The Guitar in the Renaissance

16th-Century Spanish guitar / Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix

By Dr. Júlio Ribeiro Alves / 12.2015
Professor of Music Theory and Guitar
Marshall University


The evolution of the guitar achieved a new phase during the sixteenth century, as documentary evidence can confirm. The instrument passed through transformations during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and some clear characteristics of the guitar
became established. By the sixteenth century, the two important instruments that played a crucial role in the evolution of the modern guitar were the vihuela and the four-course guitar.

The Vihuela

The ‘Guadalupe’ vihuela, with 798mm long scale, decorative inlays, and five sound-holes, 16th century / Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris

During the Renaissance, outside of Spain and Italy, the term vihuela was used in conjunction with other guitar-related terms as a general way to indicate instruments displaying fingerboards and necks.[19] The vihuelas were then specified by the particular way in which they were played. In this sense, there were three types of vihuelas: vihuela da mano, vihuela de arco, and vihuela de peñola (or vihuela de púa), respectively played with the fingers, the bow, and the plectrum. Gradually, the da mano version became favored over the others.[20]

Although substantial literature for the instrument can be found, only two actual vihuelas have been preserved. One is in Quito in the church of the Compañia de Jésus, and would have been used by Santa Mariana de Jésus who would play it and sing praises to Christ. The other is in Paris, as an item of the collection of the Musée Jaquemart- André. In spite of the lack of vihuela specimens, there are several pictorial examples of the actual instrument that are extremely useful to the understanding of the instrument and its historical context. From these examples, the first ones to reveal a guitar-like instrument possessing an “eight-like” shape, a neck, and a flat back date from the fifteenth century.

The vihuela had great acceptance especially in Italy and Spain, and it was more used than the lute in these countries. The prominence of the vihuela over the lute in Italy can be supported by pictorial evidence found in the publication Practica Musicae, by Franchinus Gaforus, where a viola da mano appears in the hands of Apollo while the lute appears in a lower position.[21] Juan Bermudo also spoke of a picture of Mercury holding a vihuela that was in the form of a lyre.[22] The fact that the viola da mano was so fashionable in Italy was most likely a result of the Spanish presence there (Naples and Sicily, for instance, were led by the House of Aragon). The Spanish term ‘vihuela da mano’ became then the Italian ‘viola da mano’.

It is important to bear in mind that although the term vihuela was used with the general meaning previously indicated, it was also used in Spain to refer to a specific guitar-like instrument, independently of being followed by the indication ‘da mano.’ The same occurred with the counterpart Italian term ‘viola.’ This point can lead one to misinterpretation. To avoid misinterpretation, Tyler advises that one “must consider carefully the context of each individual reference.”[23]

The vihuela had incurved sides, twelve strings in six double-courses and tuned according to the following order of intervals: perfect fourth/perfect fourth/major third/perfect fourth/perfect fourth, an order similar to the one used by the lute. The specific pitches were not advocated because at that time one would have to take several factors into consideration in order to decide the actual pitches of the open strings. Thus, the tuning sometimes would be simply a matter of personal preference. At other times, and in this case it was probably a more decisive factor, the player would subject the tuning in order to find the best way to overcome the limitations imposed by the instrument itself and by the quality and/or tension of the strings available. This factor was given attention by Tyler, who mentions:

On the other hand, it was probably as difficult to find good, plain gut strings of sufficient quality to be used as pairs of unisons in the bass of the vihuela, as it was to find them for the lute, and perhaps few players could afford the luxury. Wound strings did not come into use until the mid-seventeenth century.[24]

An important source of information regarding the vihuela (and also the guitar and the bandurria, which was a very small guitar related instrument of treble range) in the sixteenth century is Juan Bermudo’s theory book entitled El libro primo de la declaracion de instrumentos musicales. The book was first published in 1549 and six years later expanded to a new edition under the title El libro llamado declaracion de instrumentos musicales. Keeping in mind the flexibility in the way the instrument could be tuned, the tunings indicated by Bermudo for the six-course vihuela match the ones of the normal lute and are A, d, g, b, e’, a’ or G, c, f, a, d’, g’. He also mentions two tunings for a seven-course vihuela: G’, D, G, d, g, d’, g’ and G’, D, G, B, f#, b, d’.

The declaracion de instrumentos musicales also discusses another type of vihuela, the discante or vihuela menor. This instrument was smaller than the vihuela although it also contained six-courses, which were tuned up to a perfect fifth higher than that instrument. Contrasting to the discante was an eight-course vihuela (also named viola Napolitano) mentioned in the Libro de descripcion de verdaderos, a manuscript dating from 1599 by Francisco Pachero.[25] From those times, one can realize that the experimentation with different number of strings has been a normal approach given to plucked instruments throughout history. Indeed, we still observe the same tendency in the modern classical guitar.

The vihuela was influenced by the prevailing style of lute composition. It was used for polyphonic accompaniment to the voice, to play motets and masses, or its own literature, represented by the dance forms and the fantasias. The vihuelists transmitted the polyphony of the Franco-Belgiam and Venetian schools and added to this their inherent lyricism.[26] Spanish vihuelists were the first to cultivate the school of the art of variation, preceding the organists in this.

