The Case of the Purloined Letter Tablature: The Seventeenth-Century Guitar Books of Foriano Pico and Pietro Millioni
This item appeared in The Journal of Seventeenth Century Music (http://www.sscm-jscm.org/)
1.1 Seventeenth-century sources for the guitar use a unique chordal shorthand called alfabeto notation, first appearing in 1606 in Girolamo Montesardo’s Nuova inventione d’intavolatura. Montesardo seems consciously aware of inventing a new system of notation, and the title continues that one can learn “without numbers or notes” (i.e., without lute tablature or standard musical notation).(1) He was the first to give an alfabeto chart in which letters from A to Z, in addition to several symbols, were assigned finger patterns on the instrument that led to varying harmonies, normally major or minor chords. This ingenious system allowed the performer to play in any key or with a guitar tuned to any pitch, as long as the interval pattern of tuned strings (commonly but not always given as A-d-g-b-e’) remained the same. With this skeletal framework, one could strum chords to a wide variety of songs or dances, filling out the accompaniment in an improvisatory manner according to the player’s ability. It proved enormously popular: there are over sixty printed sources for guitar in alfabeto notation from the seventeenth century, with well over twice that number of existing manuscripts.(2)Many vocal works were also given alfabeto accompaniment, much as sheet music for many twentieth-centry popular songs carries chord symbols for guitar. Finally, there is also a substantial body of more advanced music for guitar that combines alfabeto symbols and Italian lute tablature. Montesardo’s original chordal alphabet became, with a few alterations, the one used by most Italian guitarists throughout the...
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