Early Guitars and Vihuela

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Okay, I'll be the first to admit that musical scholarship is not my greatest strength. Frankly, I don't have to time to devote to it, honorable quest that it is. What, then, is the latest research on the Quito instrument telling us? Is it a vihuela, as originally believed? Or is it a guitar? I'm interested in your thoughts, insights and opinions ... so feel free to share and air your views.


Marc Alexander

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I don't know about any recent research. Stylistically, at least to my eye, it seems more guitar like. That proves absolutely nothing and I'm on very shakey ground making a comment like that.
However, recently I have come to the firm conclusion that it is indeed a Vihuela. No question.
If it ever transpires that it was originally made as a guitar then the worlds collection of historical Vihuelas suddenly takes an enormous plummet - and we simply cannot allow that!
Hi, Marc. Good question. Well, from what is known about the instrument, i.e. dating from the early 17th century and having 6 courses of strings (the first single), it is indeed a vihuela. It can equally be a guitar too but we don’t know if 6-course instruments like this were tuned / played like guitars at the time.
I think we shouldn’t really be attached too much to words in an effort to define what is the vihuela and what is the guitar. Or, as Fuenllana himself puts it more succinctly, “the four-course vihuela, which is called guitar”. In other words, in the period from the middle-16th to early 17th century there wouldn’t be really any notable constructional and, as it is, visual differences between the two instruments. They would only (mainly!) differ in the number of courses, tuning, manner of playing and, perhaps, the context of their use. I’d even venture to assume that the last two would probably define how the instrument is called! There could perhaps be more size variation in the vihuela than in the guitar but that’s not yet entirely clear. Both 4- and 5-course guitars, alongside with 6-course vihuelas, seem to have been co-existing in the early 17th century and at least one very well known painting by Velázquez c. 1620 (Three musicians, Gemäldegalerie Berlin) shows a 4-course guitar (at the background of the painting) which is as large, if not even larger, in size than the 5-course one (at the foreground). In addition, an account about the examination of Francisco de Lipuste from 1619 reports that one of the vihuelas that he has made is being strung (at the moment of the examination) as a guitar so that he could sell it easier! So, that’s the full circle really ...
Many thanks to those who replied. I have not seen many pictures of the Quito instrument and I know of no X-rays or working drawings that would give me any insight into the South American vihuela's construction, origins and identity, so I reply on the input of luthiers and fellow players. Frankly, I have long suspected that the Quito instrument is a true vihuela, but my intuitive assessments are not facts. A few years ago, I wrote a magazine article on the vihuela for the Latin American market in which I reluctantly identified the Quito instrument as a vihuela de mano, but I could not say with certainty that it was not a guitar (in the conventional sense). Once again, fellow vihuelists, many thanks for sharing your knowledge. Marc Alexander.
Well, it would probably be a bit too much to ask for X-ray pictures. I bet they wouldn't allow to take that highly revered altar piece out of the church anyway ... A good set of photographs would be highly desirable though. Ariel Abramovich have provided me with a few pictures of the instrument that he took on his visit there a few years ago. You can find them here: http://www.vihuelademano.com/quito/quito-vihuela.htm

Perhaps you already know, Marc, but I thought I'd mention that the most comprehensive description of the Quito vihuela that I know of to date can be found in this book: The Spanish Guitar, New York - Madrid, 1991 - 1992 (which is an exhibition catalogue) where the author compares it bit by bit with the Jaquemart-Andre vihuela. All the constructional features do seem to agree with what one would expect to find in an early 17th century guitar / vihuela. I'm only a bit suspicious about fork-shaped [sic] bar end supports which, judging by the evidence found in the earliest surviving Spanish guitars, would be more characteristic for a late 18th century instrument. However, it may well be that such type of supports was already implemented on the earlier specimens. We just don't know ...


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