonso Mudarra (ca 1510 – 1580)
  • Orphenica lyra, libro de musica para vihuela (in 6 volumes) by Miguel de Fuenllana (ca 1500 – 1579)

Do you have a favorite? I’ll likely start with Mudarra or Fuenllana. BUT, I’m taking the summer off to enjoy the outdoors. See you in September.

Researching music by Luys de Narváez

The works of Luys de Narváez (flourished 1526-49) in Del Delphin are beautifully illustrated and presented (the computer screen photo below show a scan of the cover). Printed in 1538, it is actually a set of six books (hence the full title of Los seys libros del delphin) of polyphonic music for the vihuela. Although Narváez was Spanish, he adapted the contemporary Italian style of lute music. He was highly regarded during his lifetime, particularly for his vihuela playing and ability to improvise. With the exception of two motets, no other works of Narváez survives.

The challenge of reading this music today is twofold, the tuning of the vihuela which has a third string which is tuned a half tone lower than a ukulele or guitar, and the Italian tabulature which is “upside down” to our modern tabulature (i.e. the lower line on the printed page corresponds to the highest sounding string on the vihuela).  Of course, the vihuela has 6 string courses so the bass notes on the lowest sounding strings need to be harmonically analyzed and rewritten/arranged to fit the 4-stringed ukulele. I would also arrange the music so that you do not have to re-tune the ukulele.

The works in Del Delphin include the first known variation sets. There are six diferencias, in the 4th to 6th volumes, most of them with 3 to 7 variations however one of the pieces has 22 variations.

PS. The small rocket ship is a figurine based on the Tintin books “Destination Moon” and “Explorers on the Moon”. The silver coffee spoon is a Dutch tradition and this spoon was given to me when I was just one year old and is expected to last my lifetime. The Canadian art on the mug is a salmon by artist Jamie Sterritt. And yes, I still us a mechanical metronome from when I first started learning classical guitar.

Update as of June 4, 2021 — Two books of arrangements of Narváez’s music are now complete and available (click on an image below to see an expanded view).

Update as of June 16, 2021 — Third book of arrangements, with lyrics, of Narváez’s music is now complete and available (click on an image below to see an expanded view).

Recordings by Performers

The audio and/or video files posted on YouTube and SoundCloud are great for analyzing and practising but have several challenges and limitations, namely the sound generated by the software which is not close to sounding like a ukulele, the slow speeds chosen to allow you to practice by playing along which makes the music sound plodding in some cases, and the total lack of performance dynamics (tempo, volume, part differentiation, phrasing, strum versus block chords, etc).

Here are some references to recordings by world-class performers to help guide you.

Here are some recordings of Renaissance music by vihuela and lute performers that have inspired my arrangements:

PerformerInstrumentAlbumComposers FeaturedLabel
Jose Antonio EscobarVihuelaEl Maestro, Libro 1 (1536)MilánNaxos
Ralph MaierVihuelaThe Art of the VihuelaNarváez, Mudarra, Milán, Fuenllana, Daza, ValderrabanoPrivate
Christopher WilsonVihuelaMusic for VihuelaMilán, NarváezNaxos Early Music
Christopher Wilson, Shirley RumseyLuteLute Music – Fantasias, Ricercars and DuetsMilanoNaxos Early Music
Christopher Wilson, Shirley RumseyLuteLute MusicJohnson (John)Naxos Early Music
Christopher Wilson, Shirley RumseyLutePavans and GalliardsHolborne, RobinsonNaxos Early Music
Nigel NorthLuteThe Prince’s AlmainJohnson (Robert)Naxos
Robert BartoLuteSolo Works for LuteHagenNaxos
Christopher WilsonLuteLute Music – Ricercars, Intabulations, DancesDall’Aquila, Da CremaNaxos Early Music
Shirley RumseyLuteMusic of the Italian RenaissanceArcadelt, Azzaiolo, Milano, Cara, Dalza, Caprioli, Capirola, Spinacino, Tromboncino, Aquila, Despres, Borrono, NolaNaxos Early Music
Marco PesciLuteRenaissance Lute MusicLiuto, Palestrina, Lasso, RoreNaxos
Shirley RumseyLuteMusic of the Spanish RenaissanceUppsala, Daza, Narváez, Fuenllana, Milán, Pisador, Morlaye, Mudarra, ValderrabanoNaxos Early Music
Christopher Wilson, Shirley RumseyLuteEarly Venetian Lute MusicDalza, Spinacino, Bossinensis, CapirolaNaxos Early Music
Nigel NorthLuteJohn Dowland Lute Music (Volumes 1 to 4)Dowland (John)Naxos
Marc Lewon & Paul Kieffer & Grace NewcombePlectrum Lute & VoiceTwo Lutes with Grace (Plectrum Lute Duos of the Late 15th Century)Agricola, Bedyngham, Dalza, Des Prez, Frye, Ghiselin, Ghizeghem, Roelkin, Spinacino, TinctorisNaxos Early Music

