IVL: The Iberian Masters

The 16th century in Spain

The most interesting composer at the turn of the 16th century was Juan del Encina ; he was born at Salamanca about 1469 and died some time after 1530. At one time he served the second duke of Alba, and also received favours from Pope Leo X in Rome, at whose court he stayed for five years; he also undertook a journey to the Holy Land. As well as being a composer, Encina was also a poet of great delicacy, and translated the Bucolics of Virgil. He was a pioneer in the Spanish secular theatre and several of his compositions, which are presented in the Cancionero de Palacio, are based on Virgil's Eclogues, and were written for stage presentation.

During the long reigns of Charles V (1517-56) and Philip II (1556-96) Spanish music, especially church music, reached its highest level of perfection and there was no lack of expert musicians of international calibre. Instrumental music, especially for organ and vihuela, attained an excellence equal to anything being produced in Europe while Spanish religious polyphony, which had distinctive individual qualities, was in the very first rank not only in its spiritual intensity but also in its musical achievement.

The school of Andalusia

Three great schools contributed to the astonishing wealth of Spanish religious music in this period: Castile, Catalonia-Aragon, and Andalusia. Among the many composers of the Andalusian school were Pedro Fernandez de Castilleja (d. 1547), nearly all of whose works have been lost though his status may be guessed from the fact that Guerrero named him 'Master of Masters'; Juan Navarro (c. 1530) who died in Mexico about 1610 and was author of the first work devoted entirely to music to be printed in the New World. The most important of all the Andalusian school were Guerrero and his great teacher, Morales.

Francisco Guerrero , born at Seville about 1528, was also a pupil of his brother Pedro -- himself a competent composer. Guerrero's main characteristics are the serenity and gentle lyricism of his music, and, if not the greatest, he is one of the most 'Spanish' composers of the 16th century.

The outstanding figure of the Andalusian school and one of Spain's greatest composers is Cristobal de Morales , the 'Divine Morales' as a modern writer has called him.

In the field of secular polyphony the most gifted Andalusian master was Juan Vasquez . He left a very fine Office for the Dead, but his songs are sheer masterpieces, some of them being set to words by unknown poets such as Garcilaso and Boscan, while others are set to anonymous traditional poetry. Such is the beauty of these songs that nearly all vihuelists published their own transcriptions of them.

The school of Castile and Victoria

Among musicians of the Castilian school we find the names of Juan Escribano ; Bartolomé de Escobedo , cantor at Salamanca and later at Rome, where some of his compositions are preserved; Francisco Soto de Langa , who died in Rome and worked at the Oratory with St Philip Neri and Animuccia, and Diego Ortiz , distinguished for his instrumental compositions. But the most important of all the Castilian school was Luiz de Victoria , who is the only Spaniard who can be put on the same plane as Lassus and Palestrina .


The masters of the Catalan-Aragonese school are also numerous. In Aragon we find Melchor Robledo , and Sebastian Aguilera de Heredia , organist and composer, who went to Flanders in the suite of Isabella, daughter of Philip II. Francisco de Peñalosa from before 1497 until 1516 held posts as a singer at the court of Aragon and maestro di capilla to various members of the royal family; in 1517 he became a Papal singer in Rome; Probably the teacher of Morales, he was highly regarded by his contemporaries and contributed ten songs, including a remarkable six part quodlibet to the Cancionero de Palacio.

Mateo Flecha the Elder , born at Prades about 1483, belonged to the Catalan school; he died at the monastery of Poblet in 1553. Flecha occupies a particular place in Spanish music for his ensaladas, which were published by his nephew, Mateo Flecha the Younger , and some of which were adapted by the vihuelists. Flecha the Younger was also a composer and produced a number of madrigals.

Joan Brudieu , by birth a Frenchman, was music director at Urgell for forty years and died there. In 1585 he published a collection of sixteen madrigals, five of which are to Catalan texts, and in addition has left a very fine Requiem.

Among the many collections of secular polyphony, including works by composers of all the three main schools, is that published in Venice in 1533 under the title of Villancicos de diversos autores, better known as the Cancionero of Upsala, because the only known extant copy was found in the library of that city. Among collections preserved in other libraries, the National Library of Madrid and those of several Italian towns, the most important is the one that forms part of the collection of the dukes of Medinaceli.

