In the Trenches with Johann and Caspar Plotz: a rediscovered Gebrauchstabulatur from the Scheidt circle.

by Cleveland Johnson, DePauw University

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German organists paid meticulous attention to their tablature-books, careful compilations of the music needed for their work with the choir and congregation. These manuscripts are characterized by their clear writing, their coherent – often liturgical – organization, their thorough indexing, and their fine, overall appearance. It is the exception, rather than the rule, to find among these volumes an organ tablature that appears to have been in actual, frequent daily use with all of the jottings, musical sketches, notes, and reminders an organist might be expected to scribble to himself just before rushing into Gottesdienst. Such a manuscript is the so-called "Plotz Tablature," considered lost from the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin since World War II but recently rediscovered (with numerous other Berlin Musikalien) in the library of Krakow’s Universitet Jagiellonska.

Despite its small size, a mere 66 folia, the Plotz Tablature merits a detailed source study of its contents, its uses, as well as its two elusive authors. Starting as a simple book of chorale melodies, the tablature acquired a variety of additions over time, evident by the different notation systems used, different hands, and different inks. These additions include bass lines under some of the melodies, to clarify the harmonic intent, harmonizations of one or more possibly problematic phrases of the melody, or even transpositions of these melodies into one or more optional keys. Performance markings were frequently added to clarify syllabic division or rhythmic ambiguities, and registration indications, comparatively rare in organ tablatures, were also included. Common motives within phrases were marked, perhaps for use as pivot points in improvisation, and one or more improvisation ideas, utilizing standard cantus firmus and fore-imitation techniques, were squeezed into any available space around the melodies. For some melodies, a description or outline for extensive concerted treatment was given. The tablature was concluded with an index and an extensive appendix of chorale titles and their possible uses within the liturgical year. In short, the Plotz tablature contains the fossil record ofthe professional activities of typical seventeenth-century central German organists.

Before I go on, although I cannot go into great detail today on this point, let me at least introduce you to Johann and Caspar Plotz of Brieg, whose signatures at the conclusion of the manuscript (Slide 1: f. 65v) leave little room to doubt the authorship of this source. Before this tablature disappeared for a half century, Christhard Mahrenholz suggested that Johann and Caspar were students of Samuel Scheidt. This judgement was based, as far as I can tell, solely on the contents of this manuscript; Johann and Caspar Plotz are not mentioned as Scheidt students in any document of the time known to me (for ex., the list of Scheidt students at his funeral). This tablature does, however, make a strong case for this assumption. Most convincing is the specification of the Compenius organ, (Slides 2 and 3, ff. 50-50v) designed and partially funded by Scheidt, for the Halle Moritzkirche, copied down by someone who must have known the instrument first hand. Other telling evidence are the numerous canons by "S.S." including several that were not published in the Tabulatura nova and unlikely to have been widely disseminated beyond a direct circle of Scheidt’s students and acquaintances (Slide 4, f. 62v). Less direct evidence, but also revealing, is the extremely high percentage of concordances between the chorale melodies presented by the Plotz’s and those treated by Scheidt in his Tabulatura nova and Görlitzer Tabulaturbuch. The Plotz’s, like Scheidt, also show an acute interest in c. f. placement and registration, as we will see below.

With the time allotted today, I must obviously choose just one or two issues to assault. For now, I would like to focus specifically on the layering of information which accumulated in this tablature during, what must have been, several years of heavy use. I would like to point out the clear distinctions that can be made between the original contents of the tablature and later additions which, almost always, refer back to that original core of repertoire. As we shall see, most of this later information, little more than fragmentary musical cues, freezes in time the organist’s spontaneous ideas. This information also helps to illuminate exactly how this tablature was used.

(Original Contents)

The original musical contents of this volume are clearly organized into three distinct sections. These sections were probably entered over a short period of time and contain most of the crucial music needed for normal purposes in a single liturgical year. The first section, folia 1-20v, contains chorale melodies (numbered consecutively 1-82; no. 7-18 are missing but included in the index). These melodies are written, not in tablature, but on a five-line staff (usually soprano clef); each page holds two or kthree such melodies.

