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The Golden Age

Music for the vihuela in 16th Century Spain


Author: Per-Olof Johnson

English translation by Dorothy Irving & Anna-Lena Telander

Printed: Malmö 1993

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The aim of this publication is to illuminate "The Golden Age" from the point of view of the practical musician. The rather extensive work on vihuela notation and performance practice presented here should not be regarded as a goal in itself. Rather it is an attempt to awaken a deeper understanding for the richness and beauty which this music encompasses. My goal is primarily aesthetic.

It is also my hope that the research and artistic conclusion presented here will be of interest to a wide circle of musicians.

I have not hesitated to complement my research results with subjective artistic point of view. These are documented in a recording of a choice of vihuela pieces.

*      *      *

"The Golden Age" is the name given by Spaniards to the 16th Century when Spain was a major power. In 1496 Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castille. This marriage united the two Catholic states and founded modern Spain. The Moorish bastion Alhambra was conquered in 1492. Spain was now a Christian land.

Columbus discovered America this same year. He returned to America again in 1493, 1498 and 1502. The Conquistadors later won vast areas of the North and South American continent and could ship a fortune in gold and silver back to Spain. Spain become a major power.

The 16th Century was not only the century of geographic discovery (Columbus, Magalhaes, Vasco da Gama) but also astronomy bloomed during this time. Copernicus publlished his "De revulotionibus orbium coelestium" in 1543 which discussed the heliocetric world’s ideology – revolutionary at this time. The Catholic Church became even stronger under the Inquisition, introduced by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1480 (abolished 1834) but religious conflicts, reforms and antireforms dominate the century.

The conoration of Carlos V (Charles V) took place in 1516 and at that time his empire encompassed not only Spain but also Sardinia, Southern Italy, The Lowlands, Austria, Hungary, North America, Central America, West India and South America (Brazil excepted). During the whole of Carlo´s V:s (1516–1556) reign and the beginning of Philip´s (Felipe´s) 1556–1598) Spain was able to enjoy a stable economy. Both monarchs wre music-lovers and many musicians wre engaged at the royal courts. Other Spanish noblemen also surrounded themselves with artists of all kinds and culture flourished. The most popular musical instrument at this time was the vihuela.

Vihuelists were strongly influenced by the "Third Netherland School" led by Josquin Desprez. Pisador tabulated no less than eight complete masses by Josquin. Incidentally, many of the tabulated works were sacred.

The constant wars and the Inquisitian´s persecution of such groups as Jews and Moors were however responsible for a gradual weakening of the economy. The Spanish-English War and the fall of the Great Armada in 1588 resulted in the definitive collapse of Spain as a great power.

The earliest vihuela book was Milán´s "El Maestro" which appeared in Valencia (1535/36) and the last genuine one "El Parnasso" by Esteban Daza was published in Valladolid in 1576.

The Golden Age for vihuelists existed for little more than forty (40) years. It is possible that the instrument imported to America by the Spaniards was in use there for a longer period.

According to Grove (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)  and old six-course vihuela owned by one Santa Mariana who died in 1645, was discovered in the church "Compania de Jesus" in Quito (Equador). According to Sebastian Covarrubias Orosco it was the growing popularity of the guitar which was responsible for the gradual disappearance of the vihuela. Orosco writes in his Tesoro de la lenguea Castellana o Espanola" (Madrid 1611), "Since the invasion of the guitar very few students play the vihuela. This is a great loss since all forms of notated music can be played on it. The guitar is nothing more than a cow-bell, so easy to play....."

Probably the strongest factors in the disapperance of the vihuela were economic. Sophisticated culture has always been expensive, and the quotation at the end of Valderrabano´s "Silva de Sirenas": "When creativity flows freely, poverty dams it up" proved to be very true. The beautiful sound of the vihuela died out.

Malmö 1993

P-O Johnson
Professor of Guitar
Malmö Academy of Music, Lund University