LUYS MILÁN (1500 - 1560)
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 storytelling, 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.