Les musiciens, tableau de Diego Velazquez (1599-1660).
Les musiciens, tableau de Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). © Getty

Orphenica Lyra : The Story of a Great Musical Collection

The Spanish Golden Age? Cervantes' Don Quixote for literature, Valsquez's 'The Ladies in Waiting' for painting... and music? Orphenica Lyra by Miguel de Fuenllana.

Spain, the 16th century. Since the end of the Moorish presence in Andalusia (Reconquista) and the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, the Kingdom of Spain experienced unprecedented economic and cultural development. This was the Siglo d'oro, the Golden Age, of the Iberian Peninsula. 

Orphenica Lyra was one of the major testaments to the musical creation of this period. It was a collection (or anthology) of music published in 1554 in Seville, in which the composer had collated 188 pieces for the vihuela. 

The Vihuela? It is an instrument specific to the Iberian Peninsula (!olé!), a cross between the lute and the guitar. With a flat bottom, the vihuela has six pairs of strings that the musician is able to resonate either with the help of a bow (vihuela de arco) or by plucking with a feather (vihuela de péñola) or with the hand (vihuela de mano), the latter being the most common way of playing. 

Ceci est une vihuela espagnole.
Ceci est une vihuela espagnole.  /  gallica.bnf.fr

A Precursor to 'Instrumental Methods' 

In the 16th century humanist philosophies reigned over art and creation. Intellectuals and artists were inspired by the theoretical writings inherited from Ancient Greece. According to the teachings of the philosopher Plato the musician works for his own progression in order to develop his knowledge and "raise his soul".

It was within this humanist framework that Miguel de Fuenllana's work opened with several instructive pages, in which the author explained in detail how the vihuela is played and how the tablatures of his collection were to be read. 

Le titre même de l'ouvrage, Orphenica Lyra, fait référence à la lyre d'Orphée, héros musicien de la mythologie grecque (ici représenté sur une mosaïque romaine du IIIe siècle après JC).
Le titre même de l'ouvrage, Orphenica Lyra, fait référence à la lyre d'Orphée, héros musicien de la mythologie grecque (ici représenté sur une mosaïque romaine du IIIe siècle après JC). © Getty

The educational aspirations of the Orphenica Lyra were not unique to this volume alone as each of the seven books of pieces for the vihuela published in the XVI century was prefaced by references to Greek and Roman philosophers. 

The humanism of the Renaissance movement aspired to 'popularisation' and the sharing of knowledge. This ideal is epitomised by the educational pages in the Orphenica Lyra enabling any musician, even a beginner to try the viheula. 

The tablature method of music notation used in the vihuela collections also made them more accessible to novice musicians. Tablature focused on the technical means of making music rather than indicating specific pitch and timing for the notes used. 

Sur les tablatures de l'Orphenica Lyra, les six lignes assemblées représentent les six paires de cordes de la vihuela, les chiffres et symboles inscrits sur ces lignes indiquent avec quel doigt pincer chaque corde. Rythme et parole sont au-dessus.
Sur les tablatures de l'Orphenica Lyra, les six lignes assemblées représentent les six paires de cordes de la vihuela, les chiffres et symboles inscrits sur ces lignes indiquent avec quel doigt pincer chaque corde. Rythme et parole sont au-dessus.

A Testimony to the Music of the Renaissance

Two-thirds of the pieces contained within the Orphenica Lyra are in fact transcriptions of polyphonic works (works with several voices) composed by some of the greatest musicians of the Renaissance, Franco-Flemish Josquin Desprez, the Italian Constanzo Festo, the Spaniard Cristóbal de Morales and many others... 

Those pieces that are not transcriptions are original compositions by Miguel de Fuenllana, the author of the Orphenica Lyra. It is interesting to observe that all of his works are purely instrumental compositions. 

Until this time very little instrumental music had been written, with most compositions being solely for voice. During the Renaissance however 'unsung' repertoire gradually came to prominence highlighting a wealth of instrumental music. The Spanish were particularly drawn to plucked string instruments and Orphenica Lyra paved the way for the celebrated guitarra and its musical legacy to the nation. 

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