During my student days, much of my knowledge of early music was acquired through recordings released by the Musical Heritage Society. One of my most valued possessions was a set of long-playing records dealing with the history of Spanish music during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was through that collection that I first learned about the vihuela, which flourished during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. The instrument had three types, a bowed form that is an ancestor of the viola da gamba, a form in which the strings are plucked with a plectrum, and, the most popular, an instrument with five or six “courses” (either single strings or pairs of strings tuned to the same note) plucked by the fingers. This latter is the noble ancestor of the Spanish guitar.
The Musical Heritage Society released records that sampled three of the leading Spanish composers of music for the plucked vihuela: Luis de Milán, Luis de Narváez, and Alonso Mudarra. Of these three, Milán produced what is now the oldest printed collection of vihuela music, entitled Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro, best known by its proper title, El maestro. This volume was divided into three “books,” which contained more than forty fantasias, six pavanes, and twelve villancicos. It also included settings of Italian sonnets for voice and vihuela.
Earlier this month Naxos released a new recording of the first of these three books, performed on an appropriate historical instrument by José Antonio Escobar. Milán seems to have organized his collection according to both form and mode. Thus, the first book contains 22 fantasias and the six pavanes. Both are ordered by ascending mode number (from one to eight). In addition, the fantasias have been composed to acquaint the performer with different forms of appropriate chord sequences (consonancias). There is also a set of nine fantasias that ascend the modes and explore not only consonancias but also redobles, rapid scale passages that demand deft fingering of the highest virtuosity. The title El maestro clearly suggests that the compositions in the volume are not for beginners or even skilled students, but for those who have attained “maestro” status as performers.
Escobar is clearly up to this task, particularly as far as dexterity is concerned. However, there is more for the listener than just marveling at that dexterity. There is also some sense that different modes are appropriate to different frames of mind. One can find the seeds for such thinking in Plato’s “Republic;” but its most mature form emerged among the German musicians of the Baroque period. One may thus approach music from the Renaissance and Milán’s selection of mode based on mood, so to speak, as a way station on the path to the more “theoretical” German thinking that would develop in the seventeenth century. On the other hand, those with lesser ambitions can just as easily enjoy this recording as a tour through the abundant repertoire of tropes through which Renaissance music came to establish its own characteristic forms of expression!