The shape (outline) of the vihuela is simlar to that of the modern guitar. It has incurving sides and bouts, as if it is intended to be played with a bow, and some early instruments (of the late fifteenth century) seem to have been built in such a way that they could be played either with a bow (de arco) or directly with the fingers (de mano). However, by the time the vihuela reached its greatest historical popularity in the mid-sixteenth century the instruments were built with the bridge low and flat and glued onto the table, as on a lute, so that bowing would be impossible. The vihuela has vertical sides, again like the modern guitar. The back was sometimes flat, although most likely a vaulted (arched) back was more common during the sixteenth century. The playing technique of the vihuela is similar to that of a lute. Like the lute through much of the sixteenth century, the vihuela generally had six courses, although Fuenllana (see below) printed a few pieces for instruments with only five courses, and perhaps a small number of later instruments were made with seven. All courses, including the first, seem generally to have been double. The tuning of the vihuela was the similar to that of the lute, using a fourth, fourth, major third, fourth, fourth pattern, so that there are two octaves between the pitch of the first course and that of the sixth. However, it is not clear how many of the lower courses were normally tuned with octave doubling. As on the lute, the fingerboard is fretted, with the frets tied around the neck so they are movable and allow for adjustment of the temperament. While the lute of the mid-sixteenth century typically had eight tied frets, the neck of a vihuela is proportionately a bit longer, allowing for ten tied frets.
The vihuela was primarily an Iberian instrument. Although the viola da mano (a very similar if not indistinguishable instrument) is sometimes mentioned in Italian publications and is depicted in Italian artworks, particularly those originating in areas under Catalan or Aragonese control, it appears not to have been used as frequently there, and the vihuela seems not to have been played at all commonly elsewhere in Europe. There is some evidence that a few instruments made their way to Latin America, and some may even have been built there.
Only a very few sixteenth-century instruments clearly identifiable as vihuelas have survived. One is in the Musée Jaquemart André in Paris. Another very different instrument is in the Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique, also in Paris. Like other musical instruments of the sixteenth century, the vihuela was clearly made as a family of different-sized instruments, tuned to different pitches. Duet music was published for instruments one step, a minor third, a fourth and a fifth apart, as well as for unison tuning. The string length of the instrument pictured above is 58 cm. Click on the photograph to view a larger version. Many modern reproductions have been based on the engraving on the title page of the vihuela book of Luis Milán (1535, Valencia) and another picture he includes in the introductory material to it.
There were seven significant collections of music for the vihuela published during the sixteenth century containing fantasias, sonetos and sacred and secular choral music presented as vocal solos with accompaniment, as well as purely instrumental transcriptions (intabulations) of polyphonic vocal music, again both sacred and secular. Dances are missing entirely from some publications, and only a few pavanas are found in others. The level of complexity, sophistication and technical difficulty is comparable to that of music appearing in publications for lute at the same time. The main difference is that the vihuela repertory tends to make a bit more use of the ninth and tenth frets and positions beyond them than the contemporary lute music does.
Several other musical publications of the late sixteenth century mention the vihuela in a list of instruments for which their authors suggest the compositions are suitable, although the music is not presented in the form of tablature for a fretted instrument.
Closeup of the rose on a copy of the ‘Chambure’ vihuela in the
Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire National Superieur
de Musique. Click on any photograph to view a larger version.
“I was just curious – when was it again that this instrument was built?”