The 17th- and 18th-century citterns

The modern cittern has established a firm place in contemporary Scottish music, but it has been around in various guises for centuries, while making a unique and wonderful contribution to the Scottish musical soundscape. This page will look at the historical context.

Why not play the following Mp3 files to listen to whilst reading this page?

The Isle of Rea from Robert Edwards’ Commonplace Book (17th-century diatonic cittern)

Divertimento No. X by James Oswald (18th-century ‘guittar’ or cittern)

The 17th-century citternThere are two surviving cittern manuscripts from the mid-17th century: Robert Edwards’ Commonplace Book and the Millar/Macalman manuscript. Each manuscript was, however, for a different kind of cittern. Robert Edwards played a diatonic cittern, while Macalman played a chromatic cittern. What is the difference? On the diatonic cittern, some notes are ‘missing’, as some of the frets only go part of the way across the fingerboard, and some frets are missing altogether. The advantage of this system, which was very popular in France and the Low Countries, is that some common yet awkward-shaped chords were rendered easy to play. As the music was modal or non-modulatory, the missing notes were not required anyway. The chromatic cittern, on the other hand, allowed access to all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Despite this ‘advantage’, the Macalman manuscript only uses notes which are also playable on the diatonic cittern.

Here is a picture of a chromatic cittern…

And here is a picture of a diatonic cittern…

The Macalman ms shows right-hand finger notation, but occasionally a plectrum seems called for. I recorded from the Macalman ms on the CD Flowers of the Forest, and from Robert Edwards’ ms on The Healing. Both recordings were made on beautiful diatonic citterns made by Peter Forrester.

Here is a pdf of the cittern music from the Robert Edwards’ Commonplace Book, reintabulated for clarity, but unedited. Remeber that this tablature is for a diatonic cittern, and will need to be edited to perform on a chromatic cittern.

There are many ways to interpret this music, and each cittern player will find his or her own way. Here are four MP3 files from my CD, Flowers of the Forest, which illustrate my own interpretation:

Joy to the personne of my love

The Laydie Lothians Lilte

The Isle of Rea

Sueit Smyling Katie loues me

Here is a pdf of the six pieces contained in the Millar-Macalman, again unedited. The tablature is for a chromatic cittern but can be played on a diatonic cittern.

Mid 18th-century cittern

Here is a beautiful portrait of Elizabeth Chancellor, playing a large cittern with lute-style tuning pegs:

Late 18th-century wire-strung guittar

There has been considerable confusion over the name of the instrument in question. It bothered publishers in the 18th century, and it bothers academics today. It was variously refered to as a guitar, a guittar, a cittern, a cetra, a chitarra, a Kitara, and an English guitar. Stuart Walsh’s article ‘Is the English guitar a guitar or a cittern?’ (FoMRHI Comm 798) deals with this question, the problem being that the instrument has many dissimilarities to either a guitar or a cittern. In Walsh’s words, the instrument ‘is both a cittern and a guitar and yet neither a cittern or a guitar’ (p.47). Contemporary confusion is highlighted in Geminiani’s The Art of Playing the Guitar or Cittra (1760). The instrument seems to be a cross between the two, and there is the slight possibility (not commented upon by Walsh) that the secondary ‘t’ was added to Guitar in recognition of the influence of the double-teed cittern. Walsh clearly favours the term English Guitar despite his admission that the instrument flourished also in Scotland and Ireland, arguing that ‘most of the instruments were made and most of the music was published in England’ (p.47).

James Tyler has argued convincingly (Evora, 2001) that the instrument is of German origin and entered Britain with the Hanoverian succession when all things Germanic became fashionable. It must be stated that in Scotland, the area of our study, the instrument was never referred to as the English Guitar, but rather as either the Guitar, or Guittar. Furthermore, when Scots published music for it in London they refered to it as the Guittar (Oswald) and the Guitar (Bremner). For the present purpose I propose to refer to it as the Guittar, and to the Spanish guitar simply as the Guitar. Oral distinctions could refer to the 18th-century wire-stung guittar and the 19th-century gut-strung guitar respectively.

The tuning from the bass was root, third, fifth – and then an octave higher – root, third, fifth. For Marella, this meant A C# E A C# E; for Bremner and most others, C E G C E G; and Oswald used two instruments, one tuned in C, the other tuned G B D G B D. The highest four courses were generally unison doubles, the lower two courses single. The general body outline was oval or pear shaped, about four inches deep, and had a flat back, although a few had a bowled, lute type back. Early examples had lute or violin-type tuning pegs, but many makers adopted the invention (un-patented) by Preston, known as the ‘watch-key tuning’ mechanism (see below). [photos by David Kilpatrick]

James Oswald was born into a poor but musical family in Crail, a crannied fishing village in the East Neuk of Fife, Scotland, in 1710. The lad’s talent as a musician (fiddle and cello) led him to find work as a Dancing Master in Dunfermline by 1734. Then followed six years in Edinburgh, a period which introduced him to the world of publishing, followed by, in 1741, a move to London, where he quickly absorbed the prevailing fashion for Italian music, and, despite his Jacobite leanings, was eventually awarded with post of Chamber Composer to George III (some argue that he was a Jacobite spy).

