Music in the time of Vermeer

Given how few of his paintings survive (and how small they are!), the Essential Vermeer website is a vast repository. Covering a remarkable amount of ground in depth—with sections on Dutch and Delft painting and Vermeer’s own works, his life and family, Delft and Vermeer’s neighbourhood, maps, research guides, and much more—it leads us far beyond any narrow definition of art history.

Adelheid Rech documents in detail both art and folk musics (categories that were not yet rigidly opposed—cf. Popular culture in early modern Europe), exploring how genres and instruments were used in social life, with many audio examples.

Art music
Rech addresses the musical life of the elite as depicted in Vermeer’s paintings, with a series of introductory essays followed by pages on (art) music in Delft, music for the theatre, and patrons (notably Constantijn Huygens, De Muiderkring, and the Duarte family). This leads to substantial sections on the virginal, lute, cittern, guitar, viola da gamba, recorder, and trumpet. An interview with Louis Peter Grijp reflects on art music in the Dutch Golden Age, ending with a series of audio files.

Left: A lady seated at a virginal
Right: The art of painting, detail.

Folk music
The scenes shown in Vermeer’s paintings only depict the realm of the Delft elite; indeed, he studiously eschewed the well-trodden path of “low life” paintings exemplified by Jan Steen:

Vermeer knew the songs and dances which were accompanied by music of the fiddle, bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy, or shawm, and the other popular instruments. We know that he was raised in his father’s inn Mechelen right in the centre of Delft on the Market Square where most of the festivities took place. Music must have been all around. The rustic low-life scenes staged in inns and taverns, peasants’ traditional festivities or private “merry” gatherings of the great Dutch/Flemish genre masters, like Adriaen van Ostade, Adriaen Brouwer, David Tenier, were familiar to all.

But Vermeer took a different route, one more artistically noble [sic] and potentially lucrative, one that brought him into contact with the refined and sophisticated daily life activities of the upper class.

So Rech does well to recreate the wider musical soundscape that surrounded Vermeer, which would have included a variety of folk musicking: these essays relate to his life, not his art.

egg dance

Jan Steen, The egg dance, c1674.

First he gives a useful introduction on music and dance in Vermeer’s time, with ample reference to Susato. He then provides substantial essays on folk instruments: bagpipe (2), crumhorn (2), dulcian (3), fiddle, hommel zither, hurdy-gurdy, midwinterhoorn, rommelpot, and shawm (2)—ranging widely over time and place, with notes on construction and playing techniques. Admirable as all this is, since readers are likely to consult the site to learn about the Low Countries in the 17th century, they may find themselves impatient to reach such material.

Jan Steen, The village wedding (1653), detail; and a Delft tile with bagpiper motif.

Rech also offers a fine study of the carillon, in five parts, starting with a cross-cultural history of bells and culminating with the Nieuwe Kirk in Delft.

It seems suitable that Holland was one of the main centres for the early music revival (e.g. Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman).

See also What is serious music?!. For an impertinent spoof on Vermeer and others, see Great works missing the crucial element.

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