“Glogauer Liederbuch”

Lady Gaga and Lil’ Wayne owe a little something to this German partbook from the 1470s. The Glogauer Liederbuch is a collection of 3-part instrumental arrangements of popular chanson that, rather than serve a liturgical, ceremonial, or political function, is full of tunes to be played for fun by anyone who can afford to purchase the partbooks. It might just be the first documented intersection of music and the market.

It’s also significant because its music is “functionless” and “autonomous.” Many of the tunes are based on popular melodies, including three settings of “J’ay pris amours,” the greatest hit of the late 15th century, but some arrangements take on an abstract quality that strays far from the original. For example, one arrangement (A) might take the tenor line from “J’ay pris amours” as a starting place, with new material around it. Another (B) would then take the newly created melody from (A) and compose fresh material around it. It’s easy to see that quickly in this process the original tune would be obscured, and what’s left is essentially a new, instrumental (no text to tell you what’s going on) pattern of sound with no link to practical function. “Functional” and “autonomous” are problematic terms, as RT’s scare quotes imply, but this does represent a major difference from earlier practices. It’s mind-blowing to ponder that the first marketable, commercially viable music publication consisted not only of pop songs but of abstract art-for-art’s-sake. Once Petrucci realized the commercial potential of printed music by employing the new technology of movable type printing in 1501, the market would come to play an ever-increasing role in our musical culture.

The only clip I could find of this significant publication is an arrangement by the American composer Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938). It would not have sounded like this back then, obviously, but it gives you a sense of the playfulness and abstraction at which this model of music-making excelled. (Fans of Wuorinen will also find this delightful.)


  1. JTL says:

    Thanks for this. German composer Hugo Distler (1908–1942) constructed a set of variations based on one three-part theme (“Elselein, liebstes Elselein”) from the liederbuch, which I thought I detected in the Wuorinen at least once. As with many of his variation sets, Distler, too, starts to obscure the original: the theme and first variation are in 3/4, while the second is in 3/8, with the melody continuing at the same pace (eighth note=eighth note) on top of motivically-related but distinct material; then follows a little scherzo w/trio in 9/16 or 18/16! So, I appreciate your having highlighted what seems to me a similar process in the original.

  2. I need a copy of “Katzenfote” from the Glogauer Liederbuch. Can’t find my copy!

    Martha Bishop (old friend of Richard Taruskin)

    1. Gary Porter says:

      Martha: There’s a copy on the Werner Icking Music Archive. I won’t guarantee the arrangement, but it’s a start. Gary Porter

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  11. Arlin Geyer says:

    There are a few pieces from the Glogauer Liederbuch on IMSLP.org. Does anyone know of a Web source for others?

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