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A term first applied in the late 15th century to an Iberian vernacular musical and poetic form consisting of several stanzas (coplas) framed by a refrain (estribillo) at the beginning and end, giving an overall ABBA structure. The number of stanzas varied, as did the number of times the estribillo was repeated between stanzas in performance. Originally derived from a medieval dance lyric of the virelai or ballata type and associated with rustic or popular themes, the villancico ("vilancete", in Portugal) was extensively cultivated in secular polyphonic music of the late 15th century and the 16th. In the second half of the 16th century devotional and religious themes gained in importance and the form became used increasingly for sacred compositions in the vernacular which were introduced into the liturgy on feast days. In the 17th century it became more important than the Latin motet, and although its artistic quality rapidly declined in the 18th and 19th centuries it remained popular in both Spain and Latin America. Since then "villancico" has come to mean simply "Christmas carol".

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