Dos discursos de la cifra [Spain, ca. 1600] Cipher using musical notation as part of the rebus / British Museum, London

The notation of vihuela music used a notational system known as cifra (cipher), which was known outside of Spain as tablature. The word cipher is derived from the Arabic sifr, which had an interesting development. Originally it signified “empty.” Later it became “zero,” and then “any Arabic numeral,” until it finally acquired the meaning of “something written in code.” The cifra or tablature differed from the traditional staff notation employed by other instruments. A line represented each string and specific symbols represented the positions on the fingerboard that the player had to press in order to produce the notes. The tablatures of Italian and Spanish music used numbers, while the French used letters. The duration of the notes were given by placing specific values such as whole notes, half notes, etc. above the lines. The top line of the tablature was equivalent to the bottom course of the instrument in the Italian and Spanish tablatures, while in France and England the procedure was the contrary. Milan used a peculiar type of tablature combining elements of both the Italian and the French types, using numbers to indicate the positions but adopting the bottom line of the tablature instead of the top one to mean the bottom course.[27]

The Spanish repertoire for the vihuela is compound of seven collections published during the sixteenth century and manuscripts that can be found in some European libraries. Among these manuscripts are the Manuscrito de Simancas (containing only seven pieces), the Ramillete de flores (containing ten pieces, and being the earliest known source of folias) located in the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, and the Manuscrito Barberini (possibly portraying the first occurrence of a seguidilla), part of the collection of the Biblioteka JagielloDska in Cracovia. The last was copied in Italy and contains Italian lute pieces and some examples of music for the vihuela.

Sources for the vihuela in Spain are still represented by three other manuscripts which present compilations of pieces copied from the books of Alonso de Mudarra and Henrique Valderrábano, and by vihuela music in a copy of Lucio Marineo Sículo’s Epistolarum familiarum (in the British Library in London). Two other Spanish books, one by Antonio de Cabezón (published in 1557) and the other by Luys Venegas de Henestrosa (published in 1558) also featured music that could be performed on the keyboard, harp, or the vihuela.[28] The scarce number of surviving sources, which could mistakenly lead one to question the popularity of the instrument publications in the sixteenth century, results from the fact that many manuscripts were lost. An example is the Primeira parte do index de livraria de musica (First part of the music library index) of the Portuguese monarch João IV, which has documented entries of vihuela sources now lost.

The seven publications for the vihuela adopted the same notational system as the lute (i.e., the Italian tablature) although there was a difference in the tuning and the number of strings and frets. A peculiar treatment to the tablature notation can be found in the works of Luys Milán, which will be later discussed in the paper. From the repertoire published, one can find masses, hymns, psalms, fantasias, tientos (preludes), madrigals, fabordones, duos, diferencias, fugas, danzas, sonetos, and villancicos. The pioneer example of vihuela book in tablature dates from 1536. It is titled Libro de musica de vihuela da mano: Intitulado El Maestro and was written by Luys Milán, whose date of birth and death are not known.[29] Before digging into the details of the publication, I will present information about Milán and the context of the society in which he integrated during the early half of the sixteenth century.


[LEFT]: Portrait of Luys Milán
[RIGHT]: Libro de musica de vihuela de mano, intitulado El Maestro de Luys Milán.

At those times, Valencia was carrying a long tradition of being fond of pluralism of ideas and tolerant of diverse religious trends. This situation changed after the Inquisitorial Edict of 1512, which created tension between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and led many people to forcefully convert to the Catholic faith. Those people were called conversos. It has been speculated that Milán was a converso, and that very possibly he was of Jewish background.[30]

With this context in mind, one may ponder about Milán’s style of composition in this publication recognized as one of the most important sources of music for the vihuela. Although we do not know for sure if the assumptions made about Milán in the anterior
paragraph are exact, it is curious that El Maestro was dedicated to João II of Portugal, a monarchy known at that time to be associated with the converso.[31] If Milán was indeed a converso then the lack of religious music in El Maestro (a typical feature of the period) and the dedication to the Portuguese monarch could both be seen as indicators of the author’s alternative to set his creative process free from the influence of the religious trends in vogue in Spain during the time of the publication of the book.

The maturity of El Maestro’s style seems to indicate that the Spaniards had already been cultivating a tradition in music for plucked instruments. Spanish lutenists can be traced back to the early parts of the fifteenth century, and the practice of accompanying the voice singing either in Castilian or in Catalan was traditional in Spain more than a century before Milán’s publication. It is also relevant to consider that in the same year which El Maestro was being published, three important books of lute tablatures were also produced in Italy: Francesco da Milano’s Intabolatura di Liuto de diversi, con la bataglia, et alter bellisimae (in Venice), Francesco Milanese’s Intavolatura de viola o vero lauto… Libro primo e Secondo della Fortuna (in Naples), and Giovanni Casteliono’s Intabolatura de leuto de diversi autori novamente stampata (in Milan).

El Maestro was clearly intended to instruct gentlemen in the fashionable art of playing the vihuela.[32] A curious feature is that the intabulations, so common in the publication for lute, are not in the work and were replaced by the author’s own songs. It contains seventy-two pieces and it is organized into two main parts, each one displaying a structure comprising fantasias and songs.

