All players of early music will be familiar with the lute, the plucked polyphonic instrument par excellence of the European renaissance. In 16th century Spain, prime position was given not to the lute but to the vihuela da mano, depicted in Spanish iconography as the instrument of Orpheus, Arion, Venus, and the angels of heaven. The vihuela drew upon the polyphonic compositions of Europe for its intabulations, as well as having had its own repertoire in 7 books printed between 1536 and 1576 by such Spanish composers as Luis Milán, Luys de Narváez, and Alonso Mudarra. In 16th century Italy, where the lute was dominant, the vihuela was called the viola da mano, and was suggested as an alternative to the lute in two prints of the music of Francesco Canova da Milano, musician to three successive popes.
This article traces the vihuela/viola da mano through its medieval origins; explains its relationship to the lute; illustrates the connection between the bowed vihuela/viola and the plucked vihuela/viola; describes the three surviving instruments; shows, through iconography, the difference in plucking style between the Spanish vihuela and the Italian viola da mano and lute; discusses the evidence for octave or unison stringing of courses; outlines the available music; and describes its use in mythological imagery.
We begin with a video performance of fantasia del quarto Tono by Luys de Narváez on vihuela/viola da mano. To illustrate the process of intabulation (turning a polyphonic song into a polyphonic piece for plucked strings) there are three videos of Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz (A thousand regrets): for 4 voices; for solo vihuela; then for voice and lute. A fourth video shows a viola da mano playing a recercare by Francesco Spinacino and Rossina by Hans Judenkünig. We conclude with links to facsimiles of all 16th century vihuela tablature prints.
The medieval vihuela and viola
In the medieval period, the words vihuela and viola were variants that referred to the same type of instrument: vielle, viella, viola, viula, viuela, vihuela, videle, fedele, fidel, fithele, fidula, all denoted a gut-strung instrument played with a bow, usually referred to in modern writing as the medieval fiddle, of which there was a variety of shapes, string arrangements and tunings (which you can read about here).
One of these variant words, viola, and its shortened form, viol, was used in the renaissance and baroque periods, again to cover a variety of forms of bowed instrument, sometimes with a qualifying pair of words: de arco (or d’arco) – with a bow; da braccio – with arm, i.e. played on the arm; da gamba – with leg, i.e. played vertically, resting on or between the legs.
Other qualifying words for viola, vihuela, or its variants indicated in the medieval and renaissance periods that a particular instrument was not bowed, as we see, for example, in Libro de buen amor (The book of good love), c. 1330, by Castilian poet, Juan Ruiz, known as the Archpriest of Hita. Ruiz lists instruments that are and are not suitable for playing Arabian music: the viüela de pénola (vihuela with plectrum) and the laud (lute) are suitable, the çitola (citole) and guitarra (gittern) are not. He doesn’t say why, but the obvious explanation is that Arabian modes use quartertones, requiring either the freedom of an unfretted neck or a neck with more frets than appear on a western instrument. When Juan Ruiz wrote in c. 1330, the citole and gittern were fretted, whereas the lute was unfretted and did not gain frets until c. 1400. The identity of the viüela de pénola is uncertain, but the name suggests an unfretted plucked chordophone with an oval body like a fiddle, and just such an instrument appears twice in the Iberian Cantigas de Santa María, 1257–83 (Códice de los músicos, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, RBME Cat b-I-2), fretless in both depictions, as we see below.
The names suggest that the plucked viüela de pénola and bowed viüela de arco shared specific characteristics. What those features are is not completely clear. It may have been that they were constructed dual-purpose, so that the same body was completed for bowing or for plucking, as explained in the section below, The construction of plucked and bowed counterparts.
The vihuela/viola da mano and its relationship to the lute
The renaissance vihuela da mano and viola da mano refer to the respective Spanish and Italian names of the same instrument. Under either name, the instrument could be in the shape of a figure of 8 with smooth contours, like a guitar, as we see above left, or an oval body with a cornered waist, above right, or a variant of this shape.
The first time the qualification da mano was used for vihuela or viola was in the early 1490s at the court of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. It is an important qualifier: da mano, with hand, i.e. with fingertips, not de pénola, with a plectrum. This is the timeline we would expect for the change in playing style: in the late 15th century, lutenists were increasingly dispensing with plectrums and using fingers to play, and the vihuela/viola da mano followed suit. By the 16th century, the vihuela had gained such cultural significance in Spain that writers could dispense with da mano as a qualification. Da mano was retained for the plucked viola in Italy, as that variation of the word continued to be associated with bowed instruments. It was during this period of change from plectrum to fingertip playing that the lute rose to prominence as the foremost musical instrument in Europe, except in Spain, where that place was taken by the vihuela.
There is iconographical evidence for the lute in Spain both before and during the dominance of the vihuela.
Below are 5 representative images of the plectrum lute in Spain before the rise of the vihuela da mano.
When the vihuela da mano rose to prominence in Spain, the lute, now played with fingers, was still present in the territory, as we see from the 5 representative images below.
The vihuela’s heyday in the 16th century was a period when music for fingerboard instruments was written in tablature. Lute tablature in particular survives in great abundance in manuscripts and printed books. We have 7 printed books for vihuela, yet no Spanish lute music from this period either survives or is known to have existed. We therefore know what Spanish vihuelists played: what did Spanish lutenists play?
English publications for the lute stated alternative instruments on the cover where appropriate. For example, John Dowland’s First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597, which included music for one to four voices with accompaniment in tablature, stated “song to the Lute, Orpherian or Viol de gambo”, each interchangeable as they were tuned the same. Since the lute and vihuela shared the same tuning and the same method of writing music down, it would be logical to suggest that in Spain vihuela music was also played on the lute, but no such alternative instrument suggestions are stated in the vihuela prints.