Here are some recordings of Baroque music by lute and other performers that have inspired my arrangements:

PerformerInstrumentAlbumComposers FeaturedLabel
Nigel NorthLuteBach on the Lute (Volumes 1 to 4)BachLinn Records
Yasunori ImamuraBaroque LuteComplete Works for LuteBachNaxos
Robert BartoBaroque LuteWeiss Sonatas for Lute (Volumes 1 to 11)WeissNaxos
Danijel CerovicGuitarWorks for Lute … arranged for guitarWeissNaxos
Jeffrey McFaddenGuitarCello Suites (Volume 1) … arranged for guitarBachNaxos

For your information, I own every CD in the Naxos Guitar Collection (most of them produced by Norbert Kraft) and Naxos Laureate Series for Guitar. Of course, I have recorded music from Segovia (who I saw in concert in Washington DC in 1980), Yepes and others, as well as recordings by every one of my teachers/leaders (Beauvais, Mahon, Maier, Visscher, Arnold, Bradley) at the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto), the Mount Royal Conservatory of Music (Calgary) and the Asylum for Art (Calgary).

Working on music by Luys Milán

Have started arranging the works of Luys Milán (Luis Milán, Luis de Milán) starting with seven Fantasia, all six of the Pavana and a Tento (Tiento).
I am arranging the pieces so that you do not have to re-tune as the original pieces written for vihuela require a tuning down of the third string by half a tone on ukulele from C to B (on guitar from G to F#). As the vihuela has 6 string courses, there is harmonic analysis required as the ukulele only has 4 strings.
El Maestro was printed in December 1536. It is the first collection of vihuela music in history, and was in part intended for students of the instrument, with scores presented in grades from simple to complex so that vihuelists could proceed from elementary to harder pieces.

Here’s what my workspace looks like while I’m arranging music (in this photo, a villancico by Luys Milan from 1536). I try to work from the original folio as shown (El Maestro is 200 pages long). I also try the fingering on my ukulele (not in the photo as it’s hung around my neck) and adjust the arrangement or put in some fingering tips. Yes, I have an old fashioned mechanical metronome which I’ve used for decades. It takes from 1 to 4 hours per page of music, depending on the complexity. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about this process … the software you see is MuseScore.

PS. The small rocket ship is a figurine based on the Tintin books “Destination Moon” and “Explorers on the Moon”. The silver coffee spoon with my initial R on it is a Dutch tradition and this spoon was given to me when I was just one year old and is expected to last my lifetime.

Update as of May 8, 2021 — Four books of arrangements of Milan’s music are now complete and available (click on an image to see an expanded view) …

What’s Next – Renaissance music

There is literally a ton of music by Renaissance composers for the guitar, vihuela, lute and other stringed instruments (e.g. cittern and bandora).