There are twenty-eight fantasias in the first part of El Maestro and twenty-two in the second part. Three types of songs are represented: Spanish and Portuguese villancicos, romances or ballads, and sonnets. Five villancicos are written in two versions: in one the vihuela accompanies a voice part which calls for improvisatory ornamentation by the singer while in the other the instrument’s part is the one to be ornamented, although the ornamentation is actually written.[33] The first part also contains six pavanas, which have become popular in the repertoire of the modern classical guitar, and are the only pieces in the publication that do not preserve the improvisatory nature typical of instrumental music at this time. The inclusion of these pavanas in El Maestro is also interesting because its approach to dance forms was not a common feature of the vihuela repertoire, although it was extremely popular in lute music. The tuning of the vihuela of six courses was the following:

Ex.1: Tuning of the Six-Course Vihuela

It is quite possible that a reader may not be familiar with the song forms such described in the last paragraph. Thus, an explanation is appropriate at this point. The first one to be discussed is the villancico. Rooted in the word villán, meaning peasant, it was of extreme importance in Spanish secular music. It had a poetic structure that could vary, and was connected with the Italian balatta, the French virelay, and the Arabic zajal. Earlier villancicos had courtly love as the favorite theme, although later types approached
themes with religious or popular contents. The form of the villancico was typically in two parts. The first belonged to the estribillo and the second to the vuelta (return). The meaning of the verses would dictate the order in which these two parts were to be sung.[34]

The second one, the Romance, had its literary meaning derived from the Latin romanice, signifying “in the vernacular tongue’. It was a style already well developed in Spain and has been traced back to before the fifteenth century, with the integration of the epic poems of the Infantes de Lara and the Poema de mio Cid in the repertory of romances. Evidence that the style was already well established at the times of the vihuelists was a poem from the mid-fourteenth century about a war between the half brothers Henry of Trastamara and Pedro the Cruel. As an art form, the romance suffered slight changes at every performance, as a result of the oral dissemination of the poems, which were at times sung with a strummed accompaniment. The topics of the romances were usually related to some historical occurrence about Spanish heroes, medieval French knights, or about biblical texts. This type of romance was called romance viejo. Another type, known as romance fronterizo (border ballad), had the final expulsion of the Moors
from Spain as theme.[35] The last form, the soneto, represented musical settings of Italian sonnets.

El Maestro has the earliest written indications regarding tempo.[36] Milán was the first to mention the six-string guitar. He also mentioned that the temple viejos tuning was for strumming, while the temple nuevos one better suited for polyphony. His book
provides insightful information about performance practices on the vihuela, such as the indication to play the consonancias (sections written in chordal style) slowly and the redobles (passages in scale-like fashion. A better description will be given further in this paper) more vividly, and also the description of the right hand techniques of the dedillo (type of plucking employing only the index finger) and the de dos dedos (another type using an alternation of the index finger with either the thumb or the middle finger) for playing scales.[37] The five-course guitar was becoming more popular.

El Maestro was published in the same year in which Naples saw the Intavolatura de viola overo lauto cioe recetare, canzone Francese, motette, composta per lo eccelente e unico musico Francesco Milane…, a collection of pieces written for the lute or the six course viola da mano by Francesco da Milano, one of the finest Italian lutenists of the period. Milán was not only pioneer in terms of publications for the vihuela, but he also was the first composer to have a complete edition of works for the vihuela transcribed for the modern guitar. The transcriber was Leo Schrade, in 1927. Although he occupies a privileged position both in the past and in the present, other important composers are to be considered in this paper, and their publications discussed in more detail. Luis de Narváez (1505-1549) is one of such figures. A maestro de música in the court of Philip II, he wrote Los seys libros del dolphin de música para vihuela (Valladolid, 1538, dedicated to Don Francisco de los Couos). His work is more contrapuntal than chordal. His publication portrays the first appearance of the instrumental theme and variations and it has a particular historical significance, pointed by Tyler and Sparks, as the unequivocal source which proves that the vihuela and the four-course guitar were distinct instruments in the sixteenth-century Spain.[38]

The publication is divided into six books, five of them were written for solo vihuela. The first one is compound of eight tonos. The second presents six fantasias. The work Mille regres, La cancion del Emperador found in the third book has become a popular piece among modern guitarists. Book four has a set of diferencias on O gloriosa domina, and another one on Sacris solenniis. More diferencias are to be found in the sixth book (Conde claros, Guardame las vacas, and Baxa de contrapunto). The fifth book is the only book written for voice and the vihuela. It completely transcribed for the first time by Emilio Pujol in 1945.

Another important name is that of Alonso de Mudarra, author of Tres libros de música en cifra para vihuela (Sevilla, 1546). The works were dedicated to Luys Zapata. It is particularly relevant to modern guitarists because it was the first to include music for
the four-course guitar, the six solos which occur at the end of the first book. Three types of music are included: adaptation of vocal music to the vihuela, direct compositions for the instrument, and song accompanied by the vihuela. The third book includes a single tiento for harp or solo organ.


