Tuesday, January 12, 8500

Luis de Milan (c. 1500-1561) - Vihuela

[Orpheus playing a vihuela. Frontpiece from the famous vihuela tabulature book by Luis de Milán, Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro (1536). The text surrounding the image praises Orpheus as the inventor of the vihuela.]

Luis de Milan (b. c. 1500) - El Maestro (1536): Fantasia XI (Vihuela)

Luis de Milán (c. 1500-1561) was a Spanish Renaissance composer, vihuelist (instrument similar to the guitar), and writer on music. He was the first composer in history to publish music for the vihuela de mano, an instrument employed primarily in the Iberian peninsula and some of the Italian states during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and he was also one of the first musicians to specify verbal tempo indications in his music.

He probably lived all his life in Valencia, though details are sketchy at best. He seems to have been employed by the ducal court until around 1538. In 1535 he published his first book, a parlor game with music, entitled El juego de mandar; in the next year he published what was to be his most important book, Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro. This book was dedicated to King John III of Portugal; this dedication, and the existence of six villancicos which Milán wrote in Portuguese, suggest that he may have traveled to that country and spent some time there.

The book is the first collection of vihuela music in history. It may have been intended as a book for students of the vihuela. The music is presented in grades from simple to complex, so that a beginning vihuelist can proceed from elementary to gradually more complicated pieces as he learns. It contains more than forty fantasias, six pavans, twelve villancicos, as well as sonetos (settings of Italian sonnets), and other pieces; some of the pieces are for solo vihuela, and others for voice accompanied by vihuela. Many are of considerable virtuosity, though not all the ornamentation is provided in detail. The style of the compositions varies from simple homophony to polyphony and virtuoso passage-work; unusual chromaticism also occurs, including strange double-inflections which were quite rare in music from other parts of Europe at the same time. It appears that the book was prepared with great care; alternate passages are given for players who wish to avoid more virtuosic parts, sections of pieces are indicated as optional, and he provided verbal tempo indications, for example ni muy apriessa ni muy a espacio sino con un compás bien mesurado ("neither too quickly nor too slowly, but with a moderate measure"). Half of the villancicos are in Castilian Spanish, and half are in Portuguese.

His last publication, El cortesano (1561), modeled on Il Cortegiano by Baldassare Castiglione, gives a vivid and entertaining picture of life in the Valencian ducal court. While it contains no music, is a valuable account by a professional musician at the time.

The music of Luis Milan is popular with performers on the present-day classical guitar because it can be adapted very easily to their instrument.


Vihuela is a name given to two different guitar-like string instruments: one from 15th and 16th century Spain, usually with 12 paired strings, and the other, the Mexican vihuela, from 20th-century Mexico with five strings and typically played in Mariachi bands.

The vihuela is considered by some to be the (more ancient) precursor to the modern classical guitar. In Italy and Portugal this same instrument was known as viola da mano.

The two names are functionally synonymous and interchangeable. In its most developed form, the vihuela was a guitar-like instrument with six double-strings (paired courses) made of gut. Vihuelas were tuned almost like a modern guitar, with the exception of the third string, which was tuned a semitone lower. Six-course vihuela tuning was identical to six-course Renaissance lute tuning -- 4ths and mid-3rd (44344).

Plucked vihuela, being essentially flat-backed lutes, evolved in the mid 1400's, in the Kingdom of Aragón (located in North-Eastern Iberia (Spain)). In Spain and Italy (and other regional kingdoms under their influence) the vihuela was in common use in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

There were several different types of vihuela (or different playing methods at least):

Vihuela de mano — 6 or 5 courses played with the fingers
Vihuela de penola — played with a plectrum
Vihuela de arco — played with a bow (ancestor of the viola da gamba)
Tunings for 6 course vihuela de mano (44344):
C F Bb D G C

The vihuela faded away, along with the complex polyphonic music that was its repertoire, in the late 16th century. The vihuela's descendants that are still played are the "violas campanicas" of Portugal. At least some of the vihuela's place, role, and function was taken up by the subsequent Baroque guitar (also sometimes referred to as vihuela or bigüela). Today, the vihuela is in use primarily for the performance of early music, using modern replicas of historical instruments.

Vihuela bodies were lightly constructed from thin flat slabs or pieces of wood, bent or curved as required. This construction method distinguished them from some earlier types of string instruments whose bodies (if not the entire instrument including neck) were carved out from a solid single block of wood. The back and sides of common lutes were also made of pieces however, being multiple curved or bent staves joined and glued together to form a bowl.

Vihuela (and viola) were built in different sizes, large and small, a family of instruments. Duet music was published for vihuelas tuned one step, a minor third, a fourth, or a fifth apart, as well as unison tuned.
The physical appearance, "the look", of vihuela was varied and diverse — there was little standardization and no mass production. Overall and in general, vihuela looked very similar to modern guitars. A little known fact is that the very first generation of vihuela, from their birth in the mid 1400’s on, all had sharp cuts to their waists, similar to the silhouette of a violin. The second generation of vihuela, beginning sometime around c.1490, took on the now familiar smooth-curved figure-eight shaped body contours. The waist-cut models, however, continued and survived well into the early to mid 1500’s, and side by side with the later pattern. Many early vihuela had extremely long necks, while others had the shorter variety. Top decoration, the number, shape, and placement, of sound holes, ports, pierced rosettes, etc, also varied greatly. More than a few styles of peg-boxes were used as well.

Vihuela were chromatically fretted in a manner similar to lutes, by means of movable, wrapped-around and tied-on gut frets. Vihuela, however, usually had ten frets, whereas lutes had only seven. Unlike modern guitars, which often use steel and bronze strings, vihuela were gut strung, and usually in paired courses. Gut strings produce a sonority far different from metal, generally described as softer and sweeter. A six course vihuela could be strung in either of two ways: with 12 strings in 6 pairs, or 11 strings in total if a single unpaired chanterelle is used on the first (or highest pitched) course. Unpaired chanterelles were common on all lutes, vihuela, and (other) early guitars (both Renaissance guitars and Baroque guitars).

The first person to publish a collection of music for the vihuela was the Spanish composer Luis de Milán, with his volume titled Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro of 1536. The notational device used throughout this and other vihuela music books is a numeric tablature (otherwise called "lute tablature"), which is also the model from which modern "guitar tab" was fashioned. The music is easily performed on a modern guitar using either standard guitar tuning (44434), sometimes called "new lute tuning", or by retuning slightly to Classic lute and vihuela tuning (44344).

The printed books of music for the Vihuela which have survived are, in chronological order:

El Maestro by Luis de Milán (1536)
Los seys libros del Delphin by Luis de Narváez (1538)
Tres Libros de Música by Alonso Mudarra (1546)
Silva de sirenas by Enríquez de Valderrábano (1547)
Libro de música de Vihuela by Diego Pisador (1552)
Orphénica Lyra by Miguel de Fuenllana (1554)
El Pamasso by Estevan Daça (1576).

There are only three definite surviving vihuela:

the well-known example in the Musée Jacquemart-Andrée, the 'Guadalupe' vihuela
the recently re-discovered 'Chambure' instrument in the Cité de la Musique (both of the above in Paris) an instrument in the Iglesia de la Compañiz de Jesús de Quito, in Quito, Ecuador.

The words vihuela and viola appear to be etymologically related.

[8500 Susato / 8500 - Luis de Milan / 8500 - Heurteur - Kortholt]