Though logical, the idea that Spanish lutenists played vihuela music would lack evidence were it for one delightful survival. On the cover of a copy of Alonso Mudarra, Tres libros de música en cifras para vihuela (Three books of music in figures [tablature] for vihuela), 1546, the owner has drawn himself playing the lute. This is presumably Dominguos Romano, who signed his name inside.
In Italy, the lute flourished as the polyphonic instrument par excellence, and the viola da mano, tuned the same, was an alternative to the lute. For example, one of the earliest lute manuscripts is a fragment of three folios now called the Bologna manuscript (I-Bu 596 HH 24), c. 1484–1500. One page is headed “La mano a la viola”: evidently the scribe preferred these pieces to be played on the viola da mano. Similarly, in Naples in 1536, Johannes Sultzbach published two tablature books of the music of Italian lutenist and composer Francesco Canova da Milano, 1497–1543, musician to Popes Leo X, Clement VII and Paul III, stating in the titles that the music could be played on the lute or the viola da mano: Intavolatura de viola ouero lauto … unico musico Francesco Milanese … libro primo della fortuna and Intavolatura de viola ouero lauto composto per lo eccelente & unico musico Francesco Milanese … libro secondo della fortuna.
To summarise, vihuela (da mano) and viola da mano are Spanish and Italian names for the same instrument. Uniquely in Spain, the lute had no music of its own so, being tuned the same as a vihuela, it played vihuela repertoire. In Italy, as in much of the rest of renaissance Europe, the lute was the foremost instrument, with a large and growing corpus of music. In Italy, the viola da mano had no music of its own so, being tuned the same as a lute, it played lute repertoire.
The construction of plucked and bowed counterparts
As we have seen, the two basic shapes of vihuela/viola da mano are the figure of 8 with a smooth waist, like a guitar, and the oval with a sharply cornered waist. A variation of this latter shape is seen below in a Spanish fresco in the dome above the high altar in Valencia Cathedral, painted by Paolo de San Leocadio in 1474. This instrument with a long waist matches exactly a shape commonly seen in bowed instruments of the time.
In its bowed form, German composer and music writer Sebastian Virdung called them Groß Geigen – large fiddles or large viols – in his Musica getutsch und außgezogen, 1511. As we see below, the Groß Geige had 5 double courses, identical with the Valencia Cathedral vihuela above. (Virdung’s woodcut artist missed 1 string: there are 10 tuning pegs but 9 strings shown.)
In his Musica instrumentalis deutsch, 1529, German composer and music theorist Martin Agricola built on and expanded Virdung’s work. We see the same form of bowed instrument in Agricola’s work, using the same language, Geigen. To discuss the Geige, Agricola divides them into the number of strings they have. The tuning for the 5 string tenor and alto, which are tuned the same, is g’ d’ a f c, exactly that of a 5 course lute and therefore the 5 course vihuela in Valencia Cathedral. The bass of this four instrument consort has 6 courses, an octave down from the tenor/alto with a low GG added, which is an octave below 6 course lute and vihuela tuning.
Like the Geige and the lute, the vihuela was made in a variety of sizes and therefore pitches. In his Declaración de instrumentos musicales, 1555, Spanish friar Juan Bermudo stated that the top course of a vihuela was g’ or a’, but there was evidently greater variety than these two sizes. In his Silva de sirenas (Forest of sirens), 1547, Enríquez de Valderrábano included duets for vihuelas in unison, a third apart, a fourth apart, and a fifth apart, which indicates as great a variety in vihuela sizes as there was for the lute.
The bridge and neck profile of a bowed and plucked vihuela/viola have to be constructed differently: the high action (the height of the bridge and the strings) on a bowed instrument is fundamentally different to the low action on a plucked instrument. We see this clearly below left in Jorge Alonso, Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1520 (Museo Nacional del Azulejo, Lisbon, Portugal), and right in Hans Baldung Grien, The three graces, 1540 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).
Yet one striking feature in some 16th century iconography is the visual similarity of plucked and bowed counterparts, as if a vihuela da mano and d’arco were essentially the same dual-purpose instrument. We might get this impression from Sebastian Virdung’s and Martin Agricola’s illustrations, and again below left in Mestre d’Alforja, Virgin of the Holy Hope, 16th century (Tarragona Cathedral, Catalonia), and right in the anonymous Adoration of the Shepherds, 16th century (Museo de Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain).
The images below illustrate that where there was a glued bridge, unusual now for a bowed instrument, it had a considerable height, as we would expect compared to its plucked counterpart. Below left, Diego Valentín Díaz, Virgin of the Angels, 1600-50 (Church of San Miguel and San Julián, Valladolid, Spain); right, Master of Calviá, The Virgin and Saint Simon, c. 1510 (Valencia Museum of Fine Arts, Spain).
The practicality of the action needed for bowing and plucking respectively dictates that the vihuela d’arco and da mano cannot have been identical: so how different was the construction of the plucked and bowed counterpart? Dutch luthier Jan van Cappelle reports that Sebastián Núñez and Rene Slotboom experimented by making a plucked and a bowed vihuela/viola from the same bodies, based on the theory that instrument-makers made bodies in stock and finished them either bowed or plucked according to the wish of a customer. It worked well. It may be, then, that this is how the instruments above were constructed, with only two features at the end of manufacture to distinguish between de arco and da mano: the height of the bridge and of the fingerboard, which together determine the playing action.
In renaissance Europe generally, the name for an instrument-maker was a luthier, literally a maker of lutes, though the term was used more broadly to refer to a maker of any instrument. In Spain, such was the influence of the vihuela that the equivalent term was violero, literally a maker of violas/vihuelas. In the 1527 print of the 1502 Ordinances of Seville, the skills required of a violero were made clear:
Item that the official violero, in order to know his trade well and be outstanding in it: he must know how to make instruments of many arts: that he knows how to make a claviorgan and a harpsichord: and a monochord: and a lute: and a bowed vihuela: and a harp: and a large vihuela with its bindings: and other vihuelas that are less than all this.”