[LEFT]: Portrait of Alonso de Mudarra
[RIGHT]: Tres Libros de Alonso de Mudarra

Mudarra’s publication contains the old fantasia, tiento, diferencias, and pavana. New features include: song notated apart from tablature, fantasia with imitation, subtheme, inversion, and rhythmic transformation. In the pair of dances pavan followed y galliarda, the romanesca sometimes substituted the later. The tientos in Mudarra’s are shorter than those of Milán’s fully developed ones. Emilio Pujol was the first guitarist to transcribe Mudarra’s book for the modern guitar, which he did in 1949.

The selected list of vihuela composers also includes Enrique de Valderrábano. Although there is no biographical information about him, he was the author of Silva de sirenas (1547, dedicated to Don Francisco de Çúñiga, Count of Miranda). With the exception of a facsimile edition of the book, only eight actual copies can still be found. Seven are located in some European libraries (Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Módena, London, and Vienna), and another one is in the Hispanic Society of America in New York. A complete edition of the composer’s works has not been made yet, although Pujol transcribed ninety-seven pieces that were published in 1965.

The publication is divided into seven books. The first and second ones are written for voice (in cipher) and vihuela. It contains two fugues, an Agnus Dei, a Benedictus, and an Osanna, all in three voices. It also includes two four-voice Agnus Dei, one being an
intabulation from a piece by Josquin. The thirty-four pieces of the second book are more elaborate than the seven ones of the first. They are written in four, five, and even six parts, presenting religious motets with the text in Latin, sonnets, villancicos, romances,
proverbios, and diferencias.

The third book contains motets, songs, villancicos, and the voice part is presented in mensural notation instead of cipher. Book four is dedicated to repertoire for two vihuelas, and has sixteenth pieces. Books five and six are exclusively made of solo vihuela music. The fifth book is focused on fantasias (thirty three of them) while the sixth contains masses, songs, and sonnets. The seventh and last book is divided into two parts. The first one is for solo vihuela and presents pavanas, and diferencias (Guardame las vacas, and Conde Claros), while the music in the second part can be either performed by two vihuelas, or by one vihuela and a guitar.

Diego Pisador can be inserted in the middle phase of Spanish publications for the vihuela. His El Libro de música de vihuela was published in 1552, almost two decades after Milán’s El Maestro, and twenty four years before the publication of the last vihuela
book in Spain by Esteban Daza. Dedicated to Prince Phillip, prince of Spain, it contains seven books that portray similar characteristics to the other publications already mentioned (i.e., music for solo vihuela, and music for voice and vihuela, with the voice sometimes written in cipher and other times in mensural notation).

Through the publication, one can easily identify a clear interest of the author in the masses of Josquin de Près, and also confirms the place of prominent status that the fantasias and villancicos occupied in the repertoire for the vihuela. The distribution
between pieces for the solo instrument and the voice is more balanced in Pisador’s publication than in the others mentioned so far. Another interesting feature, which is repeated only twenty-four years later by Daza, is the insertion of two French chansons (Mon pere aussi ma mere ma voulu marier and Sparsi sparcium) at the end of the last book.

Pisador’s book provides information about the stringing of the vihuela, indicating an important difference between the instrument and the lute: in the first, all the strings were tuned in unison, while the latter would have the fourth, fifth, and sixth courses tuned at the octave. The four-course guitar would also adopt the procedure mentioned for the lute in the stringing of the fourth course.[39] The tuning of this instrument will be further explained in the section devoted to it.

Also in the middle period is Orphénica lyra, by Miguel de Fuenllana. The sixbook publication appeared in 1554, also dedicated to the Spanish prince. The first book initiates with a group of ten pieces for the solo vihuela, which are followed by an alternation of pieces for voice and vihuela and solo vihuela. This pattern of alternation, unique to Fuenllana, is also depicted in the second book.
In the third, the alternation occurs between works for one voice and vihuela and others for two voices and vihuela. A new feature is the inclusion of two notational versions, one for each voice part, in the pieces for two voices and vihuela: one in cipher and other in mensural notation.

The same procedure occurs in the fourth and fifth books, although more timidly.[40] In this book the pattern of short alternations between solo and voice/vihuela is substituted for a longer one, which comprises pieces for one voice and vihuela, two voices and
vihuela, and solo vihuela. Once again, the fantasia is favored in the music for the solo instrument. The fifth book is basically written for voice and vihuela with a single instance of solo vihuela, in the glosa on Tan que vivray.


[LEFT]: Portrait of Miguel de Fuenllana-Motete
[RIGHT]: The title-page from Fuenllana’s Orphenica Lyra, published when he was still in his early twenties.

The last book contains a series of interesting features. One is the mixing of both cipher and mensural notation in the same vocal part. Others include music for the fivecourse vihuela (both for solo and as an accompaniment for the voice), music for the four-course guitar, and an entire section devoted to the music for the vihuela of six courses. Fuenlanna’s book addresses two very important issues that still deserve attention in the technique of the modern guitar. One is the muting of notes that interferes in the
clarity of the expression of the musical discourse. In such cases, the author advocates the use of the thumb to stop an undesired note to be sounding inappropriately with the others from another chord. Equally important is the other concerning the limitations of the tablature system to express the texture of polyphonic passages, a factor still controversial in our days.

