ECOLM - An Electronic Corpus of Lute Music

ECOLM I - Project Proposal

Edited and abridged for publication here


The principal goal of ECOLM is to store and make accessible to scholars, players and others (in so far as legal circumstances allow), full-text encodings of sources of music for the Western-European lute (and other sources insofar as they are relevant), together with graphical images of manuscripts and printed music, such codicological and paleographical detail as is helpful to the potential users, and bibliographical data, including, if possible, the texts of important studies where necessary permissions can be obtained.

Relevant ‘other’ sources might include keyboard versions of lute pieces, but would where possible also be full-text encodings. They would typically comprise music for keyboard, wind or string instruments, especially the viola da gamba, or vocal ensemble.

The technical resources of ECOLM would include facilities for online searching of the bibliographical and musical material and complete access via the World Wide Web (with suitable restrictions according to the classes of material and user). Also viewing, playing (via computer sound-system or MIDI) of lute music, and printing (again subject to relevant permissions).

The project is closely linked to the JISC/NSF-funded International Digital Libraries project OMRAS (Online Music Recognition and Searching), also based at King‘s College, which is a collaboration with the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval at the University of Massachusetts.

Form and features

ECOLM will be maintained in a form allowing:

The nature of lute music and its notation

Throughout its history the lute used a form of notation different from other instruments or the voice. This notation system, tablature, simply provides the information necessary for the performer to perform the music, rather than describing the music in any formal or structural sense. The point at which each string to be sounded needs to be stopped by the player’s left hand is indicated by a cipher - usually, in so-called ‘French’ tablature, by a letter (‘a’ representing the open string) - and the point in time at which it should be struck by the right hand is shown by corresponding rhythm-signs above the music. (The principle is identical with that adopted in China and elsewhere in the Far East for notating lute music from about the 8th century AD.) The notation says nothing about the names of the notes, nor their actual duration; it was assumed that a competent player would understand these aspects and perform accordingly. Thus there is a significant ambiguity in the notation which had beneficial artistic results for the original performers (some subtle rhythmic details simply cannot be notated in any system) and a correspondingly malign effect on the music’s acceptance by musicologists from the 19th century onward. Scholars have frequently engaged in heated debate on methods of transcription into standard musical notation, often ignoring the highly artistic results that can be obtained simply by sensitive and historically-informed performance from the original tablature.

The inherent ambiguity in lute tablature demands that any computer-encoding of lute music must be based as far as possible on the original notation rather than a transcription (which is inevitably a single interpretation out of several possibilities). Lute tablature has, however, the advantage that it can easily be represented in ASCII-text format, unlike standard music-notation. This can be done efficiently and reasonably transparently through the use of the TabCode scheme developed by Tim Crawford with this kind of use in mind.

The lute repertory

The extent of the lute repertory, although limited chronologically to the period c1480-1800, is very large. Even before 1551 a little under 2500 pieces for lute were published in about 60 printed collections (many of these are of course duplications of popular pieces), and publication continued unabated until about the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (1618); thereafter fewer collections of lute music were published, although a manuscript tradition (often associated with lute-teaching) continued to thrive. By the 18th century, most of the interest in the lute was confined to German-speaking countries, yet large amounts of music in manuscripts from this period are preserved, often in out-of-the-way libraries without facilities for reproduction or publication. The is also a significant number of parallel sources of music for other plucked-string instruments: cittern, bandora, guitar, and the 18th-century German mandora.

It is impossible at this point to calculate the total number of pieces that could be embraced in the wider scope of ECOLM, but a rough estimate suggests some 50,000 individual movements (in the later periods, these were usually grouped together into suites or sonatas). For example, Christian Meyer et al’s Catalogue des Sources Musicales en Tablature lists the contents of 131 manuscripts for lute (all other instruments are excluded), containing c7952 movements (roughly 60 movements per manuscript) in German libraries (vol II); and c4400 movements (c66 mvts per MS) in 60 manuscripts in France and Switzerland (vol I).