Only three surviving vihuelas have been firmly identified (with two others disputed, not discussed here as they are, in my view, clearly 5 course guitars). We will examine these three instruments in date order.
The earliest is a masterpiece of c. 1500. There is no surviving maker’s label. On the peg-box at the bass edge, the word GVADALVPE is branded, the mark of the Real Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe (Royal Monastery of Saint Mary of Guadalupe) in Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain. The vibrating string length is 79.8 cm, giving an approximate first course pitch of modern d’, making this a bass vihuela. The instrument is now in Musée Jacquemart-André, Institut de France, Paris.
As we see above, the soundboard is beautifully decorated with inlay and five roses. The 12 peg holes mean that this instrument was played with 6 double courses. The bridge is lost, but marks on the soundboard where the bridge was placed identify the bridge type: not, as we often see, a bridge with a flat surface at the bottom to make full contact with the soundboard when glued, with holes drilled into the bridge for threading through and tying strings; but a bridge with pieces cut out of the bottom for threading through and tying strings, making a smaller and intermittent gluing area for the bridge on the soundboard. We will see just this type of bridge on the Quito vihuela below.
The attention to decorative detail is seen throughout the instrument. Below left we see the underside, with a closer view top right, showing that the sides were made painstakingly from panels of decorated and interlocking wood. The back, bottom right, is made from matching halves of a sunray design, each half made in alternating light (boxwood) and dark (kingwood) woods.
The second surviving vihuela, below, is dated late 16th century, its place of origin no more specific than Iberia, now in the Musée de la Musique, Philharmonie de Paris. It has a vibrating string length of 64 cm, giving the top course an approximate modern pitch of f’ or g’.
The Musée de la Musique has made excellent photographs available which clearly show its design and construction. Below we see 12 peg-holes for 6 double courses, corresponding with the 6 double grooves in the nut; a 13th hole at the top of the peg-box, presumably for hanging it up; its fluted back, made from individual ribs bent into shape with a hot iron; the separated soundboard, with its decorative rose; and a side view showing that the back extends outward to give a greater volume of vibrating air inside the instrument.
Below we see the fluted back viewed from the tail end. It is notable that, like surviving lutes of the period, this instrument does not have a strap button.
Below left we see the internal construction of the fluted back, with its strengthening and supporting strips of parchment; and centre top we see the back of the parchment rose.
Centre bottom we see that, unlike the lute with its very thin soundboard and therefore multiple supporting bars, the vihuela has a soundboard with only two bars, one either side of the rose. Structurally, this is possible because the vihuela has a soundboard that is thicker in the middle, thinner at the sides.
Below right we see the internal neck joint or heel where the neck meets the body, with the side-wall of the body inserted into grooves in the solid neck. This type of neck joint, in the shape of a U or, as here, an L, is the most secure of all joints because the solid end is glued rigidly inside the body. This is known as a Spanish heel, its development often attributed to the 19th century guitar maker Antonio de Torres, but here it is in a late 16th century vihuela. Is this an original feature or a later repair?
The third vihuela is shown below, made in c. 1600 by an anonymous violero. It is now in the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Loreto (Church of Our Lady of Loreto), Quito, Ecuador. It is declared by the congregation to have belonged to a 17th century saint, Santa Mariana de Jesús (1618-45), with documentation to support the claim, and it is kept among her relics. It has a vibrating string length of 72.7 cm, putting the top course at a modern pitch of e’ or d’.
As with the previous examples, this vihuela has 12 pegs for 6 double courses. Only a remnant of the rose remains. As we see below, the same bridge design as on the Guadalupe vihuela is here intact, with the same number of spaces for strings. There is one space in the bridge for two strings, cut in the shape of an M, each string of the double course tied in the appropriate left or right top corner of the M.
Instruments often survive because they are beautiful and ornate, and therefore treasured for their aesthetic qualities, not because they are the most representative for players. This is certainly the case with the three extant vihuelas, which leaves us with some questions in understanding the historical instrument.
The Guadalupe vihuela of c. 1500 is earlier than the surviving repertoire of 1536-76 (discussed below) and is an unrepresentatively large and ornate example, while the Musée de la Musique and Quito instruments, late 16th century and c. 1600, are later than the repertoire. This means we don’t have a single instrument to represent the period of the surviving music.
The intricacy of the Guadalupe vihuela may suggest it was a violero craft guild show piece. If it was meant for playing, its size – string length 79.8 cm, top course therefore d’ – makes it impractical for the fingerboard stretches required of the extant solo vihuela music. It may be that an instrument of this size was used for accompaniment, as with the huge vihuela painted in 1487 for the church of Sant Vicenç d’Aguer, Noguera (shown above under The construction of plucked and bowed counterparts).
Some of the solo repertoire would be playable on the Musée de la Musique vihuela, with a string length of 64 cm and therefore at f’ or g’, though pieces with big stretches would still be either impossible for a player with average size hands or require compromised voicings at the points of the large stretches. The practical use of an instrument of this size is therefore an open question. We don’t have enough vihuelas to make a judgement about the prevalence of the fluted back, but the extra effort required to make it, to no sonic advantage, suggests that it survives because it is rare, perhaps another violero show piece.
The Quito Ecuador instrument shows the spread of the vihuela outside Spain. In its decorative design it is more what we’d expect of a baroque guitar than a vihuela, but its 12 strings in 6 courses, rather than the guitar’s 9 or 10 strings in 5 courses, classify it as a vihuela. At 72.7 cm, therefore at e’ or d’, it is again impractical for the solo repertoire, which is comfortably playable at a string length of around 56–60 cm, putting the pitch at the g’ or a’ suggested by Juan Bermudo in 1555.