Oswald’s gift for lyricism marked all his compositions, whether in the traditional music vein as exemplified in the monumental 12 volumes of the Caledonian Pocket Companion, or when indulging in the new classical style, such as Colin’s Kisses, Airs for the Seasons (96 beautiful horticultural evocations!), and the Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar (1759).

Oswald’s contribution to the guittar repertoire is at once both unique and profound. While not demanding such virtuosity as a Rudolph Straube [Sonatas for Guittar – (1768) – modern facsimile edition by Chanterelle (1979). ISBN: 3890440274.] or a J.C.Bach [Sonata for the Guittar with an accompaniment for the violin, London 1775, and a Sonata in two movements], his Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar [Macworth Collection, Vol.258] reveal a master guittarist who accepted and worked within the limitations of the instrument.

Playing through Straube’s music with guittar in hand, one gets the feeling that he often feels frustrated with the instrument and would rather be playing his music on the lute, an instrument with which he is regarded as being one of the late great masters. With Bach, the overiding sensation is that of a musical genius, toying with the instrument. Oswald, on the other hand, while having a genius all of his own, clearly allows his music to grow out of the instrument rather than descending from some great height on to it.

The constant flow of themes and melodic ideas that pepper the Twelve Divertimentis, all have their roots in the tuning and technique of the instrument. In a word, Oswald’s guittar music is organic. If any work can be described as pure guittar music, then the Twelve Divertimentis can surely lay hold to that claim.

RECORDING: ‘Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar’ by James Oswald – Rob MacKillop, 18th-century wire-strung guittar (ASV Gaudeamus CD GAU 221)

The entire recording on video (lasts for one enchanting hour!)

Here are MP3 files of the complete 12 ‘Divertimentis’:

01 Divertimento I (Amoroso – Vivace – Gavota)

02 Divertimento II (Affetuoso – Tempo di Minuetto – Gavotto)

03 Divertimento III (Amoroso – Allegro Moderato – Andante)

04 Divertimento IV (Affetuoso – Gavotta – Aria – Con Spirito)

05 Divertimento V (Cantabile – Allegro Moderato – Pastorali – Tempo di Minuetto)

06 Divertimento VI (Amoroso – Moderato – Pastorali – Affetuoso)

07 Divertimento VII (Affetuoso – Andante Allegro – Adagio – Tempo di Minuetto)

08 Divertimento VIII (Affetuoso – La Chase – Tempo di Minuetto)

09 Divertimento IX (Gratioso – Musette Moderato – Andante Con Spirito)

10 Divertimento X (Amoroso – Allegro Moderato – Andante – Adagio – Giga)

11 Divertimento XI (Andante – Allegro Moderato – Cantabile)

12 Divertimento XII (Largo – Moderato con Spirito – Amoroso – Giga)

I have been given permission by the holders of the Mackworth Collection, Cardiff University Library, to publish the entire copy of the Twelve Divertimentis. The following are jpegs of the Twelve Divertimentis For The Guittar

How does one listen to Oswald’s guittar music?
That might seem an odd question to some: clearly we just listen and enjoy the music in-itself. Some listeners, however, prefer to place this guittar music in its historical position. For them I offer the following from a guitar-historical perspective.
Oswald was born in the year that Gaspar Sanz, the pre-eminent composer for the baroque guitar, died. Sanz eschewed ‘development sections’ in favour of a constant stream of new melodies, some self-composed, some based entirely on folk songs and traditional instrumentals. The same could be said of Oswald except that his musical language was not that of the baroque era of Sanz, but of the newly emerging classical school.

Oswald died at the age of 59, some 9 years before the birth of Fernando Sor, who was widely regarded in his own time as the pre-eminent composer for the ‘classical guitar’. It would be wrong to expect Sor-style developments from Oswald’s guittar music.

I prefer to see Oswald as an inheritor of the baroque guitar aesthetic of short character sketches, and as a composer who possessed a remarkable talent of saying a lot with very little. He was, in short, a miniaturist. I think his guittar music is unique in the entire history of the guitar and has been overlooked for far too long. It is never less than lyrical, has some surprising rhythmical subtleties, and, in the Twelve Divertimentis, Oswald created a satisfying five-minute form within which he could explore the unique qualities of this new instrument, the guittar. What on the page often looks like naive and superficial galant affectation, can in performance be deeply moving and very exciting guittar music.

This music does not ‘work’ on modern guitars, it just does not come alive. Oswald understood the guittar better than any other guittar composer of his era. He understood the limitations of the instrument and he worked within them very successfully. Like the guitar music of Villa-Lobos, it just does not transcribe well to another medium, but that does not in any way imply that it is bad music. The wire strings are tuned to a major chord which supplies a harmonic warmth around the sparse but beautifully poised melodic lines. I urge you to buy the CD – not to make me money (believe me, there is absolutely no money to be made in making such-like recordings!), but to experience the beauty and vitality of this ‘new’ voice in the world of the guitar (any style of guitar).

