And now for something really fascinating. Take a look at the above manuscript excerpt of the first measure of the Allemande from Heinrich Biber’s second sonata, “The Visitation”, from the Rosenkranzsonatencollection. Look at the violin part on the downbeat of the first measure. Look again! To the untrained eye this chord does not make sense. G#, D C# and A. Actually, it is an incredibly voluptuous A major chord that can’t really be replicated on a violin today as most people know it. This violin sonata uses a special scordatura tuning of the violin instead of the standard GDAE tuning. What Biber has done in this collection of sonatas, is more or less emulate the style of notation that lute and keyboard players, amongst others, had been using for around 280 years before his birth in 1644. Biber’s notation does not give you any information about the pitch for notes that occur on the 3rd and 4th strings of the instrument in terms of the standard pitch definitions of the notes on the staff of the treble clef. What his notation does do, however, is tell you where to put your fingers for those strings. In other words- put your fingers in the same place you would if the violin was tuned normally. The result is that a different sound will come out than what is written on the page but it will sound correctly. From lowest to highest, that first chord is AEC#A and uses the open 3rd and 4th strings which results in a gloriously resonant A major chord that would not be possible to achieve in the normal tuning.
As lute players our notation is in tablature, which functions primarily to show you where to put your fingers instead of the modern notation practice of showing you the pitch of the note. This practice has serious implications in the study of music that is written in this fashion. The best advantage is that you get precise performance practice insight into exactly where the musicians put their fingers to play a certain note. In addition, it is easier to jump into the music because as long as your instrument is tuned to the required tuning, the symbols point to the same exact places on the instrument for any key signature or tuning. The disadvantage is that you have to understand what actual note that the symbol represents in a given tuning, so that you can understand the harmonic structure of the music, as well as the individual voices and their respective trajectories, amongst other musical phenomena.
Lute Tablature example: Allemande from Weiss sonata 38, Dresden Mus.2841-V-1,2
The vast majority of the notation for the early 4 stringed viola da braccio, also called the violin as we know it today, are written in various incarnations of modern staff notation, but indeed there are a few exceedingly rare examples of tablature used on the violin. For example, in Manuscript I.a.44 residing at the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb, there are violin intabulations of common ground bass dances which were popular at the time the manuscript was penned, around 1625:
A rare example of violin tablature. A simple Spagnoletta dance found in Manuscript I.a.44, Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts