Professor John Griffiths publishes article: Fantasy or Reality? The Vihuela in the Works of Cabezón


Antonio de Cabezón (c.1510-1566) was the most outstanding organist and composer of 16th-century Spain. Some modern commentators regard him as the most significant composer of keyboard music before J. S. Bach. His music survives in two books. The first was an anthology called Libro de cifra nueva para tecla, harpa y vihuela (1557) by his colleague Luis Venegas de Henestrosa. The second was the Obras para tecla, arpa y vihuela published by his son Hernando in 1578, twelve years after his father’s death.

In his latest study, John Griffiths undoes one of the myths of Spanish renaissance instrumental music that is closely associated with this composer. For more than a century it has been assumed that music books like Cabezón’s, designated “ for keyboard, harp and vihuela” contained a repertory that was transferrable between those instruments. Detailed examination of these books and the contract for the printing of the 1578 books reveals the truth of the matter. Venegas coined the term because his 1557 anthology included works specifically for each of the mentioned instruments. Hernando de Cabezón appropriated the instrument designations for the 1578 book at the last minute, changing the title from the one his father had originally intended. It was to have been entitled Compendio de Musica as can still be seen on some of the printed pages, and from the inventory of Cabezón’s possessions at the time of his death. Close reading of Cabezón’s music and its notation makes it clear that there are very few pieces that can be played on the vihuela without significant modification.

Griffiths proposes that Cabezón, organist at the Spanish royal chapel, had no real interest in the vihuela and that “harp and vihuela” were added to the title for commercial reasons, to make it attractive to a wider audience. A series of later legal documents show that the book did not sell well, in all probability because Antonio de Cabezón’s fame had already been eclipsed by the time the book was published. “Fantasia or Reality: the Vihuela in the works of Cabezón” was commissioned by the Institución Fernando el Católico in Zaragoza for inclusion in a special issue of the leading Spanish musicological journal Anuario musical that celebrates the fifth centenary of Cabezón’s birth.

Professor Griffiths’ article is available online at