~Robert Bremner~

The Edinburgh musician and publisher, Robert Bremner, is on record as being the first to write and publish a serious tutor for the guittar. There had been one or two previous ‘tutors’ such as the ‘Ladies Companion’ containing one page of text, but Bremner’s Instructions for the Guitar (Edinburgh, 1758) has 28 pages, half of which is given over to detailed account of the instrument and its techniques.

Bremner is alone in Scotland in refering to the instrument as a ‘guitar’. At one point he states that the instrument has only recently come into Britain, indicating that it originated elsewhere.

Bremner is also the earliest author to discuss the ‘cross-string trill’ which has become fashionable of late. Basically it involves playing the two notes of a trill on adjacent strings. Bremner states that he learnt the technique from listening to harpers. He also mentions the technique of dragging the index finger from treble to bass, usually on the open string chord.

Bremner’s guittar output is considerable and very influential:
Instructions for the Guitar (Edinburgh 1758, with two reprints)
Twelve Scots Songs
Songs in The Gentle Shepherd
The Art of Playing the Guitar or Cetra by Geminiani (Edinburgh, 1760)


I have been given permission by Cardiff University Library to publish the entire content of Bremner’s Instructions

[Here follows the text of the Instructions:]

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE GUITAR WITH A COLLECTION OF AIRS, SONGS AND DUETS. fitted for that INSTRUMENT By ROBERT BREMNER. EDINBURGH: Printed and Sold at his MUSIC-SHOP, where may be had GUITARS from two to six Guineas [Price One Shilling and Six-pence.]


~The manner of holding the Guitar~

Place it across the Body, with the Neck inclined upwards; then apply the Little-finger of the Right-hand to the End of the Bridge next the first or smallest String, by which the instrument will rest upon it; the Left-hand holding the Neck between the Ball of the Thumb and Root of the Fore-finger. The best Way to hold it with Ease in this Position, is to sling it over the left Shoulder, with a Ribband fixed to both Ends of the Instrument, so that the Hands, particularly the Left-hand, may be free to move up and down without Interruption; the Necessity of which will be found in the Course of Practice.

~Of the Right-hand Fingers~

When the Instrument is thus placed, hold up the Wrist so as it may, together with the Fingers, form a Roundness: Then streight the Fore-finger, and draw it across all the Strings, beginning at the smallest. In like manner, return the Thumb, from the thickest, by which the Position of the Fingers will be discovered.

The true Fort of the Instrument is best produced by touching the Strings between the Sound-hole and the Bridge, tho’ it will occasion a pleasing Variety to play some Times near the Bridge, and afterwards as far up as the Little-finger will allow the others to reach; the Tone of the one representing the Lute, and the other the Pipe or Organ. But this is only to be attempted when the Learner is well advanced, and can with Judgement apply it so as to expect a good Effect from it.

The running the Thumb and Fore-finger across the Strings, as above, is recommended as a Lesson sufficient for the first Day; only the Thumb to leave one String for the Fore-finger to begin with, and that they move up and down upon one another, so as the one may not interrupt the Performance of the other. After this Manner are all Arpeggio’s performed; an example of which may be seen in the Second Prelude. Hitherto two Fingers, viz. the Thumb and Fore-finger, have only been recommended for Use, tho’, in the Course of Performance, it will be shewn, that four are requisite. There are some that only recommend these two for all. But this renders even easy Passages difficult, and must often marr the Performance; as it is impossible to move the Fore-finger (which by this method must execute the whole, except some occasional low Notes) so quick, as most Music will require, without sometimes touching the wrong Strings: Nor is there any Reason why a Finger that naturally hangs over a String should be idle, and another come from a Distance to perform its Office: On the contrary, had we a Finger for each String, it would facilitate our Performance; but this not being the case, we most lose the Use of none of those we have.

Example 1. in Plate first, [see page 13 – Rob MacKillop] shews the Notes representing the open Strings, and are called by the Letters under them. Example 2. shews a different method of fingering the Open Notes from that formerly given. N.B. 0 means the Thumb 1 Fore-finger 2 Second-finger 3 Third-finger In this Example, the first three Notes are played by the Thumb, which must not be lifted at each, but made to slide over them. The next three have a Finger to each: and as ther Strings are double (Such Strings as are close to each other are Unisons, or the same Sound, and therefore considered only as one Note. – footnote in original), Care must be taken that they are struck so as to make them vibrate equally. In returning these Notes, the Fingers are the same; only the last three, which, instead of the Thumb, are played by drawing the Fore-finger over them. To perform this quickly, is Work sufficient for the second Day. Example 3. is another Lesson on the open Strings, which merits another Day’s Practice. Nor is Example 4. less deserving, as it is designed to exercise the Fingers for double, triple, and quadruple Notes. In playing this Lesson, the Fingers must be pressed equally on the Strings, and then drawn in towards the body, (the Thumb the reverse) at the same time viewing the Strings on the Finger-board, to discover if their vibrations are equal, which, if otherwise, is a Sign they have not been equally pressed.

