“Ammerbach” – an organ tablature font based on historical metal type

Download Ammerbach v.1.1

Following the positive feedback I received about Möller, I was inspired to create another German organ tablature font. Today, I’m pleased to introduce Ammerbach.

Given that Möller is based on the notation of a hand-copied manuscript (and therefore calligraphic in nature), I wanted my second project experiment with re-creating the look of historically typeset tablature. Accordingly, I modelled Ammerbach on the notation of Orgel oder Instrument Tabulaturbuch, a collection of keyboard intabulations of dances and madrigals compiled by Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach (c.1530–1591), which was first published in 1571 in Leipzig, where Ammerbach served as the organist of the Thomaskirche. Because the Tabulaturbuch was printed using specially produced moveable lead type sorts, the inherently modular nature of the Buchstaben and other symbols together with their intended positioning on a spatial grid made the process of digitally re-creating the look of this tablature notation much more straightforward than re-creating the calligraphic look of Möller.

Part of my motivation for creating these fonts in the first place was to figure out a way in which to systematically break down the notational language of German organ tablature such that it might be digitally re-created as successfully as possible in the guise of a digital font. It was clear to me from the beginning that the best way to go about this would be to take my cue from the 16th- and 17th-century typesetters who grappled with these same issues in order to produce printed copies of music notated in tablature. Even as I was hard at work designing Möller, I was constantly referring to Ammerbach’s Tabulaturbuch as a guide for how to atomize tablature notation into its component parts. And so, although Möller was the first of the two fonts to be completed and released, in some ways Ammerbach preceded it—at least conceptually.

Of the various historical publications that could have served as a model for typeset tablature (e.g. Paix, 1583; Woltz 1617; etc.), I immediately chose Ammerbach’s Tabulaturbuch for two reasons: one sentimental, the other historical. During the course of working on my doctorate at the University of Cambridge, I had the good fortune of having regular access to an original copy of the Tabulaturbuch from the collections of the University Library. But this was not just any copy of the book; it was, in fact, the very copy that was owned by Johann Sebastian Bach nearly 150 years later, when he was Cantor in Leipzig. You can imagine my surprise the first time I ordered the book out of storage in the rare books room and discovered Bach’s signature and monogram prominently inscribed on the cover and title page! So, that’s the sentimental reason.

The other, more historical reason for choosing Ammerbach’s Tablaturebuch as a model is that his publication represents the first time ‘new’ German organ tablature appeared in print, and it likely played an important role in the rapid dissemination and adoption of this new orthography in place of ‘old’ German organ tablature that took place during the late 16th century. In other words, the Tabulaturbuch is, arguably, responsible in part for the preeminence of new German organ tablature—the notational language of musical greats such as Weckmann, Buxtehude, and even J.S. Bach—that reigned throughout the 17th century.

I am indebted to the work of German type designer Dieter Steffmann; the Buchstaben present in Ammerbach are largely derived from the letters in Steffmann’s unlicensed (‘freeware’) font Alte Schwabacher.

As always, I welcome questions, feedback, and suggestions if you have them.

UPDATE, 22-Sept-17: I’ve added the two time signature symbols found in the Tabulaturbuch (proportio dupla and proportio tripla) to Ammerbach.

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©2017 by John McKean.

Professional photos by Amy Wilton.