Early Guitars and Vihuela

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An early contradanza for six course Spanish guitar in an unusual (unique?) tuning

MS 3/209 in the Real Conservatoire Superior de Musica de Madrid (RCSMM) contains works for six course Spanish guitar dating from the later eighteenth century. All the pieces are in six line 'Italian' tablature but, as sometimes found in slightly earlier five course guitar music by Spanish musicians (such as Perez), with no flags and without regular barring. Here is a link to the RCSMM scan   


Only two of the works in the collection are attributed: 'Sonata de Alamire Del Pe. Dn. Miguel' (MS pages 9–13); 'Sonata del ami del Padre Dn. Miguel' (14–18). The assumption has been made that this Dn. Miguel is Miguel Garcia (aka Padre Basilio) - a celebrated guitarist active in the later eighteenth century (a teacher of Aguado and possibly Sor) and also known to Boccherini who modelled his famous quintet Fandango movement after one he heard Garcia play. Whether or not the remaining works in the MS are by Garcia is still open to question.

Relevant to this present note is that towards the end of the MS works (p. 62-63) is a 'Contrad(anz)a. De la Tambora'. This interesting work (presumably based on a contemporary Spanish drum dance) is in a very unusual six course/string guitar tuning and one which, as far as I'm aware, is both unique and, to date, unremarked. In short, upon analysis it's clear that the instrument is tuned in a chord of C major: specifically C G c g c' e'. The lowering of the usual sixth course by a third from E to C is possible because of the adoption of overwound strings on the then new fangled six course Spanish guitar. 

I wondered why such an unusual tuning should be adopted for this particular piece and therefore thought it worth the effort to attempt a realisation. To act as a guide, I tried to find examples of the Spanish eighteenth century Contradanza de la Tambora, but without success. Whether the modern Central/South American Tambora dances still bear much relation to the earlier Spanish form is unclear and so these modern dances cannot be relied upon as much of a model for the earlier Spanish form.

A realisation of the work is attached as an amended version of the original (first two attachments below) and also a transcription in the modern octave transposing G clef (third attachment). For those who don't wish to retune their guitar to the required chordal intervals (I think it's worth it!), there's also a transposed version which employs the usual guitar intervals but with the sixth string tuned down just a tone to D (fourth attachment) – this preserves some nature of the full bodied chords of the C tuned version. Note that in the final sections a cross is placed over certain full chords. Whether these indicate a strum or a 'Tambour' as employed by modern guitarists is not known - but a 'Tambour' is not anachronistic since it is sometimes marked over such chords by other guitarists of this earlier period such as Castro and LaPorta;

I'd be grateful for:

- any other early sources which give a similar C chord tuning for the six course/string guitar;

- any other alternative suggested arrangements of the note values;






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Over two years ago I posted this above  - it met with no response!

But now the advice to isolate ourselves as much as possible is general it gives me time to look again at some of these loose threads - and maybe you too may find time to examine this very early music for the new fangled six course guitar in eighteenth century Spain.

In addition to the questions posed earlier about one particular set of pieces as the end of the MS, there is also the general problem of realising Garcia's (or whoever's) tablature: the problem is that the scribe clearly gives the tablature but no flags to indicate durations. A few pieces are fairly obvious but, for me, most are not since Garcia (et al) adopt a particular style of chords and single note runs some of which may be triplets, some very short or long notes -  a matter of personal taste. Clearly the scribe knew how the music went and the tablature was simply an aide-memoire but that's little help to us nowadays. I've had a bash at a few but am not satisfied and feel there may be some sort of key which might unlock some of the 'secrets'

So my further question: has anyone unravelled any of this pieces (other than my attempt at the last pieces in the unusual tuning)?

Here's the link again


Martyn Hodgson


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