Tho’ these Examples are but short, yet, by repeating them (which is here designed) they may be lengthened at pleasure, taking care that no more Time be lost between the first and last Notes, than between any two lying next other. Each Parcel of Notes between the Cross-bars in Example 4. may be considered as a distinct Lesson, and repeated as above. Such Notes as have not the Fingers marked are to be played with those applied to the former Notes.

The anxious Learner will no doubt think it unreasonable to be so long detained without a Tune; but let such be assured, that beginning to learn any Instrument with Tunes, particularly known ones, is generally the greatest hinderance they can meet with; for their Eagerness to learn these Tunes makes them break thro’. every Rule and Method the industrious Teacher has been labouring to communicate; wheras, if the Learner would have a little Patience, and first endeavour to have a good Notion of the first Principles, together with a tolerable command of the Fingers, his Progress would be sure and speedy. Which, if otherwise, seldom fails of being slow and uncertain, attended with Aukwardness.

~Of the Left-hand Fingers~

Their Business is to apply the Strings to the Frets or Brass-bars across the Finger-board, so as to produce a good Tone, and this is best done by pressing the Finger on the String a little above the Fret from which the tone is received; each of these Frets is in reallity a Bridge, which, if the String is made to rest firmly upon, must undoubtedly give a Sound little inferior to the open Note. Of the Scale. The Learner being, it is hoped, by this Time, well aquainted with the Lines and Spaces on which the open Notes are placed, will have little Difficulty in remebring the others. Each Note of the scale (Example 5) has the proper Finger of the Lef-hand marked above it. The Right-hand Fingers may be applied as at (Example 2.). In playing up the Scale, the Fingers often slips a Space between the Frets; the Reason of which shall be hereafter given. All that the Learner has at present to observe is, to play the Notes as directed in the Scale and Plan of the Finger-board (Example 6.); the one pointing out the proper Finger, the other shewing where to place it. Example, The first Note C, is the sixth String open. The second, being D, is the Second-finger on the same String, placed on the Instrument, as represented by the Letter D in the Plan; and so of all the other stopped Notes.

~Of Notes, their Names and Proportions~

The Notes made Use of in either Vocal or Instrumental Music are of six Sorts, namely, Semibreve, Minim, Crotchet, Quaver, Semiquaver, and Demisemiquaver. As to their Lengths and Proportions, a Semibreve is equal to two Minims, four Crotchets, &c. See (Example 7.)

~Of Rests~

These are Characters which denote Silence, or an Intermission of Sound, and are the same, as to Measure of Time, with the Notes after which they are placed. They are likewise called by the same Names, as Semibreve-rest, Minim-rest, Crotchet-rest, &c.

~Of a Dot or Point~

A Dot or Point placed after any Note, makes that Note longer by a Half than it formerly was. For Instance, a Semibreve alone, is equal to two Minims, but by a Dot after it, is made equal to three; a Minim again is equal to two Crotchets, but with a Dot is equal to three. And so of the others, (Example 8 )

~Of Cliffs~

There is one or other of them set at the Beginning of every Tune. The G or treble Cliff, is the only one used for this Instrument.

~Of Bars~

There are Lines which cross the five Lines, which, together with the Spaces betwixt them, are called Bars. Of these there are two Kinds, namely single and double: The single Bars serve to divide the Tune, according to its Measures. The double Bars serve to divide every Strain of a Tune. There is an Arch or Semicircle, with a Dot within it, placed over the first double Bar, in the Example of Bars; this Character is called a Close; and some Times serves to shew, that whatever Note it is placed over is the last Note of the Piece: At other Times it denotes, that the Note, over which it is placed, may be lengthened at pleasure. There is another Character, placed over the second double Bar, called a Repeat, which shews that the Music is to be performed over again, from the Note over which it is placed; and Dots, being placed by the double Bar, serves the same purpose. The other Character, at the end of the five Lines, resembling a W, is called a Direct, and is placed at the End, in order to shew on what Line or Space the first Note, in the next Line of Music, is placed.

~Of Time~

The Characters which denote Time are always at the Beginning of a Piece of Music; and tho’ they are many in Number, yet there are but two Sorts of Time, namely, Common Time and Triple Time. The First of these, Common Time Characters, denotes the Music to be Slow, and shews there is a Semibreve, or as many other Notes or Rests as are equal to its Length in a Bar. The second denotes the Music being quick, and answers for either one or two Semibreves in a Bar. Triple Time is known by having either 3/2, 3/4, 3/8, &c. at the Beginning of the Tune, the first of these shews that there are three Minims in a Bar, and is the slowest of all Triple Times. The second 3/4, shews, that there are three Crotchets in a Bar, and is generally quicker than the former; but that these and all other Kinds of Time may be rightly understood, let it be observed, that the Semibreve is the Source of all Times; for the undermost Figure being either 2, 4 or 8, signifies Minims, Crotchets or Quavers, contained in a Semibreve; and the Figure above shews how many of either of these is in a Bar. As for Instance, If 3/2 is placed before a Piece of Music, the Figure below tells the Number of Parts into which the Semibreve is divided, namely two, which signifies Minims; for there are no other Notes, whereof two are equal to a Semibreve: Then the Figure 3. above, shews that there are three of these Minims in a Bar; and so of the rest.