Instrumental and keyboard music

In this field the Spanish composers made an early and distinguished contribution. Although virtually no music has survived from the 15th century, there is plenty of evidence to indicate the widespread cultivation of instruments which we must postulate to explain the glories of the 16th. The Spaniards were above all distinguished in music for the string vihuela and the organ.

The vihuelists represent a tradition unique to Spain, composing as they did for an instrument hardly cultivated elsewhere. There is now no doubt that the plucked vihuela so frequently referred to in Spanish musical records is in fact a guitar with six courses of strings. It was used for courtly music while the four-stringed version was the popular instrument. Of the extensive body of music composed for it during the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the best occurs in the first printed collection. This was the Libro del musica de vihuela de mano intitulado El Maestro, published by the aristocratic composer, Luis Milán , at Valencia in 1536. Milán (1500-c.1561) describes the pieces, which include a number of villançicos and fantasias, as for beginners but their polish and elegance assure their composer a high place in the history of instrumental music. In all some ten volumes of 16th-century vihuela music by Spanish composers have been preserved. Besides Milán they include Enriquez de Valderrábano , Diego Pisador , Alonso Mudarra , Luys de Narváez , Miguel de Fuenllano --another blind musician--and Esteban Daza . Publications by Venegas de Henestrosa , Santa Maria and Cabezón also contain compositions for vihuela.

The repertory consists of works for accompanied solo voice--Spanish and Portuguese romances and villançicos, together with Italian sonnets and chansons; there are also several settings of classical Latin texts, which are among the first indications of Renaissance accompanied monody. The purely instrumental pieces are either transcriptions of polyphonic works -- Spanish or Franco-Flemish -- or else of dances, tientos (preludes), fantasias and diferencias (variations). The diferencias are particularly interesting inasmuch as they constitute the first examples of the theme-and-variations genre which became so important in later instrumental music. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the vihuela was largely replaced by the guitar, which with the addition of a fifth string had acquired new artistic possibilities. The modification is traditionally attributed to Vicente Espinel, poet and musician (1551-1624), whose first treatise, Guittara Espanola (1583) was republished many times right up to the end of the 18th century.

Although little has survived, its quality is such as to put the Spanish school of organists in the forefront of European composition. The Libro de Cifra nueva by Venegas de Henestrosa , published in 1557, contains works by leading Spanish and Italian composers, and the Declaración by the theorist Juan Bermudo contained organ music by Spanish masters. The greatest of Spanish organists was Antonio de Cabezón , court musician to Charles V and Philip II; his works were published posthumously by his son Hernando, who succeeded him to the Chapel Royal. Cabezón was born in 1510 at Castrojeriz and died in Madrid in 1566. Blind from birth, he started his career at the age of eighteen as musician to the empress; he travelled Europe as a member of her household and this gave him the opportunity to meet all the best musicians of his day. His style, which was better adapted to the organ than that of most of his contemporaries, makes use of all the technical possibilities of counterpoint, while remaining essentially instrumental in character. Its grandeur and inventiveness have led to its comparison with the work of J. S. Bach himself,

To a later age one of the most valuable contributions by a Spaniard to instrumental music must be the Tratado, de glosas ... en la musica dc violones, published in Rome in 1553 by Diego Ortiz . In his book, which is rich in musical examples, Ortiz gives detailed treatment of the highly important art of ornamentation and improvisation as applied to the music of bowed stringed instruments.


In comparison with Spain, research on old Portuguese music is still relatively slight. In the collection of chansons in the Biblioteca Publia Hortensia, Portugal possesses a pendant to the Spanish collection of 15th and 16th-century music. Gil Vicente (1465?-1536?), who was active as a writer for the theatre from 1502, is credited with being the creator of the Portuguese theatre and the originator of music for the stage. Unfortunately his musical production has been lost and we only have his notes for stage directions and a few popular songs, preserved from other sources, which he introduced into his plays. Apart from the chronicler Damião de Goes (1501-53), whose three motets have been preserved, the greatest Portuguese polyphonists belong to the school of Manoel Mendes, musical director in his native town of Evora, where he died in 1605

His pupils Duardo Lobo, Filipe de Magalhaes, Diego Dias Melgaço and Soares Rebello were to become well known in the following century. Grigorio Silvestre de Mesa (1522-70), a distinguished composer, was organist at Granada Cathedral. He also led a flourishing school of vihuelists (the Milán volume contains three Spanish villancicos and three in Portuguese dedicated to Prince Don Joao), but little is known of their work.

The Composers (and some others)

Supplemental Materials

Poetry and Prose


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