Voices from the 17th Century: Covarrubias defines ‘Vihuela’



Known as the Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, or “Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language,” the lexicon compiled by Sebastián de Covarrubias (pictured) and published in 1611 is literally as the title suggests, a treasure. But, as I recently discovered, it’s actually priceless.

I’ve now spent quite a bit of time with a modern Spanish edition (S.A. Horta I.E., Barcelona, 1943), based on a second printing of the 1611 publication and additions by Benito Remigio Noydens from 1674. The lexicon is no simple dictionary, however, but a window into late 16th- and 17th-century Spain—its language, people, and culture.

Definitions of musical terms appear especially numerous—flute, shawm, hurdy-gurdy, choir, trombone, trumpet, chapelmaster, and organ (among others).

Here’s the definition for vihuela (excerpt).


“A common musical instrument with six orders* of strings; Latin, dicitur lira et barbitus sive barbiton. Its invention is attributed to Mercury, but writers disagree on whether Mercury’s lyre took this form or another…The instrument has been, until our time, highly respected, and there have been many excellent players; yet, following the invention of the guitar, there have been few who’ve studied the vihuela. It’s been a great loss because many genres of music were written for it. And now, the guitar is no more than a cowbell, so easy to play, especially when strummed, there is no horse-groom who doesn’t play it.”

Noydens adds,

“There is a riddle concerning the vigüela that says:

Todos, sin ser ordenada,
Órdenes dezís que tengo;
Pero aunque soy entonada
Y de tanta orden cercada
Dellas, ni de la Iglesia vengo.

[The vihuela] has many orders of strings, and this is why we refer to it being ordered. It is tuned through the consonances and harmonies it creates, and it is said that having so many orders [of strings], that order comes neither from them nor the Church.”

(Translation: Bernard Gordillo)

*Order or course: a single or pair of adjacent strings tuned in unison or octaves.

LEARN MORE: view a digital facsimile of the Tesoro.


(A modern copy of a seven-course vihuela built by Karl Kirchmeyr.)

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