The tuning for the 6 course plucked lute, vihuela and viola da mano, and for the bowed viola da gamba, was the same: a series of fourths calculated from the 1st course down, except for the interval of a third between the 3rd and 4th courses. The actual pitch varied according to the size of the instrument, and the convention is to name the pitch of an instrument according to the first course. Therefore a lute, vihuela, viola da mano or viola da gamba in g’ is tuned g’ d’ a’ f c G, an instrument in a’ is tuned a’ e’ b’ g d A, and so on.
As we have seen, vihuelas of the 15th century had 5 courses, which soon expanded to 6, the number of courses for most vihuelas and for all the extant music. There is a short chapter on the 7 course vihuela in Juan Bermudo’s Declaración de instrumentos musicales, 1555 (illustration above), for which no music survives.
In Italy, where the viola da mano was an alternative to play lute music, both instruments had the same technique on the plucking hand, known as thumb inside or thumb under. The hand is roughly parallel to the strings, not at a right angle like the modern guitar. The effect is to give a round, mellow sound, as at this angle it is the soft flesh of the fingers that makes contact with the strings. It also enables proficiency in fast running passages, with the thumb on the downstroke and index finger on the upstroke.
There is a clear pictorial example of this identical technique in Gerolamo da Libri’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, 1510-18 (National Gallery, London). As we see on the right, at the feet of the saints and the Christ child are three musicians – a viola da mano player, a singer, and a singing lutenist.
In the detail above of the instrument on the right, we see the lute player’s plucking hand parallel with the strings, the little finger stabilising the hand on the soundboard, the fingers spread to reach the 1st and 3rd courses to play polyphony, the thumb having just played or ready to play the 6th course.
In the detail below of the instrument on the left, with its scroll peg-box and beautifully striped fingerboard, we see the viola da mano player’s plucking hand likewise parallel to the strings, the digits spread to play polyphony, fingers on the 2nd and 4th courses and the thumb on the 5th course.
In Italy and throughout lute-playing Europe, this was the fingertip technique developed from c. 1470, when plectrums began to be dispensed with. Though most lutenists were playing with fingers by c. 1500, it took until the 1520s for the move from plectrum to fingers to become universal.
The thumb inside position continued until the first decade of the 17th century, by which time the 6 course lute had expanded its sonic range downwards with diapasons (diatonic bass courses) to make 7, 8, 9 and, by 1600, 10 course lutes. Iconography shows that from the 1570s an alternative plucking hand technique was developed, increasing in popularity until by c. 1610 it was used almost exclusively. This is the thumb out position, in which the plucking hand is not parallel to the strings but at a right angle to them, with the thumb “stretched out strongly, so that it stands out almost as a limb to the other fingers”, as German lutenist Johann Stobaeus wrote in his Stammbuch, c. 1600. This necessitates a difference in technique, with running passages now played by alternating the index and middle fingers, and there is a significant tonal difference: as Johann Stobaeus put it, the thumb out position “sounds purer, sharper, and brighter”.
We see this change in the paintings above and below. Above left is a portrait by Giulio Campi, possibly of Italian lutenist Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543), showing the parallel hand position with thumb inside for a 6 course lute. Above right is a portrait by Dutch painter Hendrick ter Brugghen, c. 1626, of a 9 course lutenist with the thumb out hand position described by Johann Stobaeus. Below is a detail from Dutch artist Gerard ter Borch’s work of c. 1658, A Woman Playing the Theorbo-Lute and a Cavalier, showing thumb out for a 12 course instrument with an extension for the deepest diapsons.
This diversion into the later development of plucking hand position for the lute is context for understanding a significant national difference between the playing style of the Italian viola da mano and the Spanish vihuela. From the beginning, the great majority of Italian viola da mano players plucked parallel to the strings, thumb inside, as with lute technique of the time, while the great majority of Iberian vihuelists played at a right angle, thumb out, well ahead of lutenists from the 1570s on. One example of the vihuela playing style is a detail in the painting, La Virgen y el niño entre San Juan Bautista y Santiago (The Virgin and Child between Saint John the Baptist and Saint James), below, painted c. 1565 by Juan Macip, known as Juan de Juanes (now in the collection of Vicente Lassala, Valencia).
The same hand position is shown below left in the altarpiece painted by Rodrigo Osona for the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Jesús, Santa Eulalia, Ibiza, in 1502-13; and below right in a funereal sculpture by Jerónimo de Corral in the church of Santa María de Mediavilla, Medina de Rioseco, Valladolid, made 1548-51; respectively around 70 and 20 years before any lutenists had moved to this playing position.
Finally, two Portuguese examples. Below left, a singing angel vihuelist in an anonymous painting of the Portuguese school, 1540-50, Nossa Senhora das Neves com doador (Virgin of the Snow with donor), sold at auction in Porto, Portugal, in 2000; below right, another singing angel vihuelist in the Igreja da Misericórdia, a church in Óbidos, c. 1550s-60s.
As we see below, there are a small minority of contrary instances in which the Italian viola da mano is played thumb out with the hand at a right angle (below left) and the Iberian vihuela is played thumb in with the hand parallel (below right), but these are rare exceptions to the majority. The thumb out position was so well established for the vihuela that in his Libro de cifra nueva para tecla, Arpa y Vihuela (New figure [tablature] book for keyboard, harp and vihuela), 1557, the Spanish musician Luys Venegas de Henestrosa characterised thumb inside as “figueta estranjera”, the foreign style.
As stated above, running passages are played differently using thumb inside, alternating thumb and index finger, compared to thumb out, alternating index and second finger. In his vihuela book of 1546, Alonso Mudarra described the second of these techniques as dos dedos (two fingers), and explained another way of playing single lines quickly: dedillio (finger) stroke, alternating both sides of the index finger (as we will see in a video below).
