Luys Milán: El Maestro for Renaissance Vihuela

Music of the Spanish Renaissance performed by Polivios ( on  Renaissance Vihuela built by Barbara Ferloni (

I’ve Created A Monster

It all started with one music video. I enjoyed this music very much but knew nothing about the vihuela or Renaissance music in general. To remediate my own educational gaps, I started reading. As usual, the more I learn about the culture and history, the more I appreciate the music, and the post keeps growing….and growing….

For this post, the music is the star. 🙂

Who is Luis de Milan?

Luis de Milán (also known as Lluís del Milà or Luys Milán) (c. 1500 – c. 1561) was a Spanish Renaissance composer, vihuelist, and writer of music books. He was the first composer in history to publish music for the vihuela de mano, an instrument employed primarily in the Iberian peninsula and some of the Italian states during the 15th and 16th centuries. The music of Luis Milan, easily adapted to classical guitar, is still popular with performers today.

Video 2

What Is Renaissance Music?

Renaissance music is vocal and instrumental music written and performed in Europe during the Renaissance era – roughly 1400 – 1600 A.D.

“Music was an essential part of civic, religious, and courtly life in the Renaissance. The rich interchange of ideas in Europe, as well as political, economic, and religious events in the period 1400–1600 led to major changes in styles of composing, methods of disseminating music, new musical genres, and the development of musical instruments.” 

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The main characteristics of Renaissance music are (Fuller 2010):

  • Music based on modes.
  • Richer texture, with four or more independent melodic parts being performed simultaneously. These interweaving melodic lines, a style called polyphony, is one of the defining features of Renaissance music.
  • Blending, rather than contrasting, melodic lines in the musical texture.
  • Harmony that placed a greater concern on the smooth flow of the music and its progression of chords.

What is El Maestro?

In 1536 Luis de Milán published the first collection of vihuela music in history, El maestro (Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro). The book  was dedicated to King John III of Portugal, It contains more than forty fantasias, six pavans, twelve villancicos, as well as sonetos (settings of Italian sonnets), and other pieces; some of the pieces are for solo vihuela, and others for voice accompanied by vihuela. Interestingly, half of the villancicos are in Castilian Spanish, and half are in Portuguese.

El Maestro” here refers to the “The Teacher” – there is no other manuscript previous to Milan’s publication that makes such a claim to its pedagogical purpose – as explicitly stated in its introduction.”

Click for enlarged view:

Copy of El Maestro

The following passage is from the BIBLIOTECA NACIONAL DE ESPAÑA summary of El Maestro. Roughly translated with the aid of google and a decades old minor degree in Spanish language, this passage gives more historical details about the vihuela. (ie, corrections are welcome 😉)  

Despite the small number of publications, the Spanish vihuelistic repertoire was of great importance in European instrumental music of the sixteenth century, both for its high technical and musical level and for the innovative contribution in technique like instrumental accompaniment to the voice, the interpretation, and, above all, the introduction of variation, which they called differences. (Luis de Narváez, Valladolid, 1538).

The Teacher (El Maestro), the first of the vihuelistic books, is a  superior innovative work, of higher character than the previously published and highly praised works of Italy, Germany and France. The book of Milan, written in the cipher or tablature system, was also the first vihuela book to have a modern transcription.” (Schrade, Leipzig, 1927).

Quoted in rough translation from BIBLIOTECA NACIONAL DE ESPAÑA summary of El Maestro (original found here
Renaissance Vihuela built by Barbara Ferloni (

“The pieces in Milán’s book are arranged in order of difficulty. The songs—Spanish and Portuguese villancicos and romances and Italian sonnets—are often of great beauty, and the instrumental writing is varied and resourceful. Milán is noted as the first composer to provide tempo indications in his music.”

Encyclopedia Britannica,

What is the Vihuela?

The vihuela (Spanish pronunciation: [biˈwela]) is a guitar-shaped string instrument usually with five or six doubled strings. Vihuelas were popular from 15th and 16th century in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

“During the medieval and Renaissance periods, a wide variety of plucked stringed instruments can be found in both literature and art. They include the citole, cittern, vihuela, mandore, gittern, and, of course, the lute and its variants. During the Renaissance, the guitar’s closest contemporary was the vihuela.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

“…The vihuela was the Spanish equivalent the lute in the rest of Europe – the role of courtier instrument. A total of seven books dedicated exclusively to the vihuela were published under the reigns of Carlos V and Felipe II.

Quoted in rough translation from BIBLIOTECA NACIONAL DE ESPAÑA summary of El Maestro (original found here)

” It is absolutely fascinating that despite the immense popularity of the Vihuela, there are only three surviving historic instruments.”