After Fuenllana, there was a gap of twenty-two years until the publication of Esteban Daza’s Libro de música en cifras para vihuela, intitulado el parnaso in 1576. This last publication was dedicated to Hernando de Hábalos de Sotomayor. It was also the last publication using the temple viejos tuning.

Containing three books, the first one is for solo vihuela but also has indication of ciphers for an optional voice part (con cifras señaladas con puntillos, para cantar opcionalmente). Book two brings four-and-five-part motets. The last book has romances, sonnets, villanescas, castellanas, villancicos, and two French chansons (Vostre rigueur and Ie prens en gre).

Another important book which was published nine years before Daza’s book was Thomás de Sancta María’s El arte de tañer fantasia, assi para tecla como vihuela (The Art of Playing Fantasia, for the Keyboard or the Vihuela). Although the book does not
integrate the list of publications for the vihuela, it is the Spanish source which best explains the performance of a type of ornamentation (glosas) referred to as the “graces.” The account is given in the thirteenth chapter, where Sancta Maria discusses eight requisites to play good turns and trills, respectively called redobles and quiebros.[41] The music for the vihuela in the sixteenth century was highly elaborate and was part of an extremely fertile period for the polyphonic music. An experienced vihuelist would be able to improvise highly intricate contrapuntal lines. The repertoire displays the national spirit of the time: a vibrant, lyric, and emotive quality, with the dramatic inspired in poetry, reflecting the Humanism of the period.

The intricacy of the repertoire for the vihuela was very similar to that of the lute, which led to some confusion. Tyler points that Pierre Phalèse, a printer from Antwerp, published some vihuela music as being lute repertoire. He also mentions that some considered the vihuela and the lute to be similar instruments, the difference being only a matter of the construction of the sound box.[42] Turnbull also addresses the problem in his book, indicating that some scholars have mistakenly called the music for the vihuela as being “Spanish Lute Music”.[43]

The Four-Course Guitar

Baroque four-courrse guitar / Wikimedia Commons

Two other ancestors of the modern guitar where developing in Spain during the sixteenth century parallel to the vihuela: the four- course and the five-course guitars. The instruments became prominent not only there, but also in other European countries. This section of the paper is focused on the first of these instruments.

Bermudo indicates that it was suitable to play music for two parts and at times, three. The instrument possessed four pairs of double strings, called courses. It had ten frets and was smaller than the vihuela. Nonetheless, the size of the instrument probably
went through variations until the standard model became established, an idea presented by Dobson, Segerman, and Tyler in an article published in the Lute Society Journal in 1975. The authors write that after Bermudo described the temple a los viejos and temple a los nuevos tunings in his Declaracion he implied the idea that the guitar could be tuned at any step of the scale, which could mean that the size of the instrument probably varied largely.[44]

The intervallic pattern between its strings resembled the vihuela without the first and sixth courses. Two tunings for the instrument are discussed in chapter 65 of the Libro quarto of Bermudo’s book: the temple a los viejos (old tuning) and the temple a los nuevos (new tuning). They are similar in regard to the first three courses, but differ from each other in the tuning of the fourth one.

The tuning a los viejos had the three first courses tuned at the unison at the intervallic relationship of a perfect fourth from the first to the second courses, and of a major third from the second to the third. The natural logic for the last course would have been to have its pitch located below the third course. Nonetheless, the two strings which comprised the fourth course were tuned at the distance of an octave from each other, with the higher pitch string being located a perfect fifth above and the lower pitch one a perfect fourth below the third course. The octave string of the last course was commonly referred to as requinta. In terms of pitches, this description can be synthesized as follow: f f’/ c’ c’/ e’ e’/ a’ (a’).

The tuning a los nuevos adopted the same procedure of strings at the distance of an octave for the last course but with a different relationship with the previous course. In this case, the higher pitch string was situated a perfect fourth above and the lower pitch
one a perfect fifth below the third course. The actual pitches described by Bermudo were: g g’/ c’ c’/ e’ e’/ a’ (a’). The pitch in parentheses in both tunings relates to the fact that the first course could have either one or two strings. Although the relative aspect of tuning has already been addressed in this paper, Bermudo points in the eighty fifth chapter of his book that the four-course guitar tuned to a’ was the common instrument of his time. He also points that one could tune the guitar (or the vihuela) at any pitch of preference when writing intabulation of vocal music.[45]

The surviving sources of Spanish music for the four-course guitar in the sixteenth century are limited to Mudarra’s six solos already mentioned and to nine pieces in Fuenlanna’s Orphénica lyra. Very few examples after the middle of that century have survived, although the instrument continued to be played even during the seventeenth century, which can be deduced after one reads the instructions concerning the four-course guitar in a surviving edition of a 1626 guitar book by Juan Carlos Amat. There are no specimens of four course guitars from the sixteenth century. The only two are fivecourse instruments.

