Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Vihuelistas

The who? Yes, the vihuela, an important musical instrument historically, is not well known. I do have a "vihuela" tag, though as I have mentioned the instrument in several posts. The vihuela is largely a Spanish instrument though there is a Mexican vihuela, obviously descended from the days when Mexico was a Spanish colony, that plays a role in mariachi music. You should read the whole article on the vihuela in Wikipedia that I linked to, but here is an excerpt:
Plucked vihuelas, being essentially flat-backed lutes, evolved in the mid-15th century, in the Kingdom of Aragón, located in north-eastern Iberia (Spain). In Spain, Portugal, and Italy the vihuela was in common use by the late 15th through to the late 16th centuries. In the second half of the 15th century some vihuela players began using a bow, leading to the development of the viol.
Here are a couple of pictures of vihuelas. The first is of one of the three surviving vihuelas and the second of a modern reproduction:

Click to enlarge

The vihuela looks rather like a guitar, but its double-courses are tuned the same as the lute, which was the primary harmonic instrument in the rest of Europe. I don't think I can cite any sources for this, but a fairly widespread view is that the lute was not played in Spain because it derives from the oud, an instrument of ancient origins, but primarily used in the music of the Islamic cultures from Persia through North Africa. It was undoubtedly brought to the Iberian peninsula when it was conquered by the Moors in the 8th century. Towards the end of the 9th century, the idea of a "reconquista" began to take root amongst the Christian kingdoms remaining in the northwest. This took a very long time and was not complete until 1492, just before the discovery of the New World by Columbus.

Getting back to the music, one can see, I think, the appeal to the Spanish of an instrument that was not associated with the culture of the Moors, but had a similar musical function. In a remarkable flourishing, starting in 1536, a group of Spanish composers, all of whom played the vihuela, published a series of books of music of considerable importance. The first one was by Luis de Milán titled El Maestro. Here is the frontispiece to that book showing Orpheus playing the vihuela:
This book was followed by many others. This was very early in the history of printed music and luckily, copies of several books by different composers have survived. Here is the list from Wikipedia:

These formed an important part of my own musical education as my own maestro in Spain, José Tomás, assigned me a lot of pieces from these books in the first few months of my time with him.

The importance of this repertoire is that it contains a lot of firsts: among the first instrumental music (though there are lot of pieces for voice and vihuela as well) to be printed, the first sets of variations, some of the first instrumental arrangements of vocal music, the very first tempo indications to be printed and so on. But more important than those historical features is the aesthetic quality of the music. All these composers were employed by high-ranking members of the nobility, Milán by the duke of Valencia, Narváez in the royal chapel of Charles V, Mudarra by members of the court of Charles V and the cathedral of Seville and so on. Apart from Valencia, residence of Milán, most of these composers were resident in Valladolid, an important center before the institution of Madrid as the royal capital.

Along with the spectacular vocal music by Tomás Luis de Victoria and others, this was the music of Imperial Spain at its most powerful which is itself interesting. When I visit Spain next month, I am going to spend time in both Valencia and Valladolid and hope to get a tiny sense of the vihuelistas from that. But I am also mulling over the idea of purchasing a vihuela and wondering why I didn't do so decades ago. I suppose it was because vihuela music fits on the guitar quite well, requiring just a small tuning change, but also because my commitment was to the classical guitar and the vihuela repertoire is just a small portion of that repertoire.

But I find myself more and more interested in the music, and the times, of the vihuelistas and playing that music on the original instrument (or a modern copy) is a worthwhile project. 

Let's end with some clips of that music. Here is Pedro Alcacer in a 2007 performance of the first six fantasias by Milán for the Vihuela Society of Valencia:

Here is a long clip of music by Luys de Narváez played by the very fine Hopkinson Smith. Alas, no details on the tracks is available and the original recording cannot be found on Amazon.

Here is one of Narváez' most famous pieces, his variations on the romanesca "Guardame las vacas" (if you want to hear Hopkinson Smith's performance of "Guardame" in the previous clip, it starts around the 17:10 mark):

And his "Cancion del Emperador" so-called because it was the favorite of Charles V. It is actually a transcription for vihuela of the famous "Mille Regretz" by Josquin des Prez. The performer is not indicated, but it is quite a nice version.

I hope you find some of this music pleasing!


Marc Puckett said...

They are lovely pieces, certainly; as Pedro Alcàcer may have said (my comprehension of spoken Spanish being most imperfect), quite suitable to the contemplation of the higher realities. I notice on Facebook that he seems to be specialising these days in the lute, theorbo &c and has lately been performing... Monteverdi.

The final three days of Holy Week begun, the sacred Triduum as they are called, best wishes to you in this holy season! My recollection of Holy Week in Oaxaca includes processions and then bad loudspeakers & fireworks-- hope you get some rest. :-) I'm taking refuge here in Victoria and Gesualdo from the auditory assaults perpetrated by their lamentable successors, contemporary church musicians.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc, glad you enjoyed the music. Yes, the Easter festivities in Mexico include a lot of processions and loud fireworks and I like to hide out until it is all over.

Will Wilkin said...

Speaking of Holy Week, I've gotta run now to sing in the choir for local Holy Thursday service. But Bryan, wanted to link this luthier's page offering to custom build you a "medieval Gittern":

Bryan Townsend said...

Not sure I'm in the market for a gittern, but wow, very reasonable! Thanks.