~Of Sharps, Flats, and Naturals~

It must be observed, that the Space betwixt each Fret on the Finger-board, is only a half Tone or Note; if a Sharp therefore is placed before a Note, it makes that Note a Half Tone sharper, or more accute than it formerly was. A Flat has the contrary Effect, as it takes away a Half Note from any Note before which it is placed, to make it more flat or grave. Either are performed by placing a different Finger on the Space above or below that formerly used. As, for Instance, Suppose a Sharp placed before D, the second Note in the Scale; then it is played, by putting down the third Finger in the Space above, as represented by the Sharp in the Plan. On the contrary, were it a Flat, the first Finger must be put down where the Flat is marked. If either of them is set at the Beginning of a Piece of Music, they affect the Notes on such Lines or Spaces throughout the whole Tune, according to their different Natures. A Natural serves to contradict the Sharps or Flats, by restoring any Note before which it is placed to its former natural Sound.

~Of a Shake~

This seems to be the onely Deficiency of the Instrument; for, in every other Respect, it doubtless has the Advantage of most others of its Compass, as it is capable of adding the full Harmony to any Note the Performer chuses; which, together with its Melodiousness, renders it a most elegant Accompanier of the human Voice: Nor need it be doubted, but Time will remove this Defect, and likewise discover more Beauties in the Instrument than there are yet known; as it has but lately been introduced in Britain. One Method of a Shake, is, by sounding the Note above, and then moving the Finger of that Note as on the Violin; but as the vibration occasioned by sounding the Note soon ceases, the Effect is next to nothing. The next is the same with the former; only with this Difference, that, instead of moving the Finger up and down perpendicularly, it must, in falling and rising, form an Oval, by which it will draw the String a little to a Side, so as to renew the Vibration. This has a very good Effect, if done with Judgment. The last is that used by the Harper, namely, by the Thumb and Fore-finger on two different Strings. As, for Instance, Suppose a Shake is wanted on D, on the fourth Line; then it is performed by the Thumb and Fore-finger of the Right-hand, sounding that Note alternately with the open String above. If this Method is once acquired, it must be equal to a Shake on any other Instrument.

~Of a Beat~

This is best done by the second Method laid down for a Shake, only with this Difference, that, instead of the Note above, the Finger that stops the Note moves; which, when done, must be kept down, that the Note itself may be the last heard. See the Examples.

~Of a Slur~

A Slur on this Instrument, signifies no more than to point out such Notes as are played by drawing the same Finger over them, except in the Songs where they likewise shew such Notes as are sung to one Syllable. The Learner may now proceed to play some Tunes after which it will be necessary to observe the following Rules: 1. The Right-hand may play the open Notes in such Music as descend, which is done by drawing the String to a Side, in Raising the Finger from the Note above. See (Example 9) where such Notes as may be played in this Manner have Dots above them, as have also those in the Lesson in page 26. But Care must be taken, that these Notes this played be not stronger than the others, otherwise they will have a bad Effect. 2. In the scale, the 2d, 3d, 5th and 6th Strings, have only two Notes each, the 4th has three; and the first eight. But it is evident, by viewing the Frets, that each String must have the same number of Notes as the first and tho’ the odds over these in the Scale, are no more than a Repetition of those on the Strings above; yet the Knowledge of them is most necessary, there being many Passages that cannot otherwise be performed. See the third Chord at (Example 10) where the G must be taken on the second String. N.B. The proper Fingers are marked to this Chord. At (Example 11) is another Instance where G must be taken on the 5th String. The easiest Method of playing those at (Example 12) (which is the same with the tenth Bar of the second Prelude,) is by placing the first or second Finger across all the Strings, so as to make them bear upon the fifth Fret. After this manner may any common Chord be played, as every Fret is one or other of them.