Video 3

Vihuela vs. Guitar

“The vihuela was played by the aristocracy, the guitar by commoners. By the 18th century both instruments had given rise to the six-stringed guitar. The vihuela de arco was a viola da gamba, or viol. The term vihuela is also used to refer to a five-stringed instrument that became popular in Mexico as a feature of mariachi ensembles.”  

Encyclopedia Britannica

The vihuela is a larger instrument than the guitar, with six or seven courses of strings and tuned like a lute. It is sometimes pictured with sharply cut waists, like on a violin(20.92), and sometimes with rounded corners like a guitar (25.2.26). The vihuela and guitar existed simultaneously until the seventeenth century, when the popularity of the guitar superseded the vihuela.”

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Julian Bream: Milan’s Fantasia XXIII

Julian Bream plays the Fantasia XXIII, composed by Luis De Milan (1500 – 1561)




More Information

  • Read about surviving historic vihuelas HERE
  • Hear more vihuela music HERE
  • Read about the Spanish Guitar:

Wheeldon, Daniel. “The Spanish Guitar.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (May 2017).

Image Credit

Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (Barcelona, 1871 – Pollença, 1959), “The Idol”, (c. 1910) Palma de Mallorca (Colección de Arte La Caixa), image source: Li Taipo via Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Thanks for Visiting 🙂


6 Comments Add yours

  1. JMN says:

    Marvelous all around — music, instruments, presentation. I had a couple of Julian Bream albums in college. He was an idol of mine. The recreated instruments are fascinating. I wish the videos would dwell more intensively on the right hand. I call it “restless camera syndrome,” but I realize the continuous moving around is meant to maintain viewer interest. Just a quibble from an amateur student of the instrument. I treasure a sardonic comment from someone who lived during the period, that the lutenists spent more time tuning their instruments than playing them! Again, I enjoyed this post immensely. Thanks for your high standard of scholarship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How fascinating to hear from someone who plays the instrument! Is your interest in the vihuela in particular or the whole family of instruments? I do not play strings (except a little piano), but I enjoy classical guitar very much. Julian Bream is astounding! I am looking forward to listening to much more from him. His fingers moved so fast I could not follow, but I do understand why a player would like the camera to be still. lol Thanks so much for your input – I appreciate your comments. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. JMN says:

        I’m an erstwhile and frustrated student of classical guitar. I know of the vihuela historically as a precursor of the modern guitar. Luis Milan is a familiar name. I think I had some music from a contemporary — Alonso de Narvaez, perhaps? The mists of memory. I didn’t know the vihuela was double-strung. It seemed difficult to me to do the pinching-plucking of two springs as opposed to single ones. I was especially intent on how the player in the first video was doing it, hence the frustration with the camera jumping around. 🙂 I may be repeating myself, but I had two albums by Bream in college, one on guitar and one on lute. His right-hand dexterity reminds me of the Flamenco players. Paco de Maria is a favorite. I studied briefly in Barcelona with Graciano Tarrago while a student at the Facultad de Filosofia y Letras. He was quite elderly at the time. His daughter Renata concertizes, or did. I have more to see on your site. My iPad was acting up when I posted the above comment. I wasn’t sure it had reached you. Best regards!


      2. I remember a Luys de Narvaez (?) from my reading. Hearing the completely different and dissonant tones produced by the double stringed instrument is what started my interest. No wonder you are a wealth of information! I googled G. Tarrago and Renata and found a treasure trove of new music to explore. One question – is Julian Bream using his fingernails? I watched his left hand repeatedly and could not decide if those are long nails with a musical purpose or just hypermobile DIP joints (?). Thanks for visiting – I always appreciate your helpful comments. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. JMN says:

        I had to Google “DIP joint.” I’m reminded that you mentioned medical training once. The left hand of a right-handed player would finger the fret board and have short nails with calloused tips. Many players carefully cultivate their fingernails for the plucking hand, myself included. Other players pluck with their fingertips, which produces a softer sound. Two schools of practice, so to speak. I think the nail pluckers predominate. I’m pretty sure Bream is a right-handed player. It wouldn’t make sense for him to have prominent nails on the left. I need to watch the video again. I may be missing something. With some regret, I’ve tried to replace guitar with painting. I’m stretched too thin to do both. I’m glad you found info on Tarrago. He was a sweet man. I wish I had been able to take more lessons from him, but my funds couldn’t cover it. I did study also for a time as an undergrad with a prof in the music department who played viola da gamba. He taught me a lot about how to practice.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I was not able to find a good view of his right hand (what you call his playing hand?), but the video did show a few quick views of his left hand (with what looked like long nails) on the neck of the instrument. You answered my real question – thanks for the information about playing styles. Hearing the various tones will make a better listener of me. As for replacing guitar with painting, that must be a difficult choice. Not being able to keep up with everything – that I understand well. Best of luck, whichever wins. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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