The vihuela: a Spanish middle-class craze – before the “cowbell” guitar killed it off

Think of Spanish music and you’ll probably think of flamenco, that sultry combination of song, dance and virtuoso guitar playing. But before the guitar came the vihuela, a stringed instrument that was all the rage in sixteenth-century Spain, during the country’s “Golden Age” of arts and culture.

Photo of spanish guitar with ancient books and a globe

A courtly instrument with an urban history

Shaped like a guitar, and tuned like a lute, the Renaissance-era vihuela might have faded into obscurity were it not for the efforts of musicologists such as Australia’s John Griffiths, one of the world’s leading authorities on the instrument.

Awarded one of Spain’s highest civil orders for his work, Griffiths has established that the vihuela was not solely associated with the royal court and noble palaces but also embraced by the middle classes in mercantile and administrative centres such as Seville and Valladolid.

At a time when Spain was an unrivalled global power, its Roman Catholic empire at its peak, the vihuela’s distinctive sound could be heard in households and workplaces, in streets, marketplaces and town squares.

Griffiths’s work entails more than scouring centuries-old archives, productive though that has proved. He is an accomplished vihuela performer, whose musical practice is based on his research into long-lost music and composers.

The versatile vihuela

The vihuela emerged in the mid-fifteenth century and was originally both plucked and bowed. Subsequently, separate models were made: the vihuela de arco (bowed) and vihuela de mano (plucked). Performances were often accompanied by song. The vihuela repertoire was extensive and diverse.

The vihuela’s popularity – not just in Spain but also in Portugal, Italy and Latin America –gave rise to a flurry of commercial activity. There were instrument and string makers, buyers and sellers, composers, teachers and music book printers.

Eclipsed by the guitar by the early 1600s, the vihuela became a focus of modern interest from the late nineteenth century. Musicologists designated it a courtly instrument that had been played exclusively by professional musicians, taught to and performed for the Spanish royal family and nobility.

Griffiths’s work challenged that image of the vihuela. Investigating civil archives, rather than relying only on church and court/state collections, he discovered printing contracts for large runs of reasonably priced vihuela music books. Plainly, they had been destined for mass consumption. Many thousands of instruments were manufactured, and more than 750 vihuela works have survived.

The vihuela, it became clear, had spread right through urban society, adopted by a broad social spectrum of people, from urban aristocrats and gentlefolk to merchants, artisans and clergy. Played by amateurs as well as professionals, it was a vehicle that encouraged contemplation and virtue through music in a strongly humanist environment.

‘There isn’t a stable boy who isn’t a guitarist’

As well as triggering a fundamental reassessment of the instrument, and uncovering a wealth of new information about makers, players and owners, Griffiths’s research has revealed much about life in Spanish renaissance cities and the penetration of cultivated music, providing a fresh perspective on the social history and culture of the era.

The vihuela’s decline, following the invention of the guitar, was mourned. A contemporary dictionary writer, defining the vihuela, wrote:

“It has been a great loss, because on it could be played all kinds of notated music, and now the guitar is no more than a cowbell, so easy to play … that there isn’t a stable boy who isn’t a guitarist.”

Further reading & resources

Discovering Humanities series

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