~Of Tuning the Guitar~

This is to be done only by an adjusted Ear, and therefore is not to be attempted by those who are unaquainted with Music. But as there is scarce a Place destitute of one that can tune a Violin, any such may easily tune a Guitar. The Method id this: Let the third String or Strings be tuned the same Sound with the 3d Finger on the fourth String of the Violin, which is C. This done, the second String is made to sound the same with the 1st Finger on the third String of the Violin, which is E, and is a third to the former. Then tune the first String to the 3d Finger on the same Violin String, being G; by which it becomes a 5th to the String first tuned. When these three are thus tuned, they will sound these three Notes at (Example 13). As a Proof of what has been done, compare such Notes as are crossed (See the Plan) with the open Strings above; and if they have the same Sound, the Instrument is so far tuned. As, for Instance, let the Note that is crossed on the 2d String have the same Sound with the first String open, and so of the 3d and 2d String. The other three Strings are no more than Returns than the same Sound, they being eight Notes lower than the former, viz. the 4th is tuned an Octave to the first; the 5th to the 2d; and the 6th to the 3d. If the first and last three strings sound the first three Notes in the State-Holders Minuit properly, it is a Sign the Instrument is in Tune. And such as cannot tune it, ought to play this Minuit often, as the Knowledge of it will greatly forward their Tuning.

~Remarks on the Pitch of the Guitar~

The Notes appearing so high, makes it seem impossible for the Human voice to accompany this Instrument; but when it is considered, that the Music is set an Octave above it, to prevent too many Ledger-lines or unaccustomed Cliffs, the Difficulty will be removed. The true State of the open Notes are these at (Example 14) of which three are Bass, and therefore improper for a Trible Voice. Those who transpose for this Instrument, must observe, that the proper Compass on it for the Generality of Voices, if pitched at C, (which seems to be the most proper Pitch for the most of the Guitars that have yet appeared) are those Notes at (Example 15) which are Unison, or the same Sound on this Instrument, with these below them, on either Violin or Harpsichord. Those at (Example 16) is another Range of Notes which may likewise terminate the Bounds of a Song; they being the same with the former, only an Octave lower, as may be seen by the Notes below them with which they are Unison. If a Song is set in this Compass, (See the Bush aboon Traquair.) A Trible Voice will naturally sing an Octave above the Instrument, which, tho’ not quite so proper, yet has no worse Effect than if a Man and a Woman sung an Air together. But the former at (Example 15) is doubtless preferable, were it not the frequent Shifting of the Hand it occasions, as it is Unison with the Trible Voice, (of which the Fair Sex are only possessed,) and likewise permits the Instrument to join a Bass or Thorough-Bass. Those Guitars that have moving Bridges on the Neck have the Advantage of the others; as by such, the Instrument is enabled to suit the voice with any Pitch of Song.


~Twelve Scots Songs for a Voice or Guitar with a Thorough Bass, adapted for that instrument By Robert Bremner~

My Apron Deary Down the burn Davie Tweed Side I’ll never leave thee The Broom Gallowsheels Lochaber Ann thou were my ain thing Birks of Envermay The Lass of Peaty’s mill The last time I came o’er the Moor Peggy I must love thee This collection is a veritable ‘Greatest Hits’ package of the 18th century. I will try and get permission to publish this work here in the near future.

~Songs in The Gentle Shepherd~

‘The Songs in the Gentle Shepherd. Adapted for the Guitar by Robert Bremner. Edinburgh. Sold at his music Shop. Where may be had. Instructions for Guitar Pasquali’s Art of Fingering the Harp’d Pasquali’s Thoro’ Bass Craig’s Scots Tunes with Variations Adapted for the Harp’d Scots Songs for a Voice & Harp’d 2 Books McGibbons Scots Tunes for the Violin or Ger. Flute. 3 Books Curious Scots Tunes all with Variations for the Violin & Bass Also. Guitars & all other Musical Instruments at Reasonable Rates NB: If any such passeges as have chords or double notes are found difficult, let the Performer play only the highest note, as it compleats the Air of the Tune without the others’ [NLS Glen104]

~The Gentle Shepherd~

Allan Ramsay’s statue, the image of a confident and learned man, stands today in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, overlooking the New Town, which in his day was open land stretching north to the Forth river. Ramsay flourished at a time when Scotland was still reeling from the intrigues which had brought into existence the political Union with England. Scotland had, within a few short dynamic years, lost her proud independence, and her domestic political power. The hoped-for rise in wealth, promised by the English, had not materialised, and many Scots soon began to see themselves bereft of control over their own destiny, and, possibly much worse, had no sense of a communal identity. Not only were the political and constitutional structures crumbling at an alarming rate, but the very notion of Scottishness was under a viscious attack. To the defence came three poets: Allan Ramsay (1684-1758), Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), and Robert Burns (1759-1796).

This literary triumvirate revitalised not only the rauckle Scots Tongue at a time when many of the middle and upper classes were doing their utmost to rid themselves of any traces of their native language [that towering genius of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, for example, spent many a destructive hour crossing out all the Scots words in his writing. Others even went so far as to compile lexicons of Scots words which, the reader was advised, were to be avoided by Scots writers, but which have become, in a wonderful poetic irony, a rich source of 18th-century Scots vocabulary for modern-day lexicographers!], but also revitalised a national sense of identity. In this respect alone, the most important was not, as might be expected, Burns, who flourished towards the end of the 18th century, and whose debt to his two predecessors he freely acknowledged, or Fergusson, whose own enlightenment was extinguished by his tragically premature death, but by Ramsay, author of two phenomenally successful publications: The Tea Table Miscellany (1724-37) and The Gentle Shepherd (1725).

