Celebrating Shakespeare, Cervantes and the Music of Their Era

written by Irene Gomez, specially written for the Strings By Mail Blog

2016 promises to be a great year for those who love literature and theater. The commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra should be a wonderful opportunity to re-familiarize oneself with, or to discover for the first time, the work of these magnificent writers.

Browse and shop Sheet Music for pieces referenced in this article

Check out these latest Strings By Mail Repertoire Series Videos by Gohar Vardanyan of music from this era:
Coranto: Heigh Ho Holiday by Antony Holborne
Lady Hammond’s Alman by John Dowland

While deeply immersed in constant conflicts and intrigues due to religion, economic, and political power in Europe during those times, art occupied an important place. Both artists arrived to represent the highest expression in the Renaissance era, expressing the particular richness of the English and Spanish cultures.

In regard to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), there has been a curtain of mystery around his existence and works. Philosopher Francis Bacon, or writer-poet Christopher Marlowe, have been some of the supposed writers to whom Shakespeare’s works have been attributed. Despite these presumptions, Shakespeare has been considered the most important English writer of all times. Some of Shakespeare’s characters were politicians or rulers, who despite their power, expressed regrets, doubts, and fears in self-dialogues, thus exploring a wider scope of human expression. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” (act 3, scene 1), has been one of the most popular phrases in the history of theater, remaining in the popular culture even to the present day. His Sonnets are of the most exquisite beauty, and they speak equally on subjects about the meaning of life, nature, youth, love, and death.

In the field of music during Shakespeare´s time, the consolidation of ‘consorts’ or ensembles, in which people reunited for playing together (playing in the same group of instruments like viols, ensembles, or in ‘mixed’ or ‘broken’ ensembles, using viols and lute for example), ingrained a unique feature in English musical life. There was also good interrelation with popular or folk music. The lute was the national instrument, and John Dowland was its greatest composer. Dowland, through his more than 80 pieces including songs, lute-songs, ayrs, ‘pavans’, ‘galiards’, and ‘Almands’, climbed to a high point of expression, with a personal touch of ‘melancholy’, a mood which was rather a trendy topic at that time. Perhaps, his most recognized work is ‘Lacrimae Pavane’, taken from the song ‘Flow my tears’ of his Second book of Airs. Dowland has become a constant source of inspiration for musicians including composers of our time. Alongside Dowland, other great composers, such as Francis Cutting, Antony Holborne, or Francis Pilkington, left wonderful collections of pieces for lute that we can utilize to enlarge our guitar repertoire.

On the other hand, the Renaissance Era in Spain had a different perspective, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, (1547-1616) revealed aspects of his cosmopolitan country and its people through amazingly witty long and short novels. His descriptions and dialogues are lively portraits that, with constant humor and naivety, expressed the political and social situation during the ‘Spanish Golden Era.’ His classic work, ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’ (1605), had immediate success. And while waiting for a second part, some apocryphal editions appeared, until the Second Part was at last published by Cervantes in 1615.

The most important musician contemporary to Cervantes was Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). However, Spain gave to the world an impressive number of important musicians, mainly during the first half of XVI century. The vihuela (vihuela de mano), became the favorite instrument for composers who worked under different courts in Spain and Europe. And certainly, the still new printing possibilities helped to spread important collections of original pieces and transcriptions. This fact helped to develop the instrumental technique of following the polyphonic vocal style of the time, but also adding specific aspects creating variations, or ‘diferencias’, on well known songs.

In this form of composition, it was possible to concentrate on the technique, allowing players to develop virtuosity using chords (consonancias) and scales (redobles), and indications on the speed of music specifying the ‘tempo’. One of the first books of vihuela was published in 1536 by Luis Milan, printed in Valencia and named “Libro de musica de vihuela de mano intitulado ‘El maestro'”. This book was followed by Luys de Narváez´s book, ‘Los seis libros del Delphin de música de cifras para tañer la vihuela’ (1538), and by ‘Tres libros de música en cifra para vihuela’, published in Sevilla in 1546 by Alonso Mudarra. In 1547, Enríquez de Valderrábano published in Valladolid, his “Libro de Música de vihuela intitulado ‘Silva de Sirenas'”. Diego Pisador published ‘Libro de Música de vihuela’ en Salamanca in 1552, and Miguel de Fuenllana wrote “Libro de Música para vihuela ‘Orphenica Lyra'” in Sevilla. Finally, Esteban Daza and Antonio de Cabezón (keyboard composer) published respectively: ‘Libro de Música en cifras para vihuela intitulado ‘El Parnaso'” (1576) and ‘Obras de música para tecla, arpa y vihuela, Madrid, 1578.

With all of this in mind, 2016 could be an inspiring year to enjoy Shakespeare and Cervantes heritage while playing more music of their era!



Feros, Antonio. Gelabert Gonzalez, Juan Eloy, España en tiempos del Quijote. Madrid, Taurus, c 2004
Sache William L. English history in the making. Readings from the sources to 1680. Xerox College Publishing, 1967
Trevesyan, George Macaulay. A shortened history of England. A Penguin Book, 1988
Burton, Robert. The essential anatomy of Melancholy. Dover Publications Inc. Mineola, New York
Price, D.C. Patrons and musicians of the English Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Wainwright, Jonathan and Holman, Peter. From Renaissance to Baroque: change in instruments and instrumental music. Ashgate Pub. Ltd, 2005
Bloom Harold, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Book, 1999 or Shakespeare, La Invención de lo Humano (traductor: Tomás Segovia) Grupo Editorial Norma, 2008
The Lute Society of America

Classical guitarist Irene Gómez regularly contributes to Strings By Mail through her teaching and performance videos as well as articles. She is a Strings By Mail Sponsored Artist, teaches guitar at the National University in Bogotá, Colombia, and performs worldwide.

6 thoughts on “Celebrating Shakespeare, Cervantes and the Music of Their Era

  1. Dear Irene! It’s a good idea to use the big anniveraries of poets to get a focus on the music of those time. Composers always liked to set a music to poems and even to transcend the words to a higher level. You now that I am no guitarrist but in former times I conducted choirs and the music of the questioned area was always a preference for me. If you like, please let me have your e-Mail address because I would like to send you some procram-folders by e-mail-attachment.
    In 2017 we shall have the 500 anniversary of the reformation by Martin Luther. He had a very strong influence in establishing the modern German language beside his religious intentions. At those time f. e. composers like Clemens non papa, Orlando die Lasso, Paul Hofhaimer, Heinrich Isaak, Caspar Othmayr, Ludwig Senfl, Johann Walter (friend of Martin Luther) composed chorals, using the German language beside the Latin texts. I think some lute-tabulatures should be available.
    Dear Irene, I hope you will be successful with music-projects covering the aera. Best wishes from Heinrich!

  2. Hello Heinrich, thanks a lot for your comment in the SBM blog! I have had a great time doing research for this article and got much more aware of Shakespeare and Cervantes literature and I became more keen on the interpretation of the music of their time. I hope many other musicians and literature lovers like me will be more interested in these themes as well.
    Now, it sounds quite interesting and relevant the 500 hundred years of Luther reform. Indeed music was a lucky heiress as being an ‘instrument’ to spread ‘the word of God’. Then it will be a great opportunity to learn more on this subject and perhaps share in future articles this so important conmemoration for the west world.
    Thanks again and best wishes in Germany!
    Irene at Strings By Mail blog

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