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El Maestro (1536): songs and vihuela solos by Luis Milán

Audio Samples

Aquel cavallero (range) - mp3 - 798KB

Pavana (range) - mp3 - 612KB

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The repertoire of the vihuela - the guitar-shaped instrument which played the same role in 16th-century Spain and Portugal as the lute did elsewhere - has come down to us almost exclusively through a series of seven printed collections, published between 1536 and 1576. Luis Milán's was the first, and in some ways the most original, of these seven volumes.

Published in Valencia, Milán’s Libro de musica de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro ('Book of music for the vihuela de mano entitled The Teacher’) consists of a graded sequence of fantasias and two groups of songs, each piece being preceded by helpful instructions for the performer. It is the earliest known musical source with tempo indications, and even prescribes variations in tempo within certain pieces.

Don Luis Milán (c.1500-after 1561) was associated with the ducal court at Valencia, and was certainly a professional courtier rather than a professional musician. He had some reputation as a poet and man of letters, and his published works, besides El maestro, are E/ juego de mandar (1535) and El cortesano (1561), which between them paint a picture of courtly life comparable to Castiglione’s much more famous account of the court of Urbino in II libro de/ cortegiano.

All the instrumental pieces in Milán’s book are called fantasias: even the dance tunes, the pavanas, are strictly speaking 'fantasias... which in their style and composition imitate the pavanas played in Italy’. The fantasias proper have a loosely-constructed, improvisatory character which is closer to the style of earlier Italian lutenists such as Dalza and Capirola than to the more rigorously contrapuntal manner of the other vihuelists. In his dedicatory epistle the composer claims that ‘I have always been so inclined to music that I may state and affirm that I have never had any other teacher than music itself’ - a suggestion which seems to accord particularly well with the spontaneous, unstudied character of these pieces. Especially characteristic of this approach are the unusually long pieces called
fantasía de tentos, or tentos for short. He explains that the purpose of these pieces is to put the vihuela through its paces (tentar means literally ‘to feel’ or ‘to explore by touch’), which he does by combining chords with running passages, and conspicuously making use of the entire three-octave compass of the instrument.

Although the vihuela was played much like the lute, vihuela technique had one or two extra refinements which were not used by lutenists. One of these, seldom attempted by modern players, was the dedillo (‘fingertip') style, in which rapid passages are played with alternate up-and-down strokes of the index finger alone. Its distinctive ‘breathy’ sound can be heard here in Fantasia No.12.

In keeping with the didactic intention of El maestro, Milán scrupulously indicates the musical mode of each fantasia. The modes of the songs are identified by Luis Gásser in his Luis Milán and Sixteenth-Century Performance Practice (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), and both songs and instrumental pieces have been grouped by mode in this recording.

The songs fall into three categories: there are twelve villancicos (all of which are included here), four romances, and six Italian songs, which Milán calls sonetos, though not all of them are in sonnet form.

The villancico is the most typically Spanish song form of the period. It is ‘popular’ in style, but often refined and sophisticated in feel, and Milán's are, characteristically, more polished than most. For many of them he gives two versions: one with a simple accompaniment, to which the singer is encouraged to add embellishments, and one with a florid accompaniment, to be sung 'straight'. This recording usually presents both versions.
Since Milán dedicated his book to King John III of Portugal, it is not surprising that half the villancicos are in Portuguese - albeit a rather hybrid Portuguese with many Castilian features. These are the only Portuguese pieces in the vihuela repertoire, apart from one very simple villancico in Mudarra’s book of 1546, which uses a similar linguistic mix. Castilian and Portuguese were less divergent then than they are now, and educated readers would have been at home in both languages.

The romance is the Spanish equivalent of the narrative ballad, though this is not at all evident from Milán’s treatment of the form. Other vihuelists are content to give the beginning of the romance narrative in truncated form, breaking off after the first few lines, but Milán’s approach is to select a single poignant moment invariably a speech or dialogue - and rework this as a lyric set piece which can stand by itself. He sometimes expands the musical structure by providing new music for the third and fourth quatrains.
Of the Italian songs, we hear Milán’s three settings of Petrarch, which are remarkable for their through-composition and avoidance of obvious musical repetition. Milán, like most 16th-century poets, evidently had a particular affection for Petrarch, and quotes him at the beginning of his dedication: ‘Ogniun seque sua stella' (‘Each of us follows his own star’).

There is no evidence that Milán was an influential composer, or even a well-known one in his own day. His name does not feature in the list of famous vihuelists drawn up by the theorist Juan Bermudo in 1555, which begins with Luis de Narváez; and Narváez himself evidently believed that his own vihuela book, published in Valladolid in 1538, was the first of its kind. The distinctive form of tablature used by Milán does not appear in any of the other vihuela books (which use ordinary Italian lute tablature), and even the name by which Milán called his instrument - vihuela de mano - was not adopted by any of his successors, who called it simply ‘vihuela’. Either Milán is the representative of a tradition somewhat apart from that of the mainstream vihuelists, or he did indeed 'follow his own star’.

(c) Stephen Haynes 1998

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