Some people think the ukulele is limited. I disagree. Just last night I attended the Kalamunda Ukulele Collective’s weekly jam session and was playing the House of the Rising Sun, Hallelujah, Drunken Sailor and Oh Sinner Man. Today I’m playing music originally written for the renaissance guitar by a French composer called Adrian Le Roy. In this blog we’ll look at how you can extend your repertoire on the ukulele by playing music originally written for the renaissance guitar. We’ll focus on how to play a Bransle by Le Roy from the original tab.
Before we do that I’d like to tell you about my location. I’m in Kalamunda, a small town in the Perth Hills of Western Australia. In the Aboriginal language Kalamunda means a home in the forest. Kalamunda is a special place for me. I went to school here when I was just 7! Actually, I started learning the guitar in Kalamunda at the age of 9. Now, after more years than I care to remember, I’ve returned to my old home in the forest to teach the ukulele and perform at the Jack Healy Centre.
A couple of days off, and some unexpected rain, have kept me curled up indoors by the log fire. I thought it would be an opportune time to write a blog on playing renaissance guitar music on the ukulele. While on tour in Australia I have been playing a set of 4 Bransles by Adrian Le Roy in my concerts and other ukulele players have expressed an interest in playing this simple but delightful music.
I must admit it’s an odd meeting of cultures; renaissance guitar to kangaroos, bandicoots and ringneck parrots. The bush, which surrounds the beautiful home of my hosts Lyn and Kevin, is alive with flowers and wildlife. The birds are beautiful but raucous; the flowers dainty but dazzling. I can’t help but wonder what Adrian Le Roy would have made of it all! Here I am with a little Hawaiian guitar which not only has connections to Madeira and Portugal, it has a lot in common with the renaissance guitar.
My initial interest in this repertoire was sparked when I read Christopher Page’s fascinating social and musical history of the renaissance guitar, The Guitar in Tudor England. Page describes the guitar depicted in the Eglantine table housed in Hardwick Hall (late 1560s) as a ‘double course Tudor ukulele.’ Double course meaning it had double strings like a 12 string guitar. You can listen to one of Professor Page’s lectures here:
In size the ‘Tudor ukulele’ was approximately that of our modern concert ukulele. I know I’m always banging on about using high g but this music is suited to a low G. Even better if you’re flamboyant enough to have a 5 string instrument with both low G and high g! At this point in time, however, I only have my high g soprano…
I’m amused to note that the ringneck parrot, and there is one sitting on the fence right now, is commonly called a 28 due to it’s onomatopoeic call of vingt-huit which is French for twenty-eight. Maybe one of Le Roy’s ancestors visited Australia!
The bransle (also branle, brangle, brawl, brawle, brall, brando, bran and brantle) is a type of French dance which was popular in the 16th century. For more information about the bransle a good starting place is Wikipedia.
Did I say tab?
Well, yes I did. I often encounter ukulele players who think reading from tab, which is short for tablature, is some kind of musical sin. It isn’t! Tab has been around for centuries. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods tab was commonly used for fretted instruments including the lute, the vihuela and the guitar. Modern players of these instruments still play from tab and, wherever possible, play from original manuscripts. Modern technology has meant that libraries, such as the British Library, make facsimiles of many these manuscripts available in downloadable PDF format.
The difference between tab and staff notation is that tab indicates where the notes are played on the fingerboard while notation indicates the musical pitches. Tab is a simple, time honoured and very immediate way of playing music on a fretted instrument. It is particularly practical for instruments, such as the ukulele, which use different tunings. For example: it doesn’t matter if you use a low G or a high g, or if you tune GCEA or ADF#B.
Re-entrant tuning, which is the traditional ukulele tuning of high g C E A, is problematic to notate. In staff notation the open 4th string high G, which is the 2nd highest open string, can cause confusion and requires detailed left hand fingerings to clearly distinguish it from the g on the 2nd string. Tab provides an ideal solution. One glance will show you which G is required.
In the words of Marcus Aurelius: Adorn thyself with simplicity
In the above video you may have noted the repeated open G string drone. This note falls on the 2nd beat of each bar and acts as the accompaniment. The open G is always played with the thumb or ‘p’. The natural direction of the thumb stroke is down. Using the flesh of the thumb gives a plump, rounded sound. This tone is preferable to the more brittle sound produce by using just the nail. Playing with the side of the thumb will also allow you to relax the wrist and flatten the hand; a position which will put less stress on the arm and shoulder. In this position the fingertips make a slightly side on contact with the string. If you use fingernails, as I do, this gives a more rounded and less brittle sound.
The melody is played on the top 3 strings and is plucked with the fingers. I was a little confused about the dots under the notes on the 1st and 3rd beats so I consulted Professor Page. I’ll quote his reply here:
“The rule is this. When a single letter appears with a dot (in contemporary terminology a ‘prick’ or ‘point’) below it, the string was to be struck upwards with one of the fingers, not necessarily the index but rather with the finger ‘as shall best fit it’. If there were no dot, the player used the thumb. When a single dot appeared beneath two or three letters, the strings were to be plucked with the fingers alone; absence of a dot in that context indicated a ‘grip’, meaning that the thumb struck the lowest course to be sounded by moving downwards and the first two or three fingers struck upwards. So essentially the purpose is to cue the thumb down/ finger up alternation which was used on the lute as well and is vital to the articulation of the music.”
For the fretting hand all the notes are in 1st position and shouldn’t provide too many difficulties. The movement of the notes across the strings, however, requires some nifty plucking. The real challenge, however, is getting the right feel. It’s a bouncy little dance in 3 which needs energy and drive but a lightness of touch.
Reading from the original tab
Le Roy’s tab is not that different from modern ukulele tab. The 4 lines represent the strings, as in modern tab, but letters are used to indicate the frets rather than numbers. The letters are placed on top of the line. Note how the tail of the d tips to the left to distinguish it from the b. Such an elegant system!
What you need to know for this piece is:
a = 0 (open string)
b = 1 (1st fret)
c = 2 (2nd fret)
d = 3 (3rd fret)
The rhythm is written above the tab. There are 3 beats per bar. The feel, however, is one main pulse per bar falling on the 1st beat. In other words one foot tap per bar. Note that the piece starts on the 2nd beat of the bar with the G drone while the melody begins on beat 3 and is an melodic upbeat.
Start by playing just the melody. In other words ignore all the open 4th string notes. The melody has a skipping feel and can be thought of as short-long short-long short-long etc. It is essential that the long notes, or the notes that fall on the 1st beat of the bar, should be held so that they ring on while the G drone is being played.
I like to add some ornamentation to the melody. Fast pull-offs and trills add interest and
variety to the music and can be added once the melody is learnt. I’ll talk more about ornamentation in a future blog.
Meanwhile, this is a video from a couple of years ago: 3 Bransles by Adrian Le Roy played on a 5 string tenor.
I’d like to thank Christopher Page for his advice!
All photos are copyright Samantha Muir