A country with very limited remaining sources regarding the four-course guitar was Italy. They are four fantasias that are part of the Opera Intitolata Contina… Libro Decimo, a lute book written by the priest at Padua Cathedral, Melchior de Barbieriis (published only three years after the publication of Mudarra’s book in Spain), and twenty brief pieces found in a manuscript held at the library of the Conservatory of Brussels. The instrument in Italy was referred to as the chitarra da sete corde because the first course was a single string. The guitar pieces in Barbieriis’ book follow the same procedure used by Milan, which is using numbers to indicate the frets to be played but adopting the bottom line to denote the bottom course of the instrument as in French tablature.

Another Italian source about the four-course guitar is Della prattica musica vocale et instrumentali, written in 1601 by composer, theorist, and lutenist Scipione Cerreto who confirms the number of frets for the instrument as being ten, and provides the following tuning: g’g’/d’d’/f#’f#’/b’b’. The pitches in this tuning were higher than those depicted by Bermudo. The fourth course did not have a bourdon. Instead, it had its strings at the unison with each other, and tuned a perfect fourth above the third course. The type of tuning just described was called re-entrant. There were advantages and disadvantages with having the fourth course higher than the third, which are discussed by Cerreto. If on one hand it deprived the instrument from presenting lower pitched notes, on the other it could expand the range of the instrument during the transposition of low notes in the intabulation of vocal music.[46]

A significant contribution of Italy to the guitar occurred in association with the gradual social prominence of a style of solo song called monody, and the consequent development of the basso-continuo practices in that country.[47] Within this context, the guitar was then employed to accompany a vocal line. Although the use of plucked instruments as an accompanist for the vocal line was not something new at the time, the style of the monody was simpler than most intricate polyphonic writing which belonged to the repertory associated with the lute and the vihuela. This was an important Italian vocal style with a role in the development of the guitar practices in the seventeenth century.

The country that had the largest and most substantial production of music for the four-course guitar was France. The instrument there was called guiterre or guiterne. The French repertory was also varied, comprising examples of intabulation of vocal music, fantasias, songs, and one of the most representative elements of the French society: the dance music. Another interesting feature brought by the French was the insertion of solos that could function as parts in ensemble versions of pre-existent pieces. The main factor for the vast production of music for the four-course guitar in France was the royal support. Henry II was fond of patronizing music publishing. In this context, the printer and type designer Robert Granjon established a partnership with Michel Fezandat, a respected printer of Paris, to publish music together. The collaboration resulted in the publication of a series of four tablature books for guitar.

Although there are no surviving copies of the first edition (c.1550-1551) of the two initial books of the series, the complete series can be found in the editions of 1552 and 1553. The close dates between the publications reveal the popularity of the work. Three of the four books in the series were by Guillaume Morlaye, while the remaining was by Simon Gorlier, a printer and bookseller from Lyon who was considered an excellent player. Gorlier’s book portrays intabulations of chansons by prominent French composers
and a duo from a Mass by Josquin. His style is sober, and his intabulations tend to follow the original without the high embellishment typical of the French lute intabulations of the period. Very possibly, his work was intended for amateurs to be acquainted with the ‘classics’ of the chansons repertory performed at court.

In contrast, Morlaye’s books have more elaborate repertory. Some pieces have the term a corde avalée indicated in the beginning, meaning that the fourth course was to be tuned down a step (which would bring the guitar to the ‘temple a los viejos’ tuning mentioned by Bermudo). Another important feature found in the fourth book of the series, by Morlaye, was the inclusion of music for the cittern, which was called cistre. The instrument had four courses, it had wire strings, and it was played with a plectrum. It was popular in France from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The cittern had three strings in the third and fourth courses. The tuning was a’ a’ a- g’ g’ g- d’d- e’ e’. The publication of music by Morlaye and Gorlier opened the way for many others. Other important publications were five guitar books issued between 1551 and 1554 by Adrian le Roy, a lutenist, composer, and music printer from Paris. Le Roy was very well inserted in the intellectual circle of Paris, being associated with several court composers and the literary circle of the Comtesse de Retz, complete of humanist-poets who provided texts for him to set the music.

In 1551, Le Roy and his cousin Robert Ballard, another important musician and composer, were granted a privilege from Henri II to print all sorts of music, which resulted in a very fruitful period for the publication of music for the lute, guitar, cittern, and collections for the lute and voice, and the guitar and voice. One of their first publications was the Premier livre de tablature de guiterre (Paris, 1551). It contains fantasias, chanson intabulations, pavans, galliards, allemands, and branles. The work had a very valuable extra feature: a second version of many pieces indicated ‘plus diminué’, meaning more embellished. These versions represent an important record of the practice of ornamentation in France during the sixteenth century.

Many of the pieces were also published elsewhere in ensemble or part song versions, and therefore could be performed as either guitar solos or ensemble pieces. Le Roy’s second livre de guiterre, contennat plusiers chansons en forme de voix de ville… was first published either in 1551 or 1552, but the surviving edition dates from 1556. An interesting feature of this book is the way the guitar songs are formatted. The vocal part is presented in staff notation without adorns with one verse of text beneath the correspondent notes and all the other verses are printed below the piece. The guitar accompaniment, which brings an ornamented version of the vocal line, appears in tablature on the facing page.

