Playing the Vihuela according to Juan Bermudo

Playing Vihuela according to Juan Bermudo is a new website specifically geared around learning how to play the vihuela and understand its music following the pedagogical method elaborated by the theorist priest Juan Bermudo in the treatise Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales of 1555. The website is an extension of my 2003 publication Tañer vihuela según Juan Bermudo (Zaragoza: Institución Fernando el Católico,). Anyone interested in acquiring a printed copy can obtain it directly from the publisher:


Given that the vihuela and lute are instruments that share the same tuning, technique and notation, this material is also of great value for lutenists. The importance of this particular approach is that it is based on a pedagogical method from the time when the lute and vihuela were current, whereas most teaching and published teaching materials for these instruments today is based on pedagogical ideas developed more recently, a pedagogical tradition with roots in the early nineteenth century. What is clear from Bermudo’s approach is that there are no scales, arpeggios, technical exercises or dull elementary studies. In contrast, Bermudo advocates learning counterpoint, harmony and good taste through studying the music of the best vocal composers of the time. In this way, instrumental technique develops as a by-product of the stylistic objective that the student is trying to achieve. Bermudo’s method gives enormous latitude, because he simply sets out a set a logical progression of learning that students can follow. His method required 16th-century instrumentalists to seek out appropriate pieces of vocal polyphony, to notate them in tablature, and then to play them. The act of making the tablature was a fundamental part of the process. Copying the music and putting it into score as tablature obliged the student to examine the music very closely and to observe its polyphonic and harmonic features. In other words, the student went through a process of developing a musical understanding of each piece prior to playing it.


The starting point for this collection is the advice given by Bermudo in the fourth book of his Declaración de instrumentos musicales (1555) simply entitled De tañer vihuela (“On playing the vihuela”). This book is devoted to three main topics: description and tuning of the vihuela and related instruments, fret placement according to scientific principles, and the art of transcribing vocal polyphony into tablature. At the conclusion of his lengthy discussion of his main topics, Bermudo proposes his simple and rational method for learning to play the vihuela, as if to say “if you want to put all this into practice, here’s what you have to do”.


As a didactic system, Bermudo’s beginners are guided to create for themselves a repertory that will help them develop the necessary technique, skill and good taste to play arrangements of vocal music, compositions by other players, and to go even further and invent their own works. It is therefore clear that vocal music was the basis of Bermudo’s aesthetic ideal and that his method is based on the desire to instil this model in the mind of the aspiring vihuelist. Perhaps for this reason, Bermudo’s didactic comments never refer directly to the mechanics of instrumental technique: he makes no mention of the different ways of right-hand plucking technique, left-hand finger placement, or any other element that we might associate with instrumental technique. He assumes that players will acquire these skills by as the natural by-product of the systematic learning process he proposes. Players wishing to learn specifics of sixteenth-century technique will not find help in Bermudo’s treatise but will instead have to rely on the instructions offered in the prefaces of the vihuela books by Mudarra, Valderrábano and Fuenllana, or in Venegas de Henestrosa’s keyboard manual, the Libro de cifra nueva (1557), that also provides some technical advice.


Bermudo’s method consists of seeking out and arranging vocal polyphony of high quality, playing this music with good style, and assimilating its compositional technique with the ultimate aim of eventually being able to create one’s own works. He proceeds from the simple to the difficult, starting with music in two voices, moving to homophonic works in three parts, and from there to imitative polyphony in four and more voices, and finally to the original fantasy of his readers. The composers invoked by Bermudo enjoyed a high level of fame and dissemination in Spain during the period: Juan Vásquez (c. 1500-c.1560), Josquin des Prez (c. 1460-1521), Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553), and Nicolás Gombert (c. 1500-c. 1556), plus one other composer of whom no works survive, Baltasar Téllez.2 Bermudo affirms Vásquez’s fame as a composer of villancicos and praises Téllez for the same ability. He names Josquin as the founder of the imitative polyphonic style that was the dominant aesthetic of the period and his successors Morales, the most renowned Spaniard of the period, and the Franco-Flemish composer Gombert who was in Spain as master of Charles V’s Flemish Chapel from 1526 to 1540.


The method elaborated by Bermudo requires the vihuelist to gather polyphonic works and, using the techniques that the theorist explains with great detail, put them into tablature. These pieces, then, serve to learn the procedures employed by master composers in the creation of their works. Given, however, that my intention is to provide a historical anthology and show the way that Bermudo’s advice reflects the practice of his day, his advice needs to be applied somewhat differently. This new website, therefore, gathers a series of works intabulated by Bermudo’s contemporaries –vihuelists Narváez, Mudarra, Valderrábano, Fuenllana and Daza– and presents them together with their polyphonic models in order to help the modern player perfect his or her stylistic knowledge of the repertory of the sixteenth century.


Bermudo states specifically that learning to play solo vihuela music through the study of vocal polyphony is fundamental to playing independent solo music. He ends his method by commenting specifically on playing instrumental fantasias and ricercars: “A great mistake is committed by those players who, having just started to play, wish to burst forth with their own inventions. Even if they have studied counterpoint… they should not be in a hurry to make their own fantasias so as not to do it in poor taste.”


To show the relationship between the study of vocal polyphony and the original works of vihuela composers, the collection also contains a number of solo works that I have pulled apart and presented as if they had been initially conceived as polyphony in separate parts. The purpose of this is to guide students in developing an understanding of how these pieces were conceived, and to focus on the rich polyphonic detail that is the source of so much of their beauty.


The approach I recommend is, therefore, to study the works initially from the annotated scores that I have provided, in the way that a sixteenth-century vihuelist would have done, playing each voice separately, getting to know it individually as well as understanding it in the context of the whole work. By doing this, the vihuelist will become familiar with the individual shape of each line, the particular places in which it takes a prominent role in the work, as well as those in which it recedes into the background. To assist, the imitative entries of each voice are indicated clearly in the scores given in the edition.


The material can be used for private study, but is also excellent for group teaching. I have used it many times in masterclasses and summer courses in this way. Students can play the works as ensemble pieces, one instrument per part, as an adjunct to playing the solo versions. If the members of the ensemble rotate the parts so that each player gets to play each individual voice of the music, this is even better. It is extraordinary how much of the insight of this ensemble experience is transferred into the students’ solo playing.


For each of the pieces on the website, there is a description and commentary of the pieces and three scores. The first is a reproduction of the original tablature of each piece. These are accompanied by annotated, analytical transcriptions in two versions. There is one version for those who play original instruments and who are accustomed to playing with their instruments in G tuning. The alternate version uses E tuning, and is made specifically to assist guitarists who play this early repertory on their modern instruments.

John Griffiths,
Professor of Music
School of Music • The University of Melbourne