Music in the Daily Life of Vermeer: The Rommelpot

The Rommelpot

Dutch: Rommelpot
German: Reibtrommel - Brummtopf
Italian: puttiputi
French: tambour à friction

Classification and Etymology

Although the rommelpot would seem at first sight merely a children's toy, it is a true musical instrument and can be classified in the Hornbostel-Sachs system as a membranophone. This means that the sound of the rommelpot is primarily produced by the vibration of a tightly stretched membrane. In the membranophone class the rommelpot belongs to the family of friction drums. Friction drums were known in Africa, South Asia, and South America (particularly in Brazil). Because of the unearthly sound it produces, the rommelpot is often associated with religion, ceremony and similar rites, especially in Africa. Its connection with specific occasions in European traditions dates from the 16th century onwards.

In the Netherlands, the rommelpot has, as the hommel, a great number of different names, used in different regions, especially in today's Belgium, where it is also called foekepot, probably an onomatopoeic syllable for the frroeping sound of the instrument.1 One of the meanings of rommelen is "to produce a dull noise" which is the main characteristic of the rommelpot.

In the province Brabant there is also a folk dance called "Rommelpot," which must be accompanied by the instrument which lends the dance its name.

Making and playing the rommelpot

drawing of a rommelpot Drawing of a rommelpot

Making the rommelpot has always been a children's game. All that was needed was a pot or earthenware jug - even a soup bowl or a flower pot would do - and a wooden stick. The most exotic element of this humble construction was a pig's or cow's bladder to be used as the membrane stretched over the pot. Since the animals were slaughtered in late autumn in order to procure meat for the long winters, bladders were quite easily to come by in many homes or at the butcher shop.

First, the bladder had to be soaked in water. Then the friction stick was lightly pushed into the middle of the skin and tied to it. The membrane was stretched over the pot and tied with a wetted cord, becoming very tight when dry. In some areas the pot was half filled with water or dried peas to increase its diabolical sound.

The rommelpot is played as simply as it is made: by rubbing the stick with wetted fingers, cloth or sponge (in former times the players simply spat in their hands) pulling it to and fro. The membrane vibrates and the pot serves as the resonating chamber. Pressure on the stick varies the pitch. Sometimes the stick was smeared with fat or wax to ease sliding.

.by Adelheid Rech.

rommelpot-playing
Playing the rommelpot.
The player uses a wetted piece of cloth
to ease the sliding while rubbing the stick.

Traditions of the rommelpot in Flemish/Dutch iconography

Although mainly seen as a children's instrument, the rommelpot was originally an adult's instrument, dating back at least to the 16th century. One of the first depictions of the rommelpot appears in Pieter Brueghel the Elder's comprehensive Battle of Carnival and Lent (below right) juxtaposing feasting on Shrove Tuesday and fasting from the following Ash Wednesday on for 40 days until Easter.2

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,
The Battle of Carnival and Lent
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
1559
Oil on wood, 121,3 x 171,5 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

After Brueghel's death his
son Pieter (the Younger)
made a fine copy of this
painting, emphazising the
encyclopedic aspect of the
contents. It is housed in the
Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

In one of the scenes to the left-hand side of the composition, Shrove Tuesday, symbolized by Prince Carnival, is sitting on a large beer-barrel. Prince Carnival holds a pig's head on a spit as his weapon and a large pie on his headgear as a reserve for the coming time of hunger. A figure near the barrel, wrapped in a black-patterned cape plays a reddish rommelpot, a typical Carnival instrument with its "foolish" sound. The figure appears to accompany a fool's bell-ringing.3

The rommelpot was often chosen by beggars who lacked appreciable skills since it was so easy to play. They either accompanied