In summary, Italian viola da mano players used the thumb inside position, like contemporaneous lutenists, and Spanish vihuelists played thumb out. The main reason for this difference is described in the next section. There may be a subsidiary reason. When some lutenists moved from thumb inside to thumb out in 1570s, as nearly all had done by c. 1610, it changed the tonal quality of the instrument. Longways contact with the strings on the fleshy pads of parallel fingers produces a rich, warm, round sound; whereas moving the hand to a right angle, making contact with the strings on the ends of fingers with the thumb out, produces a sharper attack and more trebly sound. For vihuela players in the late 15th and 16th century, the thicker soundboard with only two bars would have produced a darker tone, which would have been further emphasised by thumb inside, so the vihuela’s thumb out position would have brightened the sound.
The chief reason for Spanish vihuelists to play thumb out from the beginning was due to the manner in which the vihuela was strung, the subject to which we now turn.
Unison or octave stringing?
One important question for historically informed performance is that of octave or unison stringing on the lower courses of the vihuela.
6 course lutes of the late 15th and early 16th century were strung in octaves on the 4th, 5th and 6th courses. In his De inventione et usu musicae (The invention and use of music), c. 1481–87, renaissance music theorist Johannes Tinctoris explained why: “in order that it [the lute] should have a louder sound, to each of these strings one is conjoined that is tuned to the octave with it.” In other words, thicker and lower-pitched gut strings sounded dull, so they were brightened by being paired with a string an octave higher.
Octave courses slowly receded through the 16th century so that, on a lute of 6 or more courses, at first the 4th course down was in octaves, then the 5th down until, by the early 17th century, octave stringing was often used only on the 6th course down or only on diapasons, diatonic bass strings on the 7th course down. By the time John Dowland wrote Other necessary Observations belonging to the lute in his son John’s Varietie of Lute Lessons, 1610, he observed when discussing a 9 course lute that “on your Bases, in that place which you call the sixt string, or r ut, these Bases must be both of one bignes [the same thickness, i.e. unisons], yet it hath been a generall custome (although not so much used any where as here in England) to set a small and a great string together [i.e. octaves], but amongst learned Musitions that custome is left, as irregular to the rules of Musicke.” In other words, John Dowland stated in 1610 that only the diapasons should be strung in octaves, not any of the 6 main melody courses, as octave stringing on a melody course produces parallel octaves, which is “irregular to the rules of Musicke”.
The purpose of octave stringing and of thumb outside was the same: to brighten the sound of gut strings. Since thumb inside technique produces a warm, round sound, the thicker and duller basses are brightened by octaves on lower courses. Since thumb outside technique produces a sharper, more trebly tone, this performs the same brightening function as octave courses, making them redundant, with the added advantage that the lute does not produce parallel octaves. This explains why octave stringing on the lute receded as thumb out advanced. Thus the logical conclusion would be that the Italian viola da mano, thumb inside, was strung with octaves on lower courses, while the Spanish vihuela, thumb out, was strung with unison courses throughout. The historical evidence supports this conclusion.
When writing of the fourth course of the 4 course guitar, Juan Bermudo in his Declaración de instrumentos musicales, 1555, stated that “both strings are an octave apart, as on the lute, or the vihuela of Flanders. This instrument, having three or four courses of paired strings that make octaves between them, is said to have requintadas strings.” Bermudo’s reference to “the vihuela” specifically “of Flanders” suggests there were regional differences, that Flemish vihuelists preferred octaves on “three or four courses”, suggesting that vihuelists in other parts favoured unisons.
Sebastián de Covarrubias Oroszco wrote a Spanish dictionary, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, published in Madrid in 1611. His entry for “Guitarra” reads: “A widely known and performed instrument, much to the detriment of [cultivated] music, which previously was played on the vihuela, an instrument of six or at times more courses. The guitar is smaller in size than the vihuela, and with fewer strings, because it has no more than five courses, and some with only four courses. These strings have requintadas, which are not unisons like the vihuela, but tuned in fifths, aside from the first, which on both instruments is a single string.”
Oroszco was clearly no fan of the guitar and was confused about its stringing. There is no evidence from other sources that, as Oroszco suggests, 4 of the 5 courses of the guitar had requintadas, and indeed the tuning of the guitar would make this physically impossible (only 1 or 2 courses of the 5 course guitar had requintadas); nor was it the case that these higher and therefore brighter strings of the course were a fifth above the lower string, which would make a cacophony of 4 and 5 course guitar music: Bermudo in 1555 made clear that a requintada was paired an octave above the lower string of a course. Since Oroszco made such errors about guitar stringing, should we believe his testimony that the courses of the vihuela were in unisons? It is probable that we should, since he was more likely to be accurate about an instrument he favoured. We should note that he was writing in 1611, by which time all melody courses of the lute were in paired unisons. Might the vihuela, like the lute, have been strung with octaves earlier in the 16th century?
Bermudo in 1555 tells us not. He picked out the octave-strung “vihuela of Flanders” as the exception to the norm, implying that the Iberian vihuela was always strung in unison courses throughout, which requires thumb out since the vihuela lacked the brightening octave requintadas of the guitar, lute and viola da mano. This means that unison stringing and thumb out differentiated the sound and playing style of the Spanish vihuela from the European lute through much of the 16th century, the reason Luys Venegas de Henestrosa called thumb inside the “foreign style”.
The music of the vihuela and viola da mano
In the renaissance, music for fretted instruments was written in tablature, a system for showing the player where to place the fingers on the fret-board and the value of each note.