So far, I’ve arranged most of the guitar music (Renaissance guitar that is) of:

  • Adrian Le Roy (ca 1520 – 1598)
  • Guilluame Morlaye (ca 1510 – 1558)
  • Gregoire Brayssing (flourished 1547 – 1560)
  • Simon Gorlier (flourished 1550 – 1584)
  • Jacques Arcadelt (ca 1507 – 1568)
  • Alonso Mudarra (ca 1510 – 1580)
  • Miguel de Fuenllana (ca 1500 – 1579)

The music of these composers are in surviving printed music books which have been scanned and are available online. Images of the book covers and samples of the original music are included in the books of arrangements for ukulele that I have prepared (the arrangements are based on the original tabulature rather then guitar arrangements by others to avoid transcription issues).

While exploring other composers to arrange for ukulele, I am researching mainly vihuela and lute music.  The Renaissance guitar had only a short period of popularity in the 16th century and it was overtaken by the Baroque guitar which was larger and had an extra string for a broader range of music and richer sound and resonance (which was then supplanted by the Romantic guitar and then by the modern classical guitar). The lute and vihuela have more strings (6 or more) and are tuned differently (e.g. G tuning on the vihuela with the third string tuned to F#, or later with Dm tuning for lutes in the Baroque era).  The ukulele arrangements need to have adjusted bass notes, harmonics and key signatures in order to accommodate the 4-stringed ukulele with C tuning.  Alternatively, a capo can be used to adjust the key signature.  For example, if you strum the open strings on a ukulele, you are playing a C6 chord.  If you strum the top four strings on a modern classical guitar, you are playing a G6 chord which becomes a C6 chord if you put a capo on the 5th fret.

So far, I have researched composers and/or original folios for the following Renaissance composers (see images of some of the book covers at the end of this post):

  • Luis de Narváez (ca 1490 – 1547) – published book in six volumes for vihuela
  • Francesco da Milano (ca 1494 – 1543) — four published books for vihuela
  • Luys Milan (ca 1500 – 1562) — published book for vihuela (El Masetro)
  • Miguel de Fuenllana (ca 1500 – 1579) — published book in six volumes for vihuela (with 9 guitar pieces)
  • Alonso Mudarra (ca 1510 – 1580) — published book in three volumes for vihuela (with 7 guitar pieces)
  • John Johnson (ca 1545 – 1594) — various lute books (e.g. Mathew Holmes)
  • Anthony Holborne (flourished 1584 – 1602) — various books for  lute, cittern, etc.
  • Thomas Robinson (flourished 1589 – 1609) — various lesson books for lute, cittern, bandora, etc.

There are literally hundreds of pieces of music that can be arranged for ukulele.  However, I do not plan to tackle them all and would like feedback on where to concentrate effort.  For example, the six pavans by Milan are quite famous and I have already arranged two of them for solo ukulele and all six of them for ukulele quartet.  Please comment on this post to let me know your thoughts.  Much appreciated!

Alonso Mudarra

The six guitar pieces by Alonso Mudarra (ca 1510 – 1580) are now arranged and ready for you to view (go to the YouTube channel  to see them).

One of the fantasies is in non-standard tuning labelled “viego” or old tuning where the lowest string is tuned down a whole tone. The remaining pieces are in standard tuning labelled “nuevo” or new tuning. All the original pieces are in Italian tabulature ((which is upside down to our modern tab) and, while I’m getting used to reading it, I still have to turn the original folio upside down and read it backwards to proofread the arrangements. After working with original folios by various composers for over three years, I’m also “seeing the music” in the tabulature (i.e. separate voices and melodic lines), especially in pieces with some structure like the Pavana and Romanesca by Mudarra. Enjoy!

Mudarra & Fuenllana

In searching for music to arrange from the Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque eras, there is a plethora of pieces written for lute, vihuela, and guitar (both Renaissance and Baroque guitars). This music takes advantage and recognizes the characteristics and limitations of these stringed instruments, such as the sound starting to fade immediately after plucking a string.

Music written for the lute, vihuela and Baroque guitar require additional changes when arranging the music for modern ukulele, as these instruments have 5 or 6 strings while the ukulele has only 4 strings. The most straightforward to arrange is music written for Renaissance guitar as the string arrangements and tuning is much the same as the modern ukulele (read more details in this post).

