Villancico (or Vilancete, in Portuguese) was a common lyric form of the Iberian Peninsula during the Renaissance. The villancicos could also be set to music: many Iberian composers of the 15th and 16th century, like Juan del Encina or Pedro de Escobar composed villancicos.

Spain and the New World

The poetic form of the Spanish and villancico is that of an estribillo (or refrain) and coplas (stanzas), with or without an introduction. The refrain was usually sung following two stanzas. The villancico was without doubt the favourite genre during the 17th and 18th century. It was sung during matins of the feasts of the Catholic calendar. Its texts were didactic, designed to help the new converts to understand and enjoy the new religion. The service of matins was structured in three nocturnes, each with three readings and responsories. In this liturgy, the vernacular villancicos took the place of the Latin responsories, which were much harder to understand for the new converts in Spain and the New World. Thus, during each matins service nine villancicos could be performed, or at least eight if the last responsory was substituted by the Te Deum, a hymn of thanksgiving reserved for the high feasts. An enormous amount of villancicos was written in the Spanish world for such feasts as the Immaculate Conception, Christmas, Epiphany, Corpus Christi, Ascension, Assumption, and other occasions of the Catholic liturgical year. Many more were written for saints such as Santiago (St. James), St. Peter and Paul, St. Cecilia, St. Rose of Lima, and others. The texts were mostly in Spanish, but some dialects were also used. In Huehuetenango in the northwestern mountains of Guatemala, villancicos in Mayan languages have been found in the manuscripts that also contained songs with Spanish texts. The Christmas villancico, which expressed the merriment of the feast and thus was frequently comical, also uses pseudo-African, or corrupt Italian, French, or Portuguese words to make churchgoers laugh and be merry. One of the great poets of villancicos was the Augustine nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose texts were set to music all over the Spanish world. Composers wrote in many different baroque styles, including concertato, polychoral, and elaborate solo or duo songs in cantata style. Some of them used the lyric form in a theatrical way that could be enacted in church for the delight of the faithful. Among the most outstanding New World composers of villancicos are José de Loaiza y Agurto, Manuel de Sumaya, and Ignacio Jerúsalem in New Spain; Manuel José de Quirós and Rafael Antonio Castellanos, in Guatemala; José Cascante, in Colombia; and Juan de Araujo and Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, in Peru.

Portuguese type

This type of poem has a mote - the beginning of the poem, which functions, when in music, as a refrain - followed by one or more intervening stanzas - the volta, copla or glosa - each one with 7 lines. The difference between the vilancete and the cantiga depends on the number of lines in the mote: if there are 2 or 3 it is a vilancete, if there are 4 or more it is a cantiga. Each line of a vilancete is usually divided in five or seven metric syllables ("old measure"). When the last line of the mote is repeated at the end of each stanza, the vilancete is "perfect".

Here is an example of a Portuguese vilancete, written by Luís de Camões:

Original English Translation
Enforquei minha Esperança;
Mas Amor foi tão madraço,
Que lhe cortou o baraço.

Foi a Esperança julgada
Por setença da Ventura
Que, pois me teve à pendura,
Que fosse dependurada:
Vem Cupido com a espada,
Corta-lhe cerce o baraço.
Cupido, foste madraço.
I hanged my Hope;
But Love was so knavish
He cut off the rope.

Hope was condemned
By veredict of Fate
To be hanged for having me
Hanging out with her
Then comes Cupid with the sword
And cuts the rope short.
O Cupid, you were knavish.

This poem has a common rhyme scheme, abb cddc cbb. The theme of this type of villancico was usually about the saudade, about the countryside and the shepherds, about 'the perfect woman' and about non-returned love and consequent suffering. Iberian poets were strongly influenced by Francesco Petrarca, an Italian poet.


  • Paul W. Borg, "The Polyphonic Music in the Guatemalan Music Manuscripts of the Lilly Library," 4 vols., Bloomington: University of Indiana, Ph.D. dissertation, 1985.
  • Dieter Lehnhoff, "The Villancicos of the Guatemalan Composer Raphael Antonio Castellanos (d. 1791): A Selective Edition and Critical Commentary," Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, Ph.D. dissertation, 1990.
  • Robert Stevenson, Renaissance and Baroque Musical Sources in the Americas, Washington, D.C.: Organization of American States, General Secretariat, 1970.

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