The main systems were called French tablature and Italian tablature. (There was also a much more complex system of German tablature, beyond our scope here.) Despite their names, the evidence suggests that both French and Italian tablature started in Italy at around the same time, c. 1480s–1510.
French tablature was quickly favoured outside Italy and Spain for fingerboard instruments such as the lute, cittern, guitar, and so on. As we see above, six lines represent the six courses, with the top course on the top line, down to the sixth course on the sixth line. Letters on each line give the fret positions for that course: a for an open course, b for the first fret, c (which looks like r) for the second fret, and so on. Above those numbers are the rhythm flags. Where no note value is given, the player repeats the last given sign.
Italian tablature works on similar principles, and was used in Spain for vihuela music (with one exception – see below) and in Italy for lute music. Six lines represent the six courses, but in Italian tablature the bottom course is represented by the top line, down to the first course on the sixth line. Numbers rather than letters give the fret positions: 0 for an open course, 1 for the first fret, 2 for the second fret, and so on. Above those numbers are the rhythm flags. Where no note value is given, the player repeats the last given sign. An example is shown on the right: fantasia del quarto Tono from Luys de Narváez’s print of 1538, played in the video which begins this article.
Spanish sources for vihuela music consist of a few manuscript sources and 7 printed books. These prints span a period of only 30 years, of which the last is a late-comer, the remainder being published in only 18 years. They are:
Luis Milán, El Maestro, 1536
Luys de Narváez, Los seys libros del Delphin de música de cifra para tañer Vihuela, 1538
Alonso Mudarra, Tres libros de música en cifras para vihuela, 1546
Enriquez de Valderrábano, Silva de sirenas, 1547
Diego Pisador, Libro de musica de vihuela, 1552
Miguel de Fuenllana, Orphenica lyra, 1554
Esteban Daza, El Parnasso, 1576
All the above publications used Italian tablature with the exception of the first, Luis Milán, El Maestro, which employed a variant of Neapolitan tablature, using numbers for frets like the Italian system, but with the first course on the first line and so on like the French system.
The mix of genres in surviving vihuela music is similar to that for lute music: intabulations of vocal works; fantasias; variations on existing works; songs; and dance forms. In the vihuela repertoire, to this we can add tientos and a few sonetos, fugas and glosas. Each composer had his own preferences. For example, Luis Milán included only fantasias, songs and pavanas in his book. Taking all the composers’ music together, fantasias and intabulations predominate.
An intabulation is a pre-existing polyphonic vocal work, secular or sacred, arranged by the instrumentalist for all voices to be played on two hands by one player. Among the composers whose works were intabulated by vihuelists were the Spanish composers Cristóbal de Morales and Juan Vásquez, the Franco-Flemish composers Josquin des Prez and Nicolas Gombert, and Philippe Verdelot, who was born in France and worked in Italy.
The most often-played vihuela intabulation today is Luys de Narváez’s rendering of Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz (A thousand regrets). To illustrate the process of intabulation, this beautiful piece is performed in 3 videos below. First, the vocal piece is sung exquisitely by Profeti della Quinta; second, the vihuela intabulation by Narváez is played expertly by Ralph Maier, illustrating the aforementioned dedillio stroke for vihuela, in which single line runs are played by alternating both sides of the index finger; third, the lead voice is sung beautifully by Emma-Lisa Roux, playing the other voices on lute.
The fantasia (sometimes shortened to fancy in England) was one of the defining musical forms of the renaissance, popular internationally. Looking back in 1665 in A Compendium: or, Introduction to Practical Music, Christopher Sympson described the fantasia as “the chief and most excellent, for Art and Contrivance … In this sort of Music the Composer (being not limited to Words) doth employ all his Art and Invention solely about the bringing in and carrying on of these Fuges [imitative themes] … When he has tried all the ways which he thinks fit to be used therein, he takes another Point, and does the like with it; or else, for variety, introduces some Chromatick Notes, with Bindings and Intermixtures of Discords; or falls into some light Humour like a Madrigal, or what else his Fancy shall lead him: But still concluding with something which hath Art and Excellency in it.” The chief technique of the composer of a fantasia was contrapuntal imitation, as we hear and see in Luys de Narváez’s fantasia del quarto Tono.
Just as lutenists in the rest of Europe took simple melodies – John, come kiss me now; Robin is to the greenwood gone; Fortune my foe; Greensleeves; Packington’s pound; and many others – and added inventive variations, so vihuelists likewise took familiar melodies and added theirs, the most well-known being Narváez’s Difierencias sobre Guárdame las vacas (Differences [Variations] on Keep the cows for me), and his Veynte y dos diferencias sobre Conde claros del sesto tono (Twenty two differences [variations] on Count Claros in the sixth mode).
Secular songs in vihuela music are in two categories: romances, i.e. popular ballads; and villancicos, polyphonic songs with a refrain.
Of the remaining forms, there are surprisingly few dances in printed vihuela works: the six dances in Luis Milán’s El Maestro are pavanas, and there is only the same number of dances again in the whole of the corpus. The tiento or tento is a short piece, only a few bars long, illustrating the practical application of modal theory, which may be a form of prelude. Sonetos appear only in the work of Enriquez de Valderrábano and have no clear definition – they appear not to be related in form to the sonnet. Fuga is the name Valderrábano gave to his three voice canons. The glosas consist of passages of intabulated Masses by Josquin des Prez and Antoine de Févin, alternating with imitative counterpoint.
As explained above, the Italian viola da mano had no music of its own, but was an alternative to the lute in an identical tuning, as we see in the video below: Italian lute music on viola da mano played by Michal Gondko, played thumb inside with octaves on courses 4, 5 and 6.