According to Dwyer, ‘Allan Ramsay’s ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ is nowadays familiar only to students of Scottish literature, but his quintissentially Scottish pastoral constituted a revolutionary exploration of the connections of community in village, neighbourhood and nation.’ And again: ‘[The Gentle Shepherd is a] work which, more than any other, can be said to have initiated and sustained the remarkable Scottish cultural renaissance of the 18th century.’ [‘The Age of the Passions. An Interpretation of Adam Smith and Scottish Enlightenment Culture, John Dwyer. Tuckwell Press, East Linton, Scotland 1998. ISBN 1898410178.]

Bremner’s edition for guittar and voice of songs from The Gentle Shepherd, appearing some thiry five years after the first publication of the pastoral, is testament to the continued popularity of the play, its music, and its sentiment. It is also a very interesting publication for guittar and folk historians. Eighteen songs are included, and the following footnote appears after the last: ‘NB. Such other Tunes as belong to this Comedy, are already printed in the Publisher’s Instructions for the Guitar.’

The accompaniment style has the guittar playing in unison with the voice – a much favoured folk style – with occasional use of thirds and cadential chords. A more ‘classical’ style is favoured in William Wilson’s ‘New Selection of the Most admired Songs for the Guittar’ but mention should be made here that Bremner’s chosen style is perfectly in keeping with the sentiments of the songs: simple and direct. The sustain and resonance of the guittar would fill out the sound with a tonal warmth that never threatens to detract from the voice, and, most importantly, the words. As is often the case with the more folk inspired guittar arrangements, what looks sparse and uninteresting on paper can in performance be very moving and have a sense of authenticity lacking in more scholarly arrangements. [I have given performances in folk clubs in Fife of some of these songs, accompanying traditional singers who would have shouted me offstage had I played more notes than was required to outline the melody.] Such a style of accompaniment could only really work successfully with wire strings. Both gut and its modern-day equivalent, nylon, lack the drone-like quality which wire can bring, especially when tuned to an open string tonic chord. From this perspective, Bremner’s accompaniments are at once perfect and masterly, and indicate more than a passing familiarity with the folk idiom. Furthermore, the publication of such a style of accompaniment is an indication of how popular the folk style was with the middle-class, sheet music buying public. Another advantage is that the guittar parts could be played as solos without the voice, thereby supplying a source of popular traditional melodies. And, of course, a further advantage is that a simple accompaniment is simple to play, relative that is to the arpeggios and scale runs which feature in William Wilson’s edition referred to above. Clearly the melody took precedence over all other considerations, as is made explicit by Bremner on the front page of the edition: ‘NB: If any such passeges as have chords or double notes are found difficult, let the Performer play only the highest note, as it compleats the Air of the Tune without the others’

The tunes chosen by Ramsay are all traditional and are cited before the commencement of the song. Here is a list of the songs with their respective tunes: Song Tune 1. My Peggy is a young thing – Waking of the Faulds 2. Dear Roger if your Jenny geck – Fy gar rub her o’er with Strae 3. The dorty will repent – Polwart on the Green 4. O dear Peggy loves beguiling – O Dear Mother &c 5. How shall I be sad when a Husband I hae – How shall I be sad on my wedding Day 6. I yield dear lassie you have won – Nansy’s to the Green wood gane 7. The Laird who in riches and honour – Mucking of Geordy’s Byr 8. Cauld be the Rebels cast – Cauld kale in Aberdeen 9. Peggy now the King’s come – Carl an’ the King come 10. When first my dear Laddie gade – Yellow hair’d Laddie 11. By the delicious warmness of thy mouth (no tune title) 12. Hid from himself now by the dawn – Happy Clown 13. Were I asur’d you’ll constant prove – Come hap me with thy Pettycoat 14. Well I agree ye’re sure of me – O’er Bogie 15. Duty and part of reason – An the Kirk wad let me be 16. Speak on speak this, and still my grief – Woes my heart that we shou’d sunder 17. The bonny gray ey’d morning – Bonny gray ey’d Morning 18. My Patie is a lover gay – Corn Riggs are bonny

~The Art of Playing the Guitar or Cetra~

I believe there is a modern edition of this publication, but I have been unable to track it down. I do not want to duplicate what modern publishers are bravely doing, so for the moment I will have to say that I shall return to this publication in, hopefully, the not too distant future.

I went into more detail on Bremner’s guittar publications in my paper for the First International Symposium on the Guittar, Evora, Portugal September 2001. All papers from that symposium have been published : Estar Publications

12 thoughts on “Cittern”

  1. Hi Rob

    I am pleased to tell you that I have arranged for the Houghton Library at Harvard to make a digital copy of the complete Otley Cittern Book [US-CAh Mus.181] and for them to post it on-line on their website for all to see – it came on-line today using the following link:

    which seems to go to the page:

    Go to ‘related links’ for a description of the manuscript. However, you will know John Ward’s inventory for the Otley Cittern Book in ‘Sprightly and Cheerful Musick: Notes on the cittern, gittern, and guitar in 16th- and 17th-century England’ Lute Society Journal XXI (1979-81), pp. 142-158. II have retyped and expanded the concordances and cognates – and will send it to you all soon when I’ve finished the bibliography – I am writing a brief introduction for it – a draft is reproduced below.