(Slide 5, f. 8: An Wasserflüssen Babylon, Allein zu dir Herr Jesus Christ, O Herre Gott dein göttlich Wort)

The second section, ff. 21–32, contains liturgical melodies, such as a set of magnificats, a German Te Deum, and the abbreviated Lutheran Mass of Kyrie/Gloria. These works were numbered 83–100.

(Slide 6, f. 23v: Kyrie Domicale)

The third section, ff. 32v–49v, contains intabulations and chorale harmonizations in tablature notation. These works are numbered consecutively 1-23.

(Slide 7, f. 41v: Quærite primum regnum Dei; Was mein Got wil das geschee alzeit)

These three distinct sections of music mirror three major responsibilities of this seventeenth-century organist in the Gottesdienst: 1) "interacting" with the congregation and choir (and perhaps accompanying) in chorale singing, 2) participating in the liturgy, following the alternatim practice, and 3) accompanying the choir or substituting for the choir with intabulated motets. Had the tablature been frozen in time at this point in its compilation, we would have had a clear, though rather sterile, overview of the organist’s main activities. (In fact, this tablature would be rather insignificant, had things stopped here!) Fortunately,because this tablature was used as the organists’ notebook, a multi-purpose volume in daily use, and not merely as an orderly reference collection of useful melodies and motets, we get a far more colorful and comprehensive glimpse of how such material may have actually found use in the hands of German organists.

The slides viewed thus far, were carefully selected to show how this tablature may have appeared in its earliest stage of compilation. These few relatively pristine pages were, however, hard to find. Most of the tablature-book looks more like this.

(Slides 8 and 9: ff. 6v – 7)

Let us examine this particular opening to see what type of additions and alterations the organist found need to add as this source was used over the years.

(ff. 6v-7r, Original Contents)

Folio 6v originally contained three chorale melodies and their titles: "Wir glauben all an einem Gott," "Christe der du bist Tag und Licht," and "Christe qui lux." Folio 7 contained two melodies: "Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein," and "Erbarm dich mein o Herre Gott." On the verso, the first two melodies are numbered 27 and 28, respectively, but the third is unnumbered. Because the two melodies, found on the facing recto, are numbered 29 and 30, one might conclude that "Christe qui lux" was added later. I cannot, however, find evidence for such a senario: "Christe qui lux" appears to have been written at the same time as the other melodies. The index lists both "Christe qui lux" and "Es wollt uns Gott gnädig sein" as number 29, which suggests that "Christe qui lux" was left unnumbered sheerly by mistake. Later, when compiling the index, the scribe chose to let "Christe qui lux" "piggy-back" on the number 29, allowing the user at least to find himself back to the proper folio, if not directly to the proper piece.

(ff. 6v-7r, First Added Layer)

After recording the essential melodies, but sometime later using a different ink, the first layer of information was added. This information concerned the placement of the chorale melody in performance and was added to three of the five melodies; each of these remarks makes essentially the same suggestion, that the chorale be placed down an octave in the tenor and be played by the pedals ("Coral in Tenor aufn pedal per O"). The two melodies not so marked (#27, "Wir Glauben all an einem Got"and #29, "Es wollt uns Gott gnädig sein") both have an awkward ambitus for such performance. The first melody falls between c# and e an octave above; this top note would have fallen beyond the upper compass of the pedalboard. Playing the melody down an octave wouldn’t have solved things either: the low c# would have been missing. The second melody mentioned had similar problems arguing against performance in the tenor. On the pedalboards of the time, it could only have been performed in this manner if four-foot stops were used and the melody were played yet another octave lower.

(ff. 6v-7r, Second Added Layer)

All remaining additions to the fabric of this folio were made in tablature notation. Tablature has always shown itself useful for notating music in tight spaces; here, with the only available space being between the preexisting staves, tablature worked ideally. Most of these additions provide hints or cues for improvisation, ideas for introducing or "preluding" on the given melodies or for elaborating on the melodies in alternation with the congregation or choir. Often these cues are placed directly above or belove the phrase they elaborate, but sometimes, especially when one phrase is the source for several ideas, the location may be more distant (sometimes even on another page, with a written reference to "see p....") Two different ideas for elaborating "Wir glauben all an einem Gott" are found, each with a different time of entry.

a. phrase 7 (above) a3 setting with c.f. in middle voice (tenor octave)

phrase 6 (below the entire melody – third score) a3 setting, c.f. in middle voice (tenor octave) which, because the accompanying rhythms are similar, was probably intended to connected with the phrase 7 melody above.