The imagery of the vihuela and viola da mano
As explained in The guitar: a brief history from the renaissance to the modern day, medieval writers associated all manner of plucked instruments with the Greek kithára (κιθάρα), cithara in Latin, a lyre for which there is evidence dating back to the 9th or 8th century BCE. In ancient Greek usage, the kithára came to mean any plucked instrument as well as a lyre specifically. To tie their music theory to ancient sources, medieval and renaissance writers used kithára/cithara as the root word for citole, cittern, gittern, guitar, etc., or they used the actual word indiscriminately for lyres, citoles, harps, psalteries, gitterns, citterns, guitars, and indeed for any instrument with plucked strings.
A typical example of the association was expressed by Italian writer Giovanni Maria Lanfranco in his Scintille di musica, 1533: “The lute, which (according to my belief) is that same and very celebrated lyre, or kithara as it was called, first invented by Mercury [the Roman name, Hermes in Greek stories], and which was augmented under his successors, is the most perfect instrument above all others, since in it from fret to fret every voice and sound is found.”
The association of the lute with the lyre was visual as well as verbal. So, for example, above we see a panel by Lucca della Robbia and Andrea Pisano in the campanile (bell tower) of Florence Cathedral, c. 1434. It shows Orpheus, the ancient Greek bard, greatest of all poets and musicians, who perfected the playing of the lyre, whose music and singing had such power that it could charm the birds, the fish and the wild beasts, could divert the course of rivers, could cause trees and rocks to dance, and whose sweet music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone to release his wife Eurydice from the Underworld. In Florence Cathedral, Orpheus’ kithára or lyre has become a 4 course lute.
In renaissance Spain, the modern equivalent of the ancient lyre was not the lute, but the vihuela. As we see on the right, Luis Milán’s El Maestro, 1536, the first of the vihuela prints, includes a full page woodcut of Orpheus and the words:
El grande Orpheo, primero inventor,
Por quien la vihuela paresce en el mundo
The great Orpheus, first inventor,
Through whom the vihuela appeared in the world
It was Apollo, god of music and poetry, who gave the kithára or lyre to his son Orpheus and taught him to play. In c. 1490-1501, Florentine artist Bartolomeo di Giovanni substituted a viola da mano for a lyre when he painted Apollo playing the viola da mano at the marriage of Thetis and and Peleus (Musée du Louvre, Paris), seen in full above, the relevant detail below (and note that it is played thumb inside).
Another ancient Greek tale of the lyre is illustrated in Luys de Narváez’s book of vihuela music, Los seys libros del Delphin, 1538, as we see below. This is the story of Arion, the greatest lyre player in the world, who had earned his fortune in Italy and Sicily and hired a ship to take himself back home to Corinth. The crew had other ideas. To steal his wealth, they offered Arion the choice of killing himself on the ship so he could be buried on land, or throwing himself into the sea to die there in which case, without a body to bury, his soul would never find peace. Arion asked that, before he throw himself into the sea, he be allowed to perform one last time. The crew agreed. Arion sang to his lyre and threw himself overboard where a dolphin, having been charmed by his music, carried him to land. As with Orpheus and Apollo, in Luys de Narváez’s illustration, Arion’s lyre is a vihuela.
On the main portal of the Iglesia de San Salvador in Úbeda, Spain, is a bas relief sculpture by Etienne Chamet (Jamete, Chamete), completed in 1541-44. As we see below, it features the Roman god, Cupid, god of desire (Eros to the Greeks), shown as a young boy with his arrows, holding a dart of desire. Cupid’s parents were Venus, goddess of love, beauty and fertility, and Mars, god of war. Next to Cupid on the bas relief is his mother, Venus (Aphrodite to the Greeks), playing a large 6 course vihuela (and note that it is played thumb out).
As well as employing the vihuela and viola da mano in images of classical mythology, Spanish and Italian renaissance artists depicted it in their Catholic devotional works, along with other musical instruments. Above is the entirety of Incoronazione della vergine coi SS Marco e Giuliano, painted by Italian artist Cristoforo Scacco, c. 1500 (Galleria Napoletana, Museo di Capodimonte). Below are the musical details, showing lute, trumpet, viola d’arco, viola da mano, harp, shawm, hand drum, pipe and psalterium, viola da gamba, and an unseen instrument.
Below are three further examples of the vihuela/viola da mano in religious imagery, played by angels. Left to right: Juan de la Abadía, Madonna and Child with angel musicians, 1485-95 (Museo Diocesano, Jaca, Spain); anonymous, Barcelona Cathedral, c. 1500; Juan de Juanes (Juan Macip), La Trinidad con querubines y ángeles, Convento de Santa Clara, Gandía, Valencia, 1545-55.
The spread of the vihuela and its music
Some Spanish vihuela music made its way into prints and manuscripts beyond its borders. For example, the music in the video which begins this article, Luys de Narváez’s fantasia del quarto Tono, 1538, appears for lute as Fantasie in Des chansons reduictz en tabulature de lut a deux, trois et quatre parties, published in 1547 by the Flemish bookseller, printer and prodigious publisher of lute music, Peeter van der Phaliesen, better known by his more French-sounding name, Pierre Phalèse; as Fantasie in Guillame Morlaye’s print, Premier livre de Tablature de leut, 1552, France; and as Fantaci de narboyes in the handwritten lute book of Francis Wylloughbye, England, c. 1560–85, as we see on the right. There are some minor variations from Narváez’s original in the Wylloughbye version, one of which I include in the video which begins this article, in which I play in the manner of the Italian viola da mano, thumb inside and with octaves on the 5th and 6th courses.
The specific means by which a particular piece of music arrived beyond its original regional or national border is rarely clear; but of course books were sold internationally and people travelled, taking their music with them. Thus a written collection of 350 pieces for lute and vihuela is held by the Biblioteka Jagiellonska, Kraków, Poland, probably the work of a Spaniard in Naples.
