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8.573305 - MILÁN, L.: El maestro, Libro 1 (Escobar)

Luys Milán (c. 1500–1561)
El Maestro, Libro 1 (1536)


Published in Valencia in 1536, Luys Milán’s Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El Maestro is the oldest surviving collection of vihuela music. It is remarkable sophisticated music of great beauty that reveals an instrumental tradition already in full flourish. The names and reputations of earlier vihuelists, Luys de Guzmán (d1528) for example, are well known but none of their music has survived. Only one piece of vihuela music is known from before Milán’s time, copied anonymously on the flyleaf of a book published in 1510 now in the British Library in London. It is too brief and elementary to be a useful indicator of the vihuela’s music before Milán.

Contradictory evidence still obscures Luys Milán’s exact identity. He was probably born in the first decade of the sixteenth century into a Valencian noble family who had been the lords of Massalavés since the Middle Ages. Most of the biographical information about Milán comes from both his vihuela book and two other books written by him. The most illuminating is El Cortesano, a book written in the shadow of Castiglione’s book of the same name, and not published until 1561 even though it describes Milán’s life in Valencia at the court of Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and Germaine de Foix in the 1530s. From the autobiographical descriptions in El Cortesano, a portrait emerges of Milán not as an employee, but a noble member of the court entrusted with the entertainment of the ladies who resided in it. From Milán’s own testimony we learn that this included story telling, singing songs to the accompaniment of the vihuela, and playing court games, perhaps of the kind that are depicted in another little book that he authored for the purpose and that was printed under the title of Libro de motes de Damas y Caballeros in 1535.

Even though there have been renewed attempts in recent years to resolve the conundrums surrounding Milán’s biography, all have failed to come to definitive conclusions for the reason that there are at least three men of the same name at the Valencian court in the 1530s and it has been impossible to distinguish between them. They were all probably related: the vihuelist, his father and a cousin. Given these uncertainties, it is impossible to affirm beyond doubt that the vihuelist’s mother was Violant Eixarch, niece of the Borgia pope Alexander VI, or that our Luys Milán was a priest who died in 1559 after several years of marriage to Anna Mercader by whom he had a daughter named Violant Anna.

Extrovert, charming and of strong character, Milán’s music is immediate and irresistible. It also demonstrates a maturity that suggests that it might represent an older, well-established tradition. In style and sound, it is readily distinguishable from the works of any other known composer of music for the vihuela or lute. This could possibly be simply a mark of the composer’s individuality or, alternatively, due to the fact that it represents an early sixteenth-century style that is otherwise undocumented. Perhaps Milán’s music is of a style that was known throughout all of Spain, although it might equally represent a more regional style particular to Aragonese Valencia, and in some way linked to the performance traditions of the Italian improvisatori active during the preceding decades at the Aragonese court in Naples. It bears no traces of the style of the Italian virtuoso Francesco da Milano who left his mark on nearly all subsequent vihuela music. This new Italian influence was first recognised by Luys de Narváez who, in his 1538 publication Los seys libros del delphin, declared that the music included in it, inspired by Francesco da Milano whom he probably had met in Rome, was a new style never previously heard in Spain. American musicologist John Ward in his 1953 thesis on the vihuela aptly described Milán’s music as “a bridge between the improvisatory style of the Petrucci and Attaingnant lutenists and the technically more mature style of the Francesco da Milano generation”.

Milán was a musician who knew his instrument inside out, who had a natural gift for communicating through performance, and who had an instinctive familiarity with the art music of his time, probably without having had an extensive formal musical training. Milán was both a singer and instrumentalist, an improviser who composed as he played, in real time. In the prefatory text of El Maestro, Milán explains that the compositions in the book originated in improvisation, that they were composed directly on the vihuela and then written down.

The solo instrumental works in El Maestro comprise forty fantasias, four tentos and six pavanas. The fantasias are freely constructed works built as an assemblage of short episodes. They are analogous to works of prose: short narrative stories that divide into chapters, smaller paragraphs and individual sentences. They are made coherent simply by their narrative continuity rather than any thematic or structural principle. The small units or episodes are drawn from a repository of improvisatory formulae that Milán probably accumulated over a long time. Unlike later vihuela music that is built heavily upon the principles of imitative counterpoint derived from vocal polyphony, Milán’s great skill was to create a musical fabric that outwardly appears to be based on these principles, but using simpler constructs that give the impression of being much more complex than they really are. There are very few composers in all of Western music who have had this extraordinary ability. The formula used by Milán in the majority of his fantasias is to construct an initial episode with longer themes that recalls the opening gestures of polyphonic madrigals and motets. This initial section is customarily followed by a succession of shorter episodes based on multiple repetitions of short motives. These, in particular, are the sections that give the impression of being imitative counterpoint, but they are really idiomatic textures designed to fit easily under the player’s fingers and emulate the sound of more complex writing. Milán usually signifies the approaching conclusion of his fantasias by repeating the music of his final episode. This sends a clear signal that the spinning out of new material has finished, thus creating a sense of repose and conclusion.

Within this fantasia style, there is one particular group of works that is based on a more overt idiomatic style, built from contrasting sections of virtuosic writing in rapid scales (redobles) with others based on sombre chord sequences (consonancias), as well as others in his customary pseudo-imitative style. Milán refers to these works as Fantasías de consonancias y redobles, or “festive” fantasias in the tañer de gala style. The four tentos in the second libro of El Maestro are nothing more than extended fantasias in the tañer de gala style.

The present recording by José Antonio Escobar presents all the works for solo vihuela from the first libro of El Maestro in the order in which they appear in the book. In this book, it is clear from the outset that the music is, in fact, of considerably greater difficulty than most teachers would use with beginners. Even the very first fantasia is quite sophisticated in many ways. We catch a glimpse of Milán the teacher in his recommendation for this piece that it should be played quickly: “the faster you play it, the better it will sound”. These are clearly words of encouragement for a beginner battling to master the piece rather a literal instruction to play at a very fast tempo.

The first libro is organised in the following way: Fantasias Nos 1–9 are of increasing difficulty and are composed moving through the modal cycle using modes 1–4. The following nine fantasias, Nos. 10–18, are fantasías de consonancias y redobles that progressively explore the full spectrum of modes 1–8. The next group of fantasias, Nos 19–22, pick up where the first group finished and are composed in modes 5–8. These are followed by the pavanas, works composed by Milán in the style of Italian dances of which he says “These six fantasias that follow, as I said earlier, appear in their style and texture to be like the very pavanes that are played in Italy, and because they resemble them in every way, let us speak of them as pavanes” (Estas seys fantasías que se siguen como arriba hos dixe parescen en su ayre y compostura alas mesmas pauanas que en Ytalia se tañen: y pues en todo remedan a ellas digamosles pauanas…) It is interesting to note that the last of these pieces is in triple time and has all the hallmarks of a galliard. Similarly, comparison of Pavana No 4 with the last fantasia in the book, Fantasia No 22, shows this latter work to be built on the thematic material of the pavana.

John Griffiths

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