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Luys Milán (c.1500-1561)
Luys de Narváez (c.1500-1555)
Spanish Renaissance Music
Giuseppe Chiaramonte (guitar)
rec. 2021

No doubt unintentionally, the title of this CD might seem to make claims which its contents don’t fulfil. It is not an anthology of the music written in Renaissance Spain. Such music was rich and varied, including outstanding works for the organ by such as Antonio de Cabezón and a substantial body of glorious sacred music by composers like Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales and a number of lesser figures. This CD concentrates, however, on music for the vihuela and the good news is that, while the music is played on the modern guitar (common, though not universal, practice today), it is played with real insight and sympathy.

The programme is made up of pieces by two major composers for (and players of) the vihuela. Indeed, the contents are taken from the first two books of music for the vihuela to be printed in Spain: Milán’s Libro de música de vilhuela de mano intitulado El Maestro, printed in Valencia in 1536 and Narváez’s Los seys libros de Délphin de música de cifras para tañer vihuela, published in Valladolid in 1538.

Confusion can easily arise over the use of the word vihuela, so perhaps some brief clarification is not out of place. A few sentences from Curt Sachs’ The History of Musical Instruments (London, 1942, p.345), provide both context and definition: “Though a favourite instrument all over Europe, the lute was never popular in Spain, in spite of it having come through that country. Spanish folk music was played on the guitar, and aristocratic music was performed on a compromise instrument, the vihuela or, more exactly the vihuela da mano, in contrast with the vihuela de arco or fiddle. It had the flat and waisted body of the guitar, but the size and accordatura resembled those of the lute. Six or seven double strings were tuned to G c f a d’ g’, or G c f g c’ f’ g. The outstanding music for the instrument is to be found in Luys Milan’s Libro de Musica de vihuela da mano, intitulado El Maestro.” Doubt has been cast, by later scholarship, on this characterisation of the vihuela as essentially an aristocratic instrument; see for example, John Griffiths’ article ‘Hidalgo, merchant, poet, priest: the vihuela in the urban soundscape’, Early Music, 37:3, 2009, pp.355-366. The vihuela de mano was normally played with the fingers, unlike the vihuela de penola, which was played with a plectrum.  The vihuela de mano seems to have fallen out of use before 1700, being superseded by the guitar. It had, then, to wait for its modern revival.

For the most part, the music written for the vihuela ‘translates’ quite well to the modern guitar. Graham Wade (Traditions of the Classical Guitar, London, John Calder, 1980, p.25) writes “to perform vihuela music on the classical guitar is quite simple in terms of transcription, and more convenient to the modern player than the music of any other fretted instrument”. The evidence is there in recordings too. I well remember the impact Segovia’s 1944 recording of three ‘pavanas’ by Luys Milán, arranged by Gaspar Sanz, made on me when a fellow undergraduate played it for me (probably around 1966/67): the name of Milán remained embedded in my mind thereafter, as did the desire to hear more of his music. There are other post-Segovia recordings of both Milán and Narváez, but most of these are of one or two pieces within recitals/anthologies. One distinguished exception from this pattern is the impressive disc by José Miguel Moreno and Eligio Quinteiro, Fantasia: Music by Luys Milán (Glossa Pentatone DB 30110, 2003); where Narváez is concerned, two very recommendable discs devoted wholly to his work are Los seys libros del Delphín (Etcetera 114), played (on the vihuela da mano) by Lex Eisenstadt and El delfín de música: obras de Luys de Narváez (Almaviva DS 0116) by Marta Almanajo and Juan Carlos Rivera. Part of the appeal of this new CD is that we are able to hear a substantial number of pieces by both composers (18 by Milán and 9 by Narváez), enough to get a fuller idea of each composer and, perhaps to make a preliminary comparison of the two.

The two composers may have been exact contemporaries; the exact birth date of neither is known, but both must have been born in or around the year 1500. Little is known for certain about Milán’s life, save that he seems to have spent most of his adult life at the elegant court of Germaine de Foix, widow of Ferdinand V, in Valencia. Milán may indeed have belonged to the Valencian nobility himself; in some Valencian documents of 1516 there are some references to a nobleman called ‘Luys Milán’; perhaps this was the composer. This possibility is, I think, supported by the fact that the book El cortesano, which was published in 1561 and is a manual of courtly behaviour in the tradition of the Italian Baldassare Castiglione’s famous text Il Cortegiano (1528) is usually attributed to the composer. If the author of El cortesano were not of aristocratic standing, the publication of such a book would surely have been thought presumptuous. In 1534 Castiglione’s book had been published in a Spanish translation by the poet Juan Boscán, but I suspect that Milán would have been capable of reading the original for himself. 

Narváez is believed to have been born in Granada and, in the first half of the 1520s, to have entered (as a vihuelist) the service of Francesco de los Cobos y Molina (c.1477-1547) who was Secretary of State of the kingdom of Castile under Charles V and was also well known as a patron of the arts. He moved with his patron to Valladolid in northern Spain (then the capital), where he remained until 1547. From 1548 he was employed, like Cabezón, in the Royal Chapel of Felipe, the Regent of Spain (the future Philip II). He often accompanied Philip on many of his travels. We know that Cabezón and was in the king’s retinue when Philip married Mary I of England at Winchester in 1554; perhaps Narváez was, too? In this context it is interesting to note that Narváez’s ‘Baxa de contrapunto’ was copied – under the title ‘The base of Spayne’ – into an English manuscript (The Braye lute book, ff.10recto-11verso (now in Yale University Library) soon after this date.