[I suspect that a couple of comments were also added at this time to the melody of "Es wollt uns Gott gnädig sein." Above that melody was written: "Setzen es eine 2 tieffer ex D bmol 9. Toni. Calvisius et bodenschatzt" (refers to a setting of this melody in a 1606 collection of hymns by Calvisius – Florilegium selectissimorum hymnorum – published by Erhard Bodenschatz) The title to this melody was also lengthened at this time, why I don’t know, to include the second phrase of text, "und seinen Segen geben." Also at this time, a small pitch correction to the fifth phrase of Wir glauben was made.]

(ff. 6v-7r, Third Added Layer)

b. phrase 6 and first half of 7 (below) a2 setting, c.f. in top voice with a chromatic counterpoint (= top two voices from the a4 setting at the bottom of the facing recto) phrase 6 and first half of 7 (bottom of 7) a 4 setting, c.f. in soprano, three lower voices provide an imitative chromatic accompaniment

(ff. 6v-7r, Fourth Added Layer)

You can see at this point, that the appearance of the page is becoming rather cluttered. You won’t be surprised, then, to learn that many of the remaining additions were made in red ink. Most of these red entries refer to the melody, "Erbarm dich o mein Herre Gott" on fol. 7. Above the melody there is a suggested beginning for a "Fuga 4 Toni," the subject of which was produced by conflating the third and sixth phrases of the chorale. All that is given here is the subject and the beginning of the answer. Beneath the melody is perhaps an earlier entry, written in black ink and setting the cantus firmus of phrase two (and the end of phrase one) in the tenor voice of this three-voice arrangement – just as the registration indication above the melody suggested: "Coral auf den pedal: der Tenor per O" This setting must have been entered before the red entries, because a few red indications were obviously added to this setting after the fact.

Just to the left of this setting, a red entry provides a brief three-voice beginning for phrase one, with the melody placed in the upper voice. This fragmentary idea may have been intended to continue at the very bottom of the facing verso (6v) where the melody of phrase two is also presented in the top voice. A red line then points back to the recto where the previously entered three-voice setting of phrase two (with the melody in the middle voice) was to be found.

A couple of final indications were entered while this useful red ink was at hand. First, a very important sharp was added to the third note of the "Wir glauben" melody. Second, a nice performance idea was added above the melody of "Christe qui lux," suggesting (but not sketching out) a "Canon a 3v in Bas 16," a treatment which would work well for the first phrase.

As interesing as this particular opening may be, from the perspective of chronology, it only hints at the variety of practical information added throughout this tablature to the basic substance of the original contents. One such indication, found constantly throughout this section of chorale melodies, is the pointing out of similar or identical phrases and/or motives in each tune. The scribe here typically uses dotted lines or the word "variat:" to highlight such similarities. Here, on fol. 6v, dotted lines connect the last three notes in the first phrase of the chorale, "Christe der du bist Tag und Licht," to the final three notes in the penultimate phrase (marked: "var."). Because this descending third appears more than once, it could be used as a characteristic motive in an improvisation on this melody (perhaps as a contrapuntal accompaniment for a cantus firmus setting). The similarity of the first and last phrases of this melody is also pointed out (again, with dotted lines and the indication: "variat"); these like phrases could also prove useful in an improvisation or chorale prelude, providing perhaps a useful pivot point or a short cut.

The organist is almost obsessive in notating such similarities, few are overlooked. In addition to the dotted lines and the word "variatio" seen in this example, the scribe also sprinkles generous note bene markings throughout; use of the word "repetitio" is also found with the same implications. Sometimes, such as in the Easter sequence, "Victimae paschali laudes," (with its paired repetitions), the admonitions become more explicit: "kombt sehr oft verändern es" or "NB varÿre es." These indications are not only found in the section of chorale melodies; the intabulation section is similarly, but less thorougly, marked.

