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ClassicsOnline Home » MILAN / NARVAEZ: Music for Vihuela
Classical Guitar Magazine
"How do Naxos do it? Sixty minutes of premium grade vihuela music by one of the best players in the business is something for which you could reasonably expect to fork out the full tariff... As always, Christopher Wilson's immaculate technique and impeccable style"
Luis de Milán (c.1500-1561)
Luys de Narváez (fl.1530-1550)
Music for Vihuela
During the sixteenth century the vihuela enjoyed great popularity in Spain. It was closely related to the lute, in that it shared a similar stringing and tuning, but the vihuela differed in its shape: resembling a modern guitar in its outline with a flat or slightly vaulted back. It is something of a mystery why Spanish musical sources exhibit a preference for the vihuela while completely excluding the lute, for we know that the lute was also played and well esteemed in several sectors of Spanish society. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the few Spanish musicians who published works for plucked instruments were vihuelists, and although the extant musical sources are scarce, they show an unusual degree of quality, to such an extent that it has prompted some scholars to state that it is the finest body of instrumental music from the period that has come down to us.
According to recent research, the vihuela was developed around the middle of the fifteenth century, and in the early years of the sixteenth it already appears in court documents that attest to its presence in the household of Queen Isabella of Castile. Literary and iconographic sources also mention and show the vihuela in the early years of the century, but it is not until 1536 that the first book of music for it appeared in Valencia. This was El Maestro by Luis de Milan, shortly followed by Luys de Narváez's Los Seis Libros del Delfin (Valladolid, 1538), and thereafter by the works of Alonso Mudarra (1546), Enriquez de Valderrábano (1547), Diego Pisador (1552), Miguel de Fuenllana (1554), and Esteban Daza (1576). To these we may add three manuscript sources: the Marineo Siculo Ms., the Simancas fragments, and the Ramillete de Flores. These few books and manuscripts represent the whole of the surviving vihuela repertoire that is known to this date.
This recording includes works from the first two publications, El Maestro and Los Seis Libros del Defin, which exhibit two very different styles of composition, Luis de Milan was not a professional musician, but a nobleman in the Valencian court of Germaine de Foix, widow of Ferdinand of Aragon, and the Count of Calabria. This wealthy amateur claimed in the preface to his book that he had had no formal training in music, but that music itself had been his sole teacher. Luys de Narváez, on the other hand, was a professional musician who may have served Queen Isabelle of Valois, wife of Charles V. Narváez stated in his own preface that 'my life's work has been [directed towards] the study of music, in learning its proportions as well as its practice and order; and besides all these [things], I have used up almost all of my time in the music for the vihuel'. The outstanding musical abilities of Narváez may be gathered from an anecdote told by Luis de Zapata, who listened to him as a boy: 'During my youth there was at Valladolid a vihuelist named Narváez, of such extraordinary skill in music that, upon the four voices written in a book of counterpoint, he improvised another four; a thing that seemed miraculous to those who did not know about music, but most miraculous to those who did understand it'. Zapata was born in 1526 and served Isabelle of Valois as a page; she died in 1539, when Zapata was thirteen years old, so it seems probable that he may have listened to Narváez in her household precisely around the time when Los Seis Libros del Delfin were published. The involvement of Narváez with the Imperial court is further attested by the dedication of his book to Francisco de los Cobos, a member of the council of state of Charles V, who exerted such influence that Francesillo de Zuñiga, jester of Charles V, swore 'by the power of Cobos'. Later on, in 1548, Narváez appears in the court pay-rolls as 'teacher of the chapel's boy singers' and, in this capacity, accompanied Prince Philip to Flanders in the same year. Other references to Narváez can be found in the Declaracion de Instrumentos Musicales (Ossuna, 1555), a theoretical treatise by Juan Bermudo, where he is mentioned among the best vihuelists of his time, and in Francisco Bermudez de Pedraza's Antiguedad y excelencias de Granada (Madrid, 1608), which states that 'he was such a famous musician that he merited serving King Philip, because the sweetness of his vihuela filled with wonder the king's spirit'. A final proof that the music of Narváez was highly thought of is the fact that his pieces are found in several other sources: the Flemish publisher Pierre Phalèse included some in his anthologies of lute music from 1546, 1563 and 1568, as also did the Parisian publisher Guillaume Morlaye in 1552 and the Spaniard Luis Venegas de Henestrosa in 1557. His music also appears in English lute manuscripts from the end of the century.