Milán’s El Maestro contains fantasias, tientos and pavanes, in addition to song settings. Chiaramonte gives us 11 of Milán’s 40 fantasias, 5 of 6 pavanes and just 1 of his 4 tientos. It is enough to give a pretty good idea of the range and quality of Luys Milán’s music for vihuela. His fantasias have an air of the improvisatory, in their illusion of spontaneity. Surely some of the musical materials from which they were made were originally improvised? Most of the fantasias begin with a relatively lengthy episode built through imitation, often involving both polyphonic and homophonic passages. Some shorter episodes follow, before a concluding section which often repeats the last of these shorter episodes. There is often a concluding coda. Though they don’t necessarily share the same loose structure, the compositions to which Milán gives the title of tento (the term derives from the Spanish verb ‘tentar’ in the sense of ‘to try out’ or ‘experiment’) have much the same sense of spontaneity. On the whole, the music of Narváez has less of this sense of immediacy, having the air of being very carefully thought through. To put it another way, Narváez is the more ‘formal’ of the two composers. For this reason, it was perhaps natural that it should have been Narváez who introduced the art of the diferencia (variation) to the music of the vihuela, not just as a passing feature in a fantasia, say, but as the basis of a distinct form – a set of variations on a theme, as in his ‘Veynte y dos diferencias de Conde Claros’ (twenty two variations on ‘Conde Claros’) – see Deborah Lawrence, ‘Spain’s “Conde Claros”: From Popular Song to Harmonic Formula’, Journal of Musicological Research, 30:1 (2011), pp.46-65; ‘Quatro diferencias sobre guardame las vacas’ (Four variations on ‘ Tend my cows’) – Cabezón also wrote a set of variations on this popular song – and ‘Otras tres diferencias hechas per otra part’ (literally ‘Another three variations on the same theme made in another part [i.e. another key]). Another of Narváez’s innovations (remembering always that we can only judge such matters from the printed evidence) came in the form of transcriptions of vocal music by well-known composers, rather as a later age was to produce piano transcriptions of famous operatic or orchestral ‘hits’; these included versions for vihuela of songs by Josquin des Prez (as well as passages from his Mass settings), Nicholas Gombert and Jean Richafort.

Both Milán and Narváez made important contributions to the repertoire of the vihuela da mano and created models for those who, in the next few decades were also to write for the instrument, such as Alonso Mudarra in his Tres libros de música en cifras para vihuela (Seville, 1546), Enriquez de Valderráno in his Silva de Sirenas (Valladolid, 1547), Miguel de Fuenllana in his Libro de música para vihuela intitulado Orphénica Lyra (Seville,1554) and Estevan Daza in Libro de música de cifras para vihuela, intitulado El Parnaso (Valladolid, 1576). With Daza the brief flourishing of the vihuela da mano effectively came to a close.

One doesn’t, I suppose, have to make a choice between Milán and Narváez. No such preference can be absolute or other than subjective. A few years ago, I might have said that my preference was for the often complex formality of Narváez. Listening to this CD I find myself more attracted to the excitement of Milán’s music. Were I to turn to other recordings, I might change my mind again. In other words, both these interesting composers have their rewards and pleasures to offer.

Some specialists in the somewhat niche territory of music composed for the vihuela da mano may
feel that it must be heard on the instrument for which it was written. For the rest of us, intelligent and perceptive performances on the guitar are entirely acceptable. Giuseppe Chiaramonte’s well-informed and lucid booklet essay shows him to be well aware of the scholarship on this music and his playing makes it clear that he has digested that scholarship and articulated it in utterly convincing fashion. I have praised Chiaramonte once before on the pages of MusicWeb. He is clearly a guitarist with the ability to produce fine (in some ways revelatory) performances of music well beyond the usual guitar repertoire, with intelligence, perception and skill – which is not to say that he cannot play the instrument’s ‘mainstream’ repertoire to a very high standard too. I look forward to hearing more of his work. His website tells one that in August 2022 he will be giving a lecture/recital on Milán and Narváez at the International Guitar Festival in Brno – would that I could be there!

Glyn Pursglove

Luys Milán (c.1500-1561)
Fantasia XXI
Fantasia X
Fantasia I
Pavana 1
Fantasia XI
Fantasia II
Pavana II
Fantasia XII
Fantasia III
Pavana IV
Fantasia V
Pavana V
Fantasia XIV
Fantasia VIII
Pavana VI
Tentos IV
Luys de Narváez (c.1500-1555)
Fantasia II
La cancion del Emperador
Fantasia III
Veynte y dos diferencias de Conde Claros
Fantasia V
Fantasia VI
Quatro diferencias sobre guardame las vacas
Otras tres diferencias hechas por otra parte
Baxa de contra punto

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