(Slide 10: f. 39r,
"Bewar mich Herr" has numerous "NB" markings to point out reappearing motives, also a "sol fa mi re" motive is marked)

(Slides 11 and 12, f. 40v and 41,
"Bleib bei uns Herr" shows a line connecting two common chords, marking a large section to repeat; the first 13 bars are also underlined and marked "repetitio")

Such notes from the organist to himself pervade this source. Beneath the melody of "Mag ich Unglück nicht wiederstehn" is the remark "NB ist ein schöner psalm zu fugieren." Similarly, "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen" is marked: "NB die letze clausel ist schön auf allerlei manier zu bringen." With "O Lamb Gottes unschuldig" the organist goes into even greater detail, saying "NB wird 3mal gesungen. Zum singen zu setzen erstlich fugirt a 3 v. C.T.B. 2mal 2 Cantus vel Tenor. 3mal ab 8 O per chorus."

An extreme example of this habit of marking useful ideas for potential variation or elaboration is found on folio 55

(Slide 13 and 14, f. 54-55v)

Here the organist charts a concise outline for what must have been intended as a chorale variation piece or an elaborate set of verses to be played in alternation with the congregational verses; instructions are given for each verse, detailing where the melody is to be placed, how many voices are to be involved, what style the variation should pursue, etc.

verse 1 - a 4 v/ 1 vers/ a 4 v/ schlicht
verse 2 - 3 / 2 vers/ Concert/ weis/ a 4 v
verse 3 -  
verse 4 - schlicht/ mit einem/ Tripel/ a 4 v
  - diese/ 4 vers./ zu einem/ teil
  - 2 pars/ a3 oder/ Alt vnd Tenor/ auf ein ander/ Art/ Bas:
verse 5 - 5 vers Coral/ in Cantu/ vel Teno:/a 3 v.
verse 6 - 6 vers/ in Bas./ a 3 v./ oder Cantus/ a 2 vel tenor
verse 7 - 7 Teno/ a 4 v/
verse 8   8 Tripel/ schlicht/ a 4 v.

The chorale involved here is "Herr Jesu Christ Du höchstes Gut," the melody of which is written on the usual 5-line staff, just across the opening on the facing verso. The remainder of this folio is filled with numerous musical fragments, all in tablature, probably jotted down as ideas for one or more of the variations just described. At the top of the folio (written across both pages – unusual in this source) is found the melody with an added bass line. This soprano/bass outline is followed by a 2-part canon at the unison, based on phrase 1. Then across on 55 is a 2-part canon at the unison, based on the final phrase, followed by a different setting of that phrase in three-parts with the melody in the upper voice. This idea is then followed by a brief fragment of a 2-part unison canon on phrase 2. At the bottom of the recto is yet another canonic beginning, based on phrase one; this time the imitation is at the upper eleventh. Finally, at the bottom of the verso is the only certain reference to the eight variations described: here, verse four is written out as a tripla variation and harmonized schlicht in four complete parts. It is also labelled "4 vers / tripel/ in 1 parte/ schlicht" to make its intent unmistakeable.

Each of the points discussed so far, suggest that the organist here is primarily concerned with his improvisatory duties of 1) "preluding" on the chorale tune, to introduce the melody before the congregation sings, and/or 2) performing organ-only verses in alternation with the congregation and/or choir. The number three given to vers two above (labelled "Concert weis") may be a little mental slip suggesting alternation: the second organ verse may indeed have been the third verse total. Evidence can also be found, however, that the organist had definite responsibility for accompanying the chorales.

