Luys Milan – El Maestro Tome I: Música de Vihuela de Mano

The vihuela de mano is for us a somewhat mysterious instrument. It evolved in Spain alongside the lute which it replaced at the beginning of the sixteenth century and from which it differed in its guitar-like flat back and waisted shape. Although a type of vihuela was found in Italy, a natural consequence of the economic and political relations between the two countries, it seems that the instrument was rarely played elsewhere and that outside the Iberian península its repertoire was replaced by that of the Lute. El Maestro, printed in 1536, opened up a flourishing series of publications that of the century. This comprises a quite remarkable coherent collection particularly characteristic of its age and of its geographical area of artistic civilization. It would however be wrong to conclude that this so profoundly Spanish repertoire remained peripherical to the history of western music. Its specific character rather confirms its relevance as an essential component. Could we imagine for example European painting without the contribution, both Spanish and universal, of Zurbarán, El Greco, Velázquez or Goya?

Michel Bernstein


Música para vihuela de mano: this term reveals the very heart of Spanish instrumental music of the sixteenth century. It was in Valencia that Luys de Milán published in 1536 a work entitled Libro de música de vihuela de mano. Intitulado El Maestro. In the same year there appeared in Venice, Milan and Nuremberg important lute tablatures by Francesco da Milano, Casteliono and Hans Neusidler. 1536 was really the first great year for the publication of instrumental music in Europe. The sudden blossoming of musical collections responded to the requirements of an ever increasing number of amateur musicians whose playing of the lute and vihuela was a sign of a refined education and culture. The italian model courtier as a fine musician, propagated throughout Europe by Castiglione, certainly affected Spain and Portugal very early on. Luys Milán was greatly influenced by this predecessor when in 1561 he published in Valencia a book entitled El Cortesano which he dedicated to King Philip II and in which he depicted the social life at court in that town. By 1535 he had already published a book of parlour games entitled El juego de mandar. But this most important work remains without doubt El Maestro which was one of the first of the instrumental tablatures printed in the Iberian peninsula. It was followed by a number of others written by composers of repute like Alonso Mudarra, Luys de Narváez, Miguel de Fuenllana and Diego Pisador.

With El Maestro, Luys de Milán appears as both a composer and pedagogue: this was the first collection of music for vihuela and at the same time a source of technical and theoretical information of great interest. The didactic nature of the work was quite explicit in the title which can be translated: “Book of music for hand vihuela. Entitled The Master. Which proceeds in the same manner and order as a teacher dealing with a pupil who is just beginning...”. It was dedicated to Don Juan, King of Portugal and the Islands. After the long dedication to the King, Milán begins to explain his method. In the first place he recommends that the pupil should acquaint himself with figured music (canto de organo) before tackling the instrument itself. This recommendation illustrates the originality of this treatise in comparison to others. Normally instrumental players were quite ignorant of vocal music of its notation, rules and practices. They were content as good minstrels merely to prescribe tablature and their usual methods and instructions were restricted to dealing with nothing other than strictly instrumental technique. In this regard Milán was an exceptional music teacher. He then turns to more traditional matters concerning the choice of good quality strings, on how to strings, on how to string the different courses and on how to tune them (the pitches of the strings are shown with solmisation syllables). The system of tablature notation is then explained and illustrated with several examples. A brief definition of tactus or measure (the raising and lowering of the hand or foot, in equal time) allows the pupil to understand the the notation of rhythm and the principles of the commonest proportions. The main body of the work comprises two books containing in total 40 fantasias, 4 tentos, 6 pavans, 6 villancicos in the dialect of Castille, 6 villancicos in Portuguese, 4 romances in Castillian and 6 sonnets in Italian, some of them by Petrach and Sannazaro. The repertoire for voice and vihuela is particularly interesting: red numbers distinguish the sung part and the text is printed below the tablature. Generally the pieces are arranged in order of increasing difficulty is on the whole very high and not very compatible with the capabilities of an absolute beginner.

Our knowledge of Renaissance music owes much to Luys Milán’s book, independently of the repertoire that it conveys. A number of remarks in the commentaries enlighten our knowledge and understanding of certain aspects of the conditions of music in the sixteenth century that had long remained obscure. Thus Luys Milán explains the exact meaning of the term fantasia at this time and offers some clues to a hitherto misunderstood musical genre. He writes: «... que qualquiera obra deste libro en qualquier tono que sea: se intitula fantasía: a respect que solo procede de la fantasía y industria del auctor...», which means that a piece entitled fantasia was a composition emanating not from the ornamental transcription or glosss of an earlier model but, on the contrary, solely dependent on its composer´s imagination and invention. The term fantasia does not therefore imply the idea of a particular musical genre responding to definite formal criteria. That is why certain pavanes, elaborated without pre-existant models, were literally fantasias, but fantasias conforming to the metrical and formal constraints of the pavane. Milán also provides us with the concrete information on the modal system. The fantasias are arranged in the order of the eight authentic and plagal modes on the finals D, E, F and G, sometimes called Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian. The author describes with clarity and simplicity a theoretical point that was often treated in an obscure way by the theorists: a mode can be recognized by its range, its final and its characteristic cadences. He distinguishes several styles of composition: contrapuntal fantasias written in imitative manner, fantasias with consonancias based on chordal sonorities and fantasias with redoubles in which long successions of rapid diminutions prevail.

A mixed type, the fantasia with consonancias y redoubles combines and contrasts the two styles. But more interesting still, Luys Milán tells us that tactus (or measure) should not have any regular absolute value. He explains the necessity to vary the tempo in accordance with playing elegantly than with respecting any strict measure (mas respect a tañer de gala que no a server compass). He was the first writer in the history of western music to explain the important idea of rubato and to provide us with a fundamental direction for the interpretation of these tablatures. Before each piece, we find a useful direction for appropriate performance: compass a apressurado (quick tempo), compass a espacio (slow tempo), compass algo apressurado (fairly quick), ni muy a espacio ni muy apriessa (neither too slow, nor too quick). For the sung pieces, Milán specifies whether or not the singer should introduce ornaments and diminutions into his performance. All these bits of information on the living interpretation of the music are unique in their kind for the sixteenth century and represent one of the most interesting aspects of Luys Milán’s work.

As well as the pedagogic virtues of the Libro de música de vihuela we should mention its purely musical merits. In this fact the fifty or so pieces for vihuela solo constitute a corpus of compositions of high quality. Among all the keys or modes represented, the third or fourth (Phrygian) on E deserves special attention because of its relationship with the favourite scale of traditional Castillian music. In its modal color, associated with the passionate expression of the redobles, gives the fantasias that use it a particular warmth, a sorrowful intensity that is truly Spanish, and occasionally a profound melancholy. This music has a powerful effect on the listener.

The vihuela rivals the lute in its ability to move the listener even without the support of words; i tis capable of arousing the feelings and passions of those who submits the spell of its sounds. This was no doubt why Luys Milán’s book was adorned with na engraving representing Orpheus, inventor of the vihuela, amidst wild animals fascinated by its music.

Jean-Michel Vaccaro
Translation: Frank Dobbins



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