As mentioned before the musical styles of Milán and Narváez are completely different, and the reasons for this dissimilarity may possibly be found in the fact that Milán was an amateur player, whereas Narváez was a professional one, but local musical customs and practices could also account for the difference. Milán lived in Valencia, which was subservient to the Crown of Aragon, and his book is the only known one published in this region; Narváez, on the other hand, was Castilian, like the rest of the vihuelists who are known to have published their music. Therefore, it is possible that the works of Milán may be influenced by a hitherto undocumented instrumental tradition. This hypothesis is further supported by the very nature of Milán's style. His fantasias have a strong flavour of written improvisations rather than through-composed works; furthermore, his musical language is completely instrument-oriented and shows little influence from vocal polyphony. Some scholars have classified these works as "transitional" between the improvisatory approach of the early Italian lutenists of the beginning of the century and the polyphonic style of the later vihuelists, probably because of the special manner in which polyphony and homophony are blended, but a closer look reveals that Milán has at his disposal a large number of simple polyphonic formulae which he combined masterfully, a procedure that brings to mind some of the compositional techniques used by his contemporary Francesco da Milano and several other Italian lutenists. Taking into account the strong ties between the Kingdom of Aragon and its Italian provinces, especially Naples, this fact is not surprising at all, and could provide an explanation to why Milán's works suddenly appear with no antecedents to account for such a high degree of development and maturity. In Milán's opinion, all his works are fantasias, because they 'proceed from the author's fancy and industry', and he also includes in this classification the tientos and the pavans, stating that the latter are fantasias written in the style and air of Italian pavans, and that it is therefore fitting to call them thus. In the broad category of fantasias he distinguishes between two types: those which we could call "straightforward", for which he does not provide any special name, and those he calls fantasias of elegant playing (tañer de gala). In both types he disregards the rules of counterpoint, but this apparent carelessness has its counterpart in the skilful handling of instrumental resources and a curiously modern outlook: he was not merely writing music, he was writing music for the vihuela, especially suited for its characteristics and using to advantage all the means the instrument had to offer. This approach is even more clear in his "elegant-playing" fantasias, which fall into two further categories: the first examples of these fantasias to appear in his book ( fantasias X and XVIII in this recording) are called fantasias of "chords and scales" ( fantasias de consonancias y redobles). While the more extended works of this nature receive the name of tiento. As their name shows these pieces are made up of contrasting sections alternating polyphonic chordal passages with fast scales and, to make the contrast even greater, Milán instructs the performer to play the chords slowly and the scales fast, thus allowing him to show his dexterity and mastery of the instrument.
Compared with Milán, Narváez appears a more conservative composer, but he is no less gifted or skilful. Narváez's fantasias are inspired by vocal models of the Franco-Flemish school, and, within the boundaries set by music theory, he displays a great freedom and beauty in the design of his polyphonic writing. His lines flow in such a natural and easy fashion that they seem unconstrained by the limitations of the instrument; furthermore, he shows such creativity and melodic inventiveness that he may very well be considered the most lyrical of the vihuelists. Besides the difference in style, Narváez's book differs from Milán's in several other respects. In the first place, El Maestro contains only works by Milán, whereas Narváez included intabulations of pieces by other authors, notably those of Josquin des Pres, and his familiarity with these pieces helps to explain his command of the Franco-Flemish musical language, as well as the influence this school exerted upon him. An example of such an intabulation is the Cum sancto spiritu from Josquin's Fugue Mass included in this recording. Narváez also incorporated in his book some arrangements of popular romances, epic poems with subjects such as the wars with the Moors, biblical tales or the deeds of Charlemagne's knights. Even though the settings of Narváez only provide a small part of the text, the romances were, in fact, quite long poems whose verses were sung to the same music: after a while this procedure may have proved monotonous, and this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the diferencia was developed to meet the need for variety in a long recitation. As its name implies, the "differences", are in fact variations, and they appear for the first time in Narváez's book. The diferencias upon Conde Claros, which illustrate this perfectly, consist of twenty-two variations upon a harmonic progression traditionally associated with the romance bearing this name. While the diferencia may have originated in association with the romance, once the procedure was known it could also be applied to other music, as shown by the diferencias upon O gloriosa domina, a set of six variations upon a hymn tune. These two sets of variations show how complete was Narváez's mastery of the vihuela as well as his musical creativity. In the diferencias upon Conde Claros he manages to endow each short melodic variation with a character of its own, while maintaining unity by means of the harmonic progression which, most of the time, is only implicit; in O gloriosa domina he extends this treatment to a full polyphonic texture, altering it and changing the rhythm and tempo, while devising new counterpoints for the hymn tune which sometimes appears in the top voice, sometimes in the tenor, and which also serves as the means to achieve unity. It is precisely in the diferencias where we may find Narváez finally unrestrained by theoretical limitations, giving free rein to all his inventiveness, and providing us with one of the best examples of the vihuelists' art.
© 1996 Antonio Corona-Alcalde
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MILAN / NARVAEZ: Music for Vihuela