This disposition may signify that the pieces could be performed either vocally or as a solo piece for the guitar. Some modern writers refuse to accept that the guitar part would have doubled the voice, founded on the idea of the independence of the vocal part in the music for lute and voice in England and France from the late 1580’s and onwards.

However, this style of accompaniment was typical of the sixteenth century. Le Roy’s third book is similar to the first one in terms of style and content. The fourth book, published in 1553, brings the work of Gregor Brayssing of Augsburg. He was a lutenist who probably worked for the Saxon elector Johann Friedrich. Brayssing left Germany after Friedrich’s defeat to Emperor Charles V in 1547. The final book of the series resembles the second one. It is a collection for voice and guitar. More than half of the works in the book are three part compositions by Franco-Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt.

Concomitantly to the period the four-course guitar became known in France it was also introduced in England and it was known under the name guittern. The interest for the instrument was probably a result of the dissemination of French guitar music via the English aristocracy, and around the middle of the century could have been influenced by the marriage of Mary Tudor to the Spanish prince Philip in 1554. It seems that the only printed source for the four-course guitar in England during the sixteenth century is James Rowbotham’s A briefe and paline instruction for to learne the Tablature, to Conduct & dispose the hand unto the Gitterne.

Rowbotham’s work is now lost, but it seems that it was a translation of Le Roy’s tutor of 1551 Briefe et facile instruction pour apprendre la tablature à bien accorder, conduire et disposer la main sur la guiterne, which is also lost, except for some of the
pieces of this tutor which appears in a 1570 publication by Pierre Phalèse. There is another publication by Rowbotham that is definitely known to be a translation of another lost tutor by Le Roy.

The simplicity of the instrument, with less courses and a less intricate repertoire in comparison to the lute and the vihuela may have been of great importance to the favoritism that the instrument acquired. However, the same factors represent a limitation for the instrument. The natural course of the four-course guitar was a gradual decline in favor to another type of guitar in which the musical possibilities could be expanded, reinforcing the “complexity postulate” of Kasha described in the first chapter of this paper. This transition did not occur abruptly, and the four-course guitars co-existed with the five-course instrument until it gradually became obsolete.

Before we shift to the historical survey concerning the five-course guitar, I will address an aspect that is relevant to modern guitarists interested in conveying the music for the four-course guitar to the modern instrument. Graham Wade is against the
transcription of its music for the modern guitar, defending that it “it destroys the timbres and the music,” and that “to ‘improve’ the music [of the four-course guitar] by transcribing it for the classical guitar is to destroy the nature of its appeal”.[48] Although I respect the position of this respected scholar of the guitar, I think his approach is too rigid, and that it is perfectly valid to transcribe the repertory of the four-course guitar to the modern instrument with the understanding that the final result will obviously not match the original entirely.

The earliest remaining example of what lute tablature looked like appeared in the Königstein songbook, a German poetry manuscript in Berlin. The lute tablature in it is compound of four simple melodies each of which are placed after a poem with no rhythm indication, but only a series of letters and numbers.[49]

Tyler and Sparks call the attention that it is ironic that the pieces in Barbieriis’s book are the only written out examples of sixteenth century Italian music for the fourcourse guitar to have survived, considering the fact that the country was the cradle of the Alfabeto, a type of guitar notation related to monody which would become highly popular in Europe. In the last decade of the sixteenth century the guitar was employed in theatrical productions.

The Lute

Both Asia and Greece are intimately related to the origins of the Lute. While the first is the birthplace of the instrument, the second is the place in which its history began. There are several iconographical examples of lute-like instruments from ancient India. The region currently called Afghanistan is believed to be the birthplace of the instrument. The Persians would have been the people who disseminated the lute among the Arabs in the beginning of the seventh century. In the Muslim culture, the lute achieved the highest prominence among the instruments.

The introduction of the lute into Europe most likely occurred with the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The two most plausible ways would have been through Spain or via Sicily. The political dominance of the Moors over the Christians resulted in
the dissemination of the culture of the conquerors over the conquered people. It was only natural that their favored instrument achieved a high status in the new land. On the other hand, in any type of conquest, both parts are influenced by each other, and the Muslims also had been exposed to the music of the Christians, which ultimately led to the amalgamation of musical styles and practices as already discussed in the first chapter of this paper.

The cultural predominance of the Moors in Spanish lands was gradually weakened by the triumphs of the Christian Reconquista. It took a long time, from the eight century to the end of the fifteenth century (with the fall of Granada in 1492) until the Christian armies achieved their objective, which was to retake the power from the hands of the Moors. However, at that point, the cultural amalgamation had well established the popularity of the lute into the Spanish society. Evidence to this fact is the description given by Ibn Rushd, twelfth-century Arab philosopher, who indicates that lutes were produced in Seville to fulfill the demands of domestic performers and to be exported to North Africa.

Even though Spain is regarded as the main route of the insertion of the lute into Europe, it was in Sicily that the instrument found its open door to its favoritism in Europe. It entered Sicily thanks to Saracen musicians. The influence of the Saracens in the music practices of Sicily remained for a long period, and resulted in the dissemination of music for the solo lute and for lute and voice.[50] The lute possessed a high status in European societies and was a popular instrument until the eighteenth century.

