1581 Belchior Dias vihuela, 2004 replica by Alexander Batov

Lisbon, Portugal

Sixteenth-century Spain was the cultural center for the music making of the vihuelistas, players of the vihuela da mano – a guitar-shaped instrument strung with five to six courses. It is believed that the vihuela was adopted by Christian Spain because the other popular plucked instrument of the day, the lute, was too similar in shape to the oud, an instrument brought to Spain by the Moors and a reminder of their 800-year occupation of the Peninsula.

Date 1581/2004
Location Lisbon, Portugal
Length of Guitar 868mm
String Length 610mm
Upper Bout Width 190mm
Waist Width 178mm
Lower Bout Width 226mm
Side Depth at Waist 60mm
Soundboard: Spruce | Back: Ebony | Sides: Ebony | Details: Purfling is twisted silver-plated copper wire embedded in ebony

There were at least three forms of vihuela in the sixteenth century: the vihuela de arco (bowed), the vihuela de penola (plucked with a plectrum), and the vihuela de mano (plucked with the fingers). The later name and type have become interchangeable with “vihuela.”

There are only three universally accepted vihuelas: the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús de Quito in Ecuador, the Jacquemart-Andrée in the Museé de Jacquemart-Andrée in Paris, and the Chambure instrument (discovered in a storage vault at the old Paris Conservatory in the 1990s) on display at the Museé de la Musique in Paris.

The vihuela in Spain was tuned like a lute and in every respect was the equivalent of the lute north of the Pyrenees. It shared a delicate plucked technique with very little (if any) strumming, save when it was required for particularly full chords. It was used to produce intabulations of music by masters of Spanish and Franco-Flemish counterpoint in a series of vihuela books, including El Maestro (1536) by Luis de Milán, Los Seys Libros del Delphín (1538) by Luis de Narváez, Tres libros de Música (1546) by Alonso Mudarra, and Juan Bermudo’s, Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales (1555).

The surviving repertoire for the vihuela is limited and can be technically demanding, as extemporization was an important component of vihuela playing. Narváez, for example, was known to be an accomplished improviser and considered this an important skill to develop. While Milán gave indications of regular tempi, Narváez expected the player to vary the speed of each variation.

The vihuela in the Austin-Marie Collection is a reproduction by acclaimed British luthier, Alexander Batov, based on an instrument built in 1581 by Belchoir Dias of Lisbon. The Dias vihuela is housed in the Royal College of Music, London and often referred to as a guitarra. The body (sides and fluted ribs), fingerboard, as well as the peg head’s top and rear veneer, are in ebony with holly spacers in the fluted ribs. The neck and peg head are made of cherry wood. The original has a later soundboard and therefore no rose. Batov based his flat rose on a three-petal, six-fold pattern that is found in a number of original roses, but with particular reference to a sixteenth century rose from an Italian spinet on display at the Kunsthistorishes Museu inNuremberg. It is in three layers: two wooden and one parchment; the middle layer being gilded. The purfling has half-edge ebony inlay around the soundboard with twisted silver-plated copper wire embedded in the middle. The bridge is of blackened pear. The string length dictates that the pitch of this particular vihuela should be an F or G.