If I were working from a book such as this and found myself needing to accompany a congregation in hymn-singing, I would ideally want several types of additional information that have not been seen in any of the examples we’ve examined so far. I would want to know what the text is, at least for chorales that are not completely familiar. I would want to know which notes in the melody are sung to single syllable. I would also want to make notes to myself regarding the key of the hymn – whether it would work better in a key other than that in which it has been notated. I would probably also scribble in a bass line on occasion, just as a crutch for adding appropriate harmonies, and if certain phrases of the melody presented a real harmonic challenge, I might also want to jot down a full harmonization for those problem spots. All of these types of evidence can be found in this source:

Syllable slurs, bass-line, harmonizations, text:

(Slide 15 and 15a, f. 7v) Jesus Christus unser Heiland" underlining of note groups and use of slurs to indicated syllabic allocation to multiple notes. In a couple of trouble spots, "sein" and "Höllen Pein," the text is written beneath the melody. (Look also at "Nun lob mein Seel" on this page: measure marks help with rhythms’ tabl. used to correct a few pitches

(Slide 16 and 16a, f. 9r) bass line (in tab.) beneath the melody of "Ach Gott und Herr"

(Slide 17, f. 18r) "Auf meinen lieben Gott" bass line (in tab.) beneath melody

(Slide 18, f. 56v) (later entry?) "Der Tag vertreibt die finstere Nacht"

  • Melody on typical 5-line staff, texted
  • sop/bass skeleton in tablature, last phrase texted
  • bass and text for the "letzte Clausel" which was incorrectly notated above.

(Slide 19, f. 57) (cont. from 56v) some working out of motives from 56v

(Slide 20, f. 57v) (cont. from 56v) melody only and text (5-line staff, alto clef)

  • crossed out, too low?
  • complete text written out: vss. 1-5 on this page, vss. 6-15 on the facing page (Slide 21, f. 58)
  • melody and bass, in the higher key from 56v, squeezed into available space on 57v (Slide 21a)


Aus tieffer Not (Slide H1)

Da Jesus am Creutze stund, ph. 2 and first 3 notes of ph. 3
(Slide H2)

Gib unsern fursten, last ph.
(Slide H3)


Numerous written comments from the organist deal with the issue of transpo-sition, a very practical, daily issue in any organist’s routine. These remarks some-times note that another key could be better, although the piece is not actually transposed into that key: (Slides 22a, f. 9) "NB 2 tiefer ex c’ klinget wol" or (Slide 22bf. 14v) "etlich singen es in e" Elsewhere, such remarks refer to a needed transposition when other instruments are involved: (Slide 22, f. 36v) "NB auf Viol de Gamb/ eine 5 tieffer ex C" or (Slide 23, f. 32v) "NB dieses Zion kan eine octaf tieffer Musiciert vnd mit viol d Gam: ist sehr schön." These comments may point out a tuning or intonation problem that requires the transposition (Slide 24, f. 51) "NB ist besser aus dem f bmol.......singet leichtlich keiner das fis." (refers to the f# in the bass when the work is sung on g, as written: the organ had no f# in the bass, thus, the singers had difficulties singing it.) Finally, these comments might simply guide the player to transposed versions of a piece elsewhere in the book, (Slide 25) "NB Such vorwarts das 1 blat ist eine 5 tiefer in Tenor geschrieben."

What we have discussed here illustrates just one or two sides of this multi-dimensional tablature.

(Later Additions to the Original Contents)

If you examine the types of additions made just to the original core of material in this source, you get some idea of how revealing this tablature really is. There is little doubt that, from what we’ve seen here, the chorale is central to the activity of these two seventeenth-century organists. The evidence suggests that, at this point in history, the organist has a very active role in chorale performance, unlike the sixteenth-century when most Kirchenordnungen suggest that the organist was discouraged from active involvement with the singing. The Plotz brothers give us clear evidence that the chorale was now fair game. Their sketches hint both at improvisatory chorale settings – appropriate for preluding and/or alternation – as well as organ accompaniment of chorale singing, whether by the choir or congregation.

(Later Additions
Following the Original Contents

Unfortunately, we cannot examine here the liturgical and intabulation sections of the source, nor can we look at the miscellaneous items appended to the original contents from folio 50 onward. We cannot talk about the two indexes and the insights they provide, nor the evidence suggesting that the Plotz’s were involved in instrument building. We cannot pursue the interesting connection between the Plotz brothers and Samuel Scheidt, and we will also have to skip the curious case of the Slovakian Plotz’s – a certain Jan and Caspar Plotz active as organists and compilers of tablatures around the same time, though some three hundred miles to the east ofour Plotz’s. Indeed, after fifty years of hibernation, this tablature still has many tales to tell.


by Cleveland Johnson, DePauw University
© 2001