Similar to the process that occurred with the guitar, the lute went through morphological transformations during the course of its existence. The instrument, during the medieval times had four or five courses and was played with a quill for a plectrum. There were several sizes, and the main function of the instrument during those times was to accompany songs. At the end of the fifteenth century, a shift favoring polyphonic texture led lutenists to a significant change of right hand technique: the abandonment of the use of the plectrum in favor of the employment of the fingertips to pluck the strings. Polyphonic writing also led to the increase of the number of courses. The lute became a prominent solo instrument in European courts during the sixteenth century, although it continued to be used to accompany singers. By the Baroque period, the number of courses had reached fourteen, and in some cases as many as nineteen. During that period, structural innovations in the lute became a result of the large range in the number of strings, which would go up to twenty six to thirty five.

As the Baroque era unfolded, the instrument became more relegated to the role of providing continuo accompaniment. Gradually, keyboard instruments replaced the lute in that role, which contributed to the extinction of the lute in European social life after 1800.
Another important factor to the fall of the lute in that continent was the fondness towards the guitar and its repertoire.


  1. 19A. Corona-Alcalde, “The Vihuela and the Guitar in the Sixteenth-Century Spain: a Critical Appraisal of some of the Existing Evidence,” The Lute, xxx (1990): 3-24.
  2. Harvey Turnbull, The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day (Westport, CT: The Bold Strummer Ltd.), 5-7.
  3. Turnbull, 7.
  4. Emilio Pujol, Introduction to Mudarra’s Tres libros de musica en cifra para vihuela (Barcelona, 1949), 6.
  5. Tyler, 17.
  6. Tyler, 23.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Pujol, 7-8.
  9. Martha Nelson, “Notes on Musica en Cifra,” Guitar Review, No. 38 (Summer 1973): 23.
  10. The books are: Luys Venegas de Henestrosa’s El libro de cifra nueva (1557), and Antonio de Cabezón’s Obras de música para arpa, tecla, y vihuela (1578). The last one contains a fragment of music written for a vihuela of seven courses.
  11. Milan’s works for the vihuela were the first to be published in a transcription for the modern guitar, which was done by Leo Schrade in 1927.
  12. Luis Gásser, Luis Milán on Sixteenth-Century Performance Practice (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 9.
  13. Gásser, 12.
  14. The title of the book brings the following explanation: “Libro de música de vihuela de mano titulado El Maestro, el cual trae el mismo estilo y orden que un maestro traería con un discípulo principiante, mostrándole ordenadamente desde los principios toda cosa que podría ignorar para entender la presente obra, dándole en cada dieposicíon que se hallara la música conforme a sus manos… Este libro… es su intención formar y hacer un músico de vihuela de mano de aquella misma manera que un maestro haría en un discípulo que nunca hubiese tañido.”
  15. Gásser, 39-41.
  16. Rodrigo de Zayas, “The music of the Vihuelists and its Interpretation,” Guitar Review No. 38 (Summer 1973): 10.
  17. Glenda Simpson and Barry Mason, “The Sixteenth-Century Spanish Romance: A Survey of the Spanish Ballad as Found in the Music of the Vihuelistas,” Early Music, No.1 vol.5 (Jan.1977): 51.
  18. Peter Kun Frary, “The Vocal Romances of Luis Milan’s El Maestro,” Guitar and Lute, No.26 (1982): 73.
  19. Turnbull, 26.
  20. James Tyler and Paul Sparks, The Guitar and Its Music from the Renaissance to the Classical Era (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 5.
  21. Tyler, 23.
  22. The procedure occurs only once in each book. In the fourth, it is found in the Pater noster, a quarto, de Guerrero, while in the fifth it occurs in the Signora Iulia, strambote a cinco de Verdelot. D.
  23. Philip Pivovan, “Ornamenting Vihuela Music,” Guitar & Lute No.18 (July 1981): 33.
  24. Tyler, 24.
  25. Turnbull, 10. The author also mentions that a reaction to this labeling has added to the confusion because the repertoire has also been referred as music for the “six string guitar,” and the vihuela and the guitar were already considered different instruments at the time.
  26. Charles Dobson, Ephraim Segerman, and James Tyler, “Further Remarks on the Four-Course Guitar,” Lute Society Journal, Vol. 17 (1975): 60.
  27. James Tyler, “The Renaissance Guitar 1500-1600,” Early Music Vol.3, No.4 (Oct. 1975): 42.
  28. Tyler and Sparks, 35.
  29. The term monody used to describe this earlier seventeenth-century vocal style is relatively new. It can also be used as a synonym for monophony, representing a single solo line in contrast with homophony and polyphony, although in this paper only the first is applied.
  30. Graham Wade, Traditions of the Classical Guitar (London: John Calder Publishers Ltd., 1980), 44-45.
  31. David Fallows, “15th-Century Tablatures for Plucked Instruments: A Summary, a Revision, and a Suggestion,” The Lute Society Journal, Vol.19 (1977): 8.
  32. Douglas A. Smith, A History of the Lute from the Antiquity to the Renaissance (Canada: The Lute Society of America, 2002), 23.

From The History of the Guitar: Its Origins and Evolution, by Júlio Ribeiro Alves