    I also have high definition tiffs in case the on-line images are not good enough and you need to ask me to check some particular details. I was a bit disappointed the on-line images are rather pale – the tiffs are so much better.

    I plan to get the link mentioned in Lute News, on the Lute Society website, and on Andrew Hartig’s cittern site, but please post it to anyone else you want

    best wishes – John

    Cambridge MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library [US-CAh] MS Mus. 181: The Matthew Otley Cittern Book, folios 1r-14r copied c.1600 and folios 14v-27r copied after 1650.

    The Otley Cittern Book is one of four tablature books known to have been dispersed in the twentieth century from the library of Lord Braye at Stanford Hall, near Rugby, Leicestershire, by Alfred Verney-Cave, 5th Baron Braye (1849–1928), Adrian Verney-Cave, 6th Baron Braye (1874-1952) or Thomas Adrian Verney-Cave, 7th Baron Braye (1902–1985). The other three tablature books are the Braye Lute Book [now US-NHub Mus.13], the Browne Bandora and Lyra Viol Book [now GB-Lam MS 600], and the lute tablature included with a manuscript copy of a poem of Sir Hubert Francis (d.1629) and other poetry, recently rediscovered by Stewart McCoy and known as [US-NHub] Osborn shelves fb7.[1] The Otley Cittern Book was probably not part of the library of the Parliamentarian, John Browne (1608-1691) that was transferred to Stanford Hall in the 18th-century,[2] but was there when H. C. Maxwell Lyte described the Stanford Hall library for the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1887, although he considered it to be a lute book. This ‘lute book’ was acquired by the antiquary, bibliophile, and collector Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872); his library later passed through the hands of the Fenwicks but was untraceable by modern musicologists until it resurfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in 1977. It was apparent to Robert Spencer that the manuscript contained music for cittern, and not lute, so he suggested it be named after the owner inscribed on the inside cover: the Matthew Otley Cittern Book.[3] It was purchased at Sotherby’s by John M. Ward, who described and inventoried it,[4] and subsequently donated it to the Houghton Library at Harvard, where it is to be found today].

    [1] For a detailed description see Stewart McCoy, The James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, MS Osborn fb7, The Lute Society Facsimiles 5 (Albury: The Lute Society, 2007), pp. v-xvi.

    [2] Nigel Fortune, ‘Music manuscripts of John Browne (1608-1691), and from Stanford Hall, Leicestershire’, in: Source Materials and the Interpretation of Music, Ian Bent, ed. (London, Stainer and Bell, 1981).

    [3] Robert Spencer, ‘A lute book ghost laid’ Early Music 6/3 (1978), p. 485.

    [4] John M. Ward, ‘Sprightly and Cheerful Musick: Notes on the cittern, gittern, and guitar in 16th- and 17th-century England’ Lute Society Journal XXI (1979-81), pp. 142-158.

  2. I find it somewhat bemusing that citternists, guittarists, viola-da-gambists, d’amorists, guitarists and steel guitarists can go blithely on their ways without realizing that their tunings have so many similarities and that a problem posed in one particular instrument can be solvbed by reference to the methods, etc, of another of these very closely related instruments with their very closely related tunings. It’s as if as musicians we learn in a vacuum, and perform in a vacuum as equally insulating … it’s daft.

  3. John Rutherford said:

    I love the tone of the eighteenth-century guittar and greatly enjoy your recordings. I’ve recently managed to buy a good guittar at auction (by Rauche, 1764). But I’m sure it’s strung with the wrong type of strings (I think they’re wire strings for an acoustic guitar). I’d be very grateful if you could let me know about the correct strings for the guittar, and where I can buy them. All best wishes, John Rutherford.

    • The Rauche should be a decent instrument, but it certainly should not have modern guitar strings, which can sound terrible on these guittars. I got a harpsichord maker to make my strings, mainly rose brass. But it has been 12 years or so since we did that, and I haven’t seen him since. So, I’m afraid to say I can’t remember what is on it. In fact, it is currently with Daniel Wheeldon for restoration. You could contact him:
      Daniel is taking a good look at all physical aspects of these instruments, and I’m sure he would be delighted to hear from you.


  4. John Rutherford said:

    Many thanks for your helpful reply. I shall contact Daniel. Best wishes, John.

    • John, I don’t know if you found a response (or where in the world you’re located), but I supply strings for guittars and other period wire strung instruments. I actually made a custom set for James Tyler’s Rauche before he passed away. Details at Let me know if I can be of help!

  5. Pingback: My Blog

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