Musicians took their instruments with them, too, and it must be a result of the colonisation of Ecuador by Spaniards that one of the three surviving vihuelas is in Quito. The means by which a lone vihuela player (right) appeared painted on the wall of Edebo Church, Uppland, Sweden, in 1514, is a mystery, as there is no other known reference to the instrument in Sweden. Similarly mysterious is the painting on paper glued to cloth of an apparently 9 string, 5 course instrument, in the shape of a vihuela/viola da mano as we would expect to see in Spain or Italy in the late 15th or early 16th century, but this is c. 1590 and in Japan (below left). A copy (below right) with more detail (or possibly the original) shows an only marginally different Japanese woman being observed by a western man (Yamato Bumko Museum, Nara, Japan). Between the middle of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, 57 Portuguese, 20 Spanish and 18 Italian Jesuits worked in Japan, and men from any one of those countries could have imported the vihuela/viola da mano.
The vihuela and viola da mano: siblings of the lute
The vihuela (as it was named in Spain) or viola da mano (its Italian name) was an instrument tuned the same as the viola/vihuela d’arco and the lute, with a Spanish repertoire that was at once national and international. The vihuela was favoured in 16th century Spain, the lute in its shadow; whereas in Italy the lute reigned and the viola da mano was an alternative to play lute repertoire. Like the lute, the vihuela/viola da mano was imagined as the classical kithara and as an instrument of angelic praise.
The Italian viola da mano was played thumb inside like the lute, with octaves on the duller, lower courses to brighten the sound, while the Spanish vihuela had unisons on the lower courses, played thumb out to brighten the sound, a position not widely employed by the lute until it, too, had unisons on most or all of the lower courses from the late 16th or early 17th century.
The vihuela/viola da mano was not constructed like a lute, didn’t sound like a lute, and was larger than the guitar which, at the time, had only 4 courses rather than the vihuela’s usual 6. In these modern times when anything that has plucked strings is popularly thought of as a type of guitar, it is worth noting that in his Orphenica lyra, 1554, Miguel de Fuenllana included a few pieces for guitar, and described it as a type of vihuela: “vihuela de quarto ordenes, que dizen guitarra” (“the four-course vihuela, which is called guitar”).
For lutenists or vihuela players who wish to explore vihuela repertoire, all 7 books are available online, free and downloadable in facsimile. As noted above, the first is in a version of Neapolitan tablature (like French tab, but with numbers), and the rest are in Italian tablature. Click on any title to go to its facsimile.
Luis Milán, El Maestro, 1536
Luys de Narváez, Los seys libros del Delphin de música de cifra para tañer Vihuela, 1538
Alonso Mudarra, Tres libros de música en cifras para vihuela, 1546
Enriquez de Valderrábano, Silva de sirenas, 1547
Diego Pisador, Libro de musica de vihuela, 1552
Miguel de Fuenllana, Orphenica lyra, 1554
Esteban Daza, El Parnasso, 1576
Agricola, Martin (1529) Musica instrumentalis deutsch. Facsimile available online by clicking here.
Batov, Alexander (2006) Anjo com viola – a unique 16th century representation of the vihuela from Abrantes, Portugal. Available online by clicking here.
Batov, Alexander (2006) The Quito vihuela. Available online by clicking here.
Bermudo, Juan (1555) El libro llamado declaración de instrumentos musicales. Facsimile available online by clicking here.
Dowland, John (1610) Other necessary Observations belonging to the lute. In: Robert Dowland, Varietie of Lute Lessons. Lithographic facsimile published in 1958 by Schott and Co., London.
Eastwell, Martin (2012) 21st Century Lute Technique: A Compromise Too Far? Lute News, Number 101 (March 2012), pp. 16-21.
Emmet, Luke & Van Edwards, David (undated) Lute Iconography Database. Available online by clicking here.
Fink, Michael (undated) Stringing and Tuning the Renaissance Four-Course Guitar: Interpreting the Primary Sources. Available online by clicking here.
Griffiths, John (1989) At Court and at Home with the vihuela de mano: Current Perspectives of the Instrument, its Music and Its World. Available online by clicking here.
Griffiths, John (2020) Vihuela Images. Available online by clicking here.
Griffiths, John (2022) Vihuela Database. Available online by clicking here.
Hollaway, William W. (1972) Martin Agricola’s Musica Instrumentalis Deudsch: a translation. Dissertation presented to the Graduate Council of the North Texas State University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Available online by clicking here.
Marín, Alfonso (2022) Vihuelas. Available online by clicking here.
Marín, Fernando (undated) vihuela de arco. Available online by clicking here.
Minamino, Hiroyuki (1998) Was Francisco da Milano a Viola da Mano Player? The Lute: The Journal of the Lute Society, Volume 38. Article available online by clicking here.
Page, Christopher (1987) Voices & Instruments of the Middle Ages. Instrumental practice and songs in France 1100-1330. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.
Philharmonie de Paris (undated) Vihuela de mano. Available online by clicking here.
Pittaway, Ian (2015) The lute: a thumbnail history. Available online by clicking here.
Smith, Douglas Alton (2002) A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Massachusetts: Lute Society of America.
Sparr, Kenneth (1997) The Guitar in Sweden Until the Middle of the 19th Century. Available online by clicking here.
Spring, Matthew (2001) The Lute in Britain. A history of the instrument and its music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sympson, Christopher (1665, 2nd edition 1667) A Compendium: or, Introduction to Practical Music. London: William Godbid. Facsimile available online by clicking here.
Tinctoris, Johannes (c. 1481–87) De inventione et usu musicae. Available online by clicking here.
Virdung, Sebastian (1511) Musica getutsch und außgezogen. Facsimile available online by clicking here.
Witmer, Talitha (2018) The Can of Norms: Expanding the Modern Lute Plucking Technique. Available online by clicking here.