Robert de Visée and the French tuning

Lex Eisenhardt

In our time, it is taken for granted that guitarist Robert de Visée exclusively made use of the so-called ‘French’ tuning, which only has a low octave string (a bourdon) on the fourth course, while both strings on the fifth course are tuned in the high octave: a-a/d’-d/g-g/b-b/e’. In this article we will look into the textual and circumstantial evidence on which this idea is based. A key source is the introduction to Visée’s first guitar book (1682), in which the composer remarks: ‘I beg those who have a good knowledge of composition, and are not familiar with the guitar, not to be scandalized if they find that I sometimes break the rules. It is the instrument that asks for it, and it is necessary to satisfy the ear preferably to all.
What exactly would the instrument be asking for? It is sometimes argued that Visée, making use of the French tuning, may have thought of the inconvenient voice crossings of the bass and the other parts – regardless of whether they appear in plucked or in strummed textures. And that he still accepted those anomalies because he thought that the instrument was better strung without a fifth-course bourdon. His reasons for not using this bourdon would have been the supposedly inferior acoustic qualities of a thick low A string, or the problems with performing campanelle as well as with playing ornaments on two strings of unequal gauge.3 However, as a lutenist Visée must have been very familiar with using thicker strings, and in his guitar music campanelle only play a subordinate role, while at the same time ornaments and slurs appear frequently on the octave-strung fourth course

Robert de Visée and the French tuning

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