However, there is a limited amount of surviving music written specifically for the Renaissance guitar, such as the nine surviving books published by Adrian Le Roy and Guillaume Morlaye in Paris in the 1550’s.  There are only two other surviving sources of such music, but they are included as a small selection of pieces in larger works written for vihuela. They are:

Tres libros de musica en cifras para vihuela (“Three books of music in numbers for vihuela”), which was published on December 7, 1546 in Seville by Spanish composer Alonso Mudarra (ca 1510 – 1580).  Only 6 of the pieces are written for the Renaisance guitar in the first book (Libro I).

Libro de música para vihuela intitulado Orphenica Lyra (“Book of music for vihuela ….”), which was published in 1554 in Seville, known briefly as Orphenica Lyra, with 182 pieces in six volumes by Spanish composer Miguel de Fuenllana (ca 1500 – 1579).  Only 7 of the pieces are written for the Renaissance guitar in the sixth book (Libro VI).

I am arranging these 13 pieces for the ukulele (as illustrated below) and they should be completed in February or March 2021.  I will be posting the arrangements so you can preview and enjoy these pieces as I complete them. To receive notifications of each posting, you should subscribe to the YouTube channel.

Renaissance Tabulature

Music for guitar, vihuela and lute was written using tabulature in the Renaissance and Baroque eras (modern spelling tablature or TAB for short), however, it was not consistent. The conventions used by the French, Italians or Spanish differed, composers used hybrid methods and some ventured into alternate tunings (oh my!).

The illustrations used below are pieces for guitar or vihuela as both instruments were popular in the Renaissance.

French Tabulature

French tabulature was used in the publications from Le Roy and Morlaye from Paris in the 1550’s as shown …

Illustration of a Renaissance Score (Almande)

To read this, the top line of the score represents the highest sounding or A string on the Renaissance guitar (or ukulele) and the bottom line corresponds to the lowest sounding or G string.  Letters are used to indicate which fret to use to play the note with “a” representing an open string, “b” is the first fret, “c” is the second fret, etc. This is somewhat confusing at first but it soon becomes second nature when reading the score.  The duration of the note is indicated by the stem above the score with one “tail” representing a quarter note (in “cut” time or 2/4 time), two “tails” an eighth note, etc. (and a dot indicating to hold the note for 50% longer).

This matches what we use for tabulation in modern scores, except that we use numbers instead of letters for the frets, as shown (this is the full modern score of the music illustrated above) …

Illustration of a Modern Score (Almande)

Here’s another example of this style of tabulature (it’s the music for “Greensleeves”) …

Illustration of a Renaissance Score (Greensleeves)

Italian Tabulature

Italian tabulature was used by Spanish composers Mudarra, Fuenllana and others in the 16th century in music for the vihuela and Renaissance guitar as shown …

It almost looks like modern tabulation in that is uses numbers to represent the frets (zero for an open string, “1” for the first fret, “2” for the second fret, etc.) The only difference from modern tabulation is that it is “upside down” in that the bottom line on the score represents the highest sounding or A string on the Renaissance guitar (or ukulele) and the top line corresponds to the lowest sounding or G string.  For modern players, this takes some getting used to, especially if you switch between different scores. The duration of the notes are above the staff and look like our modern notes (whole notes, half notes, quarter notes), including dotted notes.

Here the first line of the same score using modern notation and tabulation …


While the Italian method was used for most Spanish composers at the time, Milan’s publication “El Maestro” in 1536 reversed the order of the lines (like French tabulature) but continued to use numbers for the frets and note durations (like Italian tabulature) as shown in this illustration of music for vihuela …

Alternate Tuning

There are alternate tunings available for the strings (e.g. tuning the lowest or fourth string down a whole tone from G to F on a Renaissance guitar or ukulele).  This is usually noted at the beginning of the piece.  In the original music, you may see a note such as “a chorde auallée” which means to use alternate tuning.  In modern music, it is either written out in detail or written in short form, such as ④ = F at the start of the piece.

Modern Tablature (TAB) and Notation

Modern tablature is a mix of French tabulature (i.e. ordering of the lines on the staff and using stems above or below the staff to represent the note length) and Italian tabulature (i.e. using numbers to represent the frets).

Often, when a piece has both notation and tablature or TAB, the note durations are omitted on the TAB lines. It is up to the player to read both lines simultaneously (i.e. the TAB lines for the string/frets and the notes lines for the duration). In the arrangements that I create, I include the note durations on the TAB lines to make it easier to read/play.

Of course, modern musical scores have key signatures for the notes but notice that the tablature or TAB lines in the same scores above do not show a key signature as it’s not needed when reading TAB. This makes it challenging to translate the original Renaissance tabulature back into modern musical notation as the key is not shown. In fact, the original music often moves modally between different keys or ends on a Picardy third (i.e. ending on a major chord while the rest of the piece is in a minor key, as you may notice in the “Almande” illustrated above).  The keys in the modern musical scores above are chosen for the ukulele, not for the modern classical guitar which is used in most of the transcriptions that are available.

Fingerings (i.e. which finger to use to play a note on the fretboard) are never shown in the tablature line in either original or modern scores. It is often up to you, the player, to work that out. Recommended fingerings are sometimes indicated but only shown on the notation lines in modern scores as a small number beside the note.

Finally, when reading the notes, there are sometimes instructions on which position to use (e.g. VII for seventh position or to play a barre chord on the seventh fret) or alternate strings (e.g. ② to indicate that the note should be played using the second string), neither of which is needed when reading tablature or TAB.

I invite you to experiment reading the various styles of tabulature or tablature/TAB. Enjoy!

Troves of Troves

If you love Renaissance guitar music, there are now five troves of 16th century music available to play on the ukulele, Renaissance guitar, etc.

Click on an item to view a larger image

Trove of Fantasies: A fantasia or fantasie is a musical composition with its roots in the art of improvisation. The term was first applied to music during the 16th century, at first to refer to the imaginative musical “idea” rather than to a particular compositional genre. Its form and style consequently ranges from the freely improvisatory to the strictly contrapuntal, and also encompasses more or less standard sectional forms (i.e. it sometimes but doesn’t always follow the “rules”). Read more. Listen.

Trove of Bransles: The name branle (or bransle) derives from the French verb branler (to shake, wave, sway, wag, wobble) and is a type of French dance popular from the early 16th century to the present. The term also refers to the music and the characteristic step of the dance. The branle was danced by a chain of dancers, usually in couples, with linked arms or holding hands. The dance alternated a number of larger sideways steps to the left (often four) with the same number of smaller steps to the right so that the chain moved gradually to the left. Read more. Listen.

Trove of Pavanes: The pavane is a slow processional dance common in Europe during the 16th century. The decorous sweep of the pavane suited the new more sober Spanish-influenced courtly manners of 16th century Italy. It appears in dance manuals in England, France, and Italy. It has a slow duple metre with two strains of eight, twelve, or sixteen bars each. The pavane’s popularity was from roughly 1530 to 1676. As a musical form, the pavane survived long after the dance itself was abandoned, and well into the Baroque period. Read more. Listen.

Trove of Gaillardes: The gaillarde or galliard was a form of Renaissance dance and music popular all over Europe in the 16th century. It is mentioned in dance manuals from England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. It is an athletic dance, characterised by leaps, jumps, hops and other similar figures in a series of choreographed patterns of steps. After the dance fell out of popular use and, in musical compositions, the galliard often filled the role of an after dance written in 3 or 6, which followed and mimicked another piece (sometimes a pavane) written in 2 or 4. Read more. Listen.

Trove of Chansons: Chansons are songs.  The earliest chansons were for two, three or four voices, with first three becoming the norm, expanding to four voices by the 16th century. The Parisian Chansons began in 1520 and were lighter and chordal with melodies in the upper most line. Sometimes, the singers were accompanied by instruments, often lutes. The general subject matter was courtly love. Read more. Listen.