Valentine Bakfark and Sixteenth Century Lute Music

The name Valentine Bakfark is now relatively obscure. A sixteenth century Transvylanina lutenist, he was among the most respected lutenists of the time, admired for his great technical innovation on the instrument. Five hundred years later, and the unfamiliar name of ‘Bakfark’ probably only conjures up images of a kind of foul regurgitation.

Bakfark himself

But regurgitation isn’t an entirely incorrect way to describe Bakfark and his contemporary’s music. Born sometime between 1507-1508 until his death, most likely from the plague, in 1576 (aged 69), Bakfark’s era was one long before the cult of originality and moreover before cults of personality. Even in the early seventeenth century with English lutenist John Dowland, who immortalised his famous melancholy image in song form, Semper Dowland, semper dolen (always Dowland, always doleful), such cults had yet to seriously develop. Musicians in this time and for much of history were not necessarily respected geniuses at the forefront of high culture. They could be people with modest backgrounds (Mozart, for example), and were often treated appallingly by the princes who employed them in what was virtually servitude. Composers from Monteverdi to Haydn were made miserable creatively and financially by ungrateful princes, even more so than many modern composers think they are by ungrateful audiences. (There is a good chapter on this in Tim Blanning’s The Triumph of Music.)

Furthermore, there was a clear hierarchy of music — and lutenists weren’t at the top. Hierarchies and divisions in music were particularly firm in the sixteenth century. Sacred music was indisputably of greater value than secular music. And instrumental music was considered inferior to vocal music. But this too was a sacred-secular division, and is why Palestrina composed only for voice. Within the hierarchy of instrumental music, the most lowly was dance music, usually homophobic, and the most respected was that which imitated vocal polyphonic music.

Unlike today, transcriptions were not considered of lesser artistic value. As Bakfark biographer Istvan Homolya explains, ‘the originality of ideas was not an essential aesthetic criterion. Artistic value was provided by the skill or ingenuity of elaboration’. The idea of originality, in fact, was yet to be born. The majority of Bakfark’s works were intabulations (transcriptions) of vocal polyphonic music. (And it wasn’t until the Baroque era that instrumental music really ceased to use vocal models.) Among instruments, the lute was the preferred one because it was portable and, moreover, capable of polyphony (playing more than one melodic line simultaneously). However, the lute is also thoroughly unsuited to polyphony. This may sound like an impossible contradiction, but it is the act of overcoming this contradiction that made Bakfark so remarkable.

A singer can sustain a note for a long period of time. On a lute, the note will die very quickly, in a matter of seconds. The way around this is ornamentation, so that you never linger on one note for too long. Bakfark was especially innovative when it came to ornamentation, and among other things he was one of the first pioneers of the mordent. He even used chromatic accidentals. Indeed, the dissonances and harmonies in Bakfark’s music can be quite surprising. In the third bar of the extract below, you have the unexpected use of a C♮ auxiliary note instead of a C# (in the key of B minor) that moreover sounds simultaneously with the F#, creating a tritone. I’ve noticed that in the Julian Bream recording, Bream ‘corrects’ the note to C#. Bakfark had a similar problem at the time, familiar to eccentric moderns like Charles Ives, in which the printers would try to correct these notes for him.

He also wrote much denser scores than his predecessors. While those like Francesco da Milano (1497-1543) primarily used the minima (minim, or half note) as the base rhythmic element, Bakfark primarily used the semiminima (crotchet, or quarter note). Shorter notes than that were ornamental rather than melodic (the shortest note at the time was the semifusa, the semi-quaver or sixteenth note). Naturally, this gave Bakfark’s work a much faster sense of movement.

Lute music was written in tablature form, not unlike guitar tablature today. This poses another problem as tablature, unlike musical notation, cannot notate the continuity of voices. It wasn’t possible to notate two musical lines separately. For example, these are the first lines of Bakfark’s Fantasia I in modern notation:


And here it is in tablature form (excluding the last bars from the above extract):

bakfark-e1494359774615.png(I’ll come onto how to read the tablature in a bit, though much of it should be plain.)

In the 5th bar, whoever transcribed the piece decided (rightly, I would say) to hold the B until the next bar. In the tablature, that corresponds to the 2 in bar 5 on 2nd string down. As you’ll notice, there is no indication that it’s to be held. Maintaining the integrity of the voices would have been up to the judgement and skill of the performer.

The lute is also capable of fewer independent lines. The lutenist only has six strings and four fingers (on each hand) at his disposal. Furthermore, the separation of parts will be much less distinct on a lute than in a vocal ensemble, or even in, say, a viol ensemble. Before Bakfark, lute music would usually be in two or three parts. Quite astonishingly, Bakfark managed to faithfully intabulate even six-part polyphony on the lute. Yet despite pushing the lute to do things that were the least lute-like, he nevertheless, as lutenist Daniel Benko has commented, ‘was able to produce perfectly the correct polyphonic transcription of vocal works’. Here’s Benko performing one of the two extant Bakfark intabulations using six-part polyphony:

One is struck of the wonderful musical diversity between nations and cities in the sixteenth century. And when it came to the lute, this meant, among other things, that there were various national styles of tablature. The main types were French, Italian and German. There are further variations — the English for example put notes in between, rather than on, the lines, and might notate the rhythms differently, but otherwise maintained the French style by and large. The facsimiles of Bakfark’s work that I’ve come across use both the French and Italian styles. I assume the books were printed in each region according to the prevailing style. Lutenists were not expected to be familiar all the varieties of tablature.

French lute tablature is probably the easiest to read. The lines of the stave, or the spaces in between (or below and above) the line, correspond to the courses on a lute. The lower on the stave, the lower the course, and vice versa. The fret positions are written using letters: ‘a’ means the open string, ‘b’ the first fret and so on. (Italian tablature used a numbering system instead and, confusingly, reversed the order of the strings so that the lowest string would be at the top of the stave. The excerpt included a few paragraphs above is an example of this style.)

The score doesn’t indicate precise notes. There were many different lutes, each with differing numbers of courses and tuned to different pitches. Moreover, players would often just tune the top string as high as it would go and then tune the other strings by it. (John Dowland for some reason did the same but with the lowest string.)

The flags above the stave notate the rhythm. A vertical line is equivalent to a semibreve, and each horizontal line halves the length. So the first three beats are: semibreve, dotted minim (you might have to enlarge the score to see the dot), and crotchet. The only other detail is the diagonal line, for instance in the 3rd bar, second row, that specifies the length of time that note should be held.

Hopefully I didn’t lose anyone. Just thank me for not attempting to explain the bafflingly cryptic German system!

Here is Bakfark’s Fantasia I again, but using French tablature:

Bakfark Fantasia No. 1

Although Bakfark wrote fewer works than most (and indeed, destroying much of what he did produce, leaving us with about 40 extant works), he took an unusual personal interest in his work being published. It would seem he was very protective of his work. The two books he published, Lyons and Krakow, were carefully crafted and published at Bakfark’s own expense. His predecessors did not care so much about having their work published, and indeed much of it wasn’t.

Here’s Daniel Benko again playing the Fantasia I. Though reasonably short, it’s hard to take in at first, each section blended together with no hard cadences to help negotiate its structure. (At least, that was my experience listening to it.) You can find the entire score — the entire book in fact — here. IMSLP also has a version in Italian tablatureFellow guitarists can easily play it from the score by tuning their G string to F#.


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