Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Strings to the Past

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Strings to the Past

Article excerpt

On a warm Madrid night in the 1920s, a young Andres Segovia picked up his German-made Hauser guitar and broke four centuries of silence. The music he played had once delighted Ferdinand and Isabella and Emperor Charles V. After being buried under forty decades of dust, the music of the vihuela, a Spanish instrument similar to the guitar, was for the first time being reintroduced to the culture that had created it, celebrated it, and relegated it to obscurity.

The vihuela -- sixteenth-century hybrid of the Renaissance guitar and the lute -- was a purely Spanish creation. It gave rise to seven great composers and a body of music that is nothing less than sublime. Unfortunately, the story of its birth, death, and twentieth-century reincarnation is known only to a handful of specialists. This is a shame, for the instrument and its music are an essential, although forgotten, part of the cultural heritage of Spain and the New World.

The story of the vihuela began with clash of the Christian broadsword and the Moorish scimitar. In the year 711, the Moors conquered Spain and infused their Islamic culture into the solidly Catholic traditions of the Iberian Peninsula. Their most enduring musical legacy was a plucked instrument called an aloud, which was modified by Europeans and rechristened as the lute. By the early sixteenth century, the lute had become the most highly regarded instrument in Europe. A Scottish poem celebrating Queen Anne of Denmark's visit to Edinburgh in 1590 proclaims: "Some on lutes did play and sing. Of instruments the only king."

Having lived under Moslem rule for seven centuries, the Spanish did not share the Scots' sentiment. Instead, they saw the lute as a symbol of Moorish oppression. Rather than play the "devil's lyre," Spanish musicians created a new instrument. The result was the vihuela, which had the body of a Renaissance guitar fitted with eight tied-on gut frets and twelve strings (six pairs in unison) in lute tuning.

But Spanish musicians did not limit themselves to playing the fashionable lute music of Italy. The creation of the vihuela ushered in a new generation of indigenous artists who wrote exclusively for the vihuela and created some of the most exquisite music of the sixteenth century. They were called the vihuelists, seven of whom are known to history through their published music: Luys Milan, Luys de Narvaez, Alonso Mudarra, Diego Pisador, Enriquez de Valderrabano, Esteban Daza, and the blind composer Miguel de Fuenllana, a favorite at the court of Philip II.

Their short reign of forty years began in 1536 with the publication of Milan's Libro de musica de vihuela de mano, intitulado El Maestro [Book of Vihuela Music, Entitled the Master], dedicated to his patron, King John III of Portugal. A multitalented aristocrat born around the turn of the sixteenth century in Valencia, Milan was also a writer who published a number of books on nonmusical subjects, beginning in 1535 with a collection of amorous party games called El juego de mandar [The Game of Commanding] and ending with El cortesano [The Courtesan] in 1561. Milan's only musical publication, El Maestro contains a section of seventy-two instrumental pieces as well as songs with vihuela accompaniment, each requiring a high level of technical accomplishment.

The influence of the vihuela, which may take its name from the Portuguese word for guitar, violao, or from the Italian viola, was felt beyond Spain. In Portugal the instrument was played at court, while in Italy the celebrated lutenist Francesco da Milano, whose skills earned him the name Il Divino, also performed on the vihuela.

Two years after the appearance of Milan's book, Narvaez published Seis Libros del Delfin de Musica [Six Books of the Dauphin of Music] in Valladolid. Born in Granada to a middle-class family, Narvaez was widely regarded as the finest vihuelist in Spain. A Spanish writer named Zapata, who served at the court of Charles V, wrote that during his youth "there was at Valladolid a vihuelist name Narvaez of such extraordinary skill in music that, upon four voices written in a book of counterpoint, he improvised another four; a thing that seemed miraculous to those that did not know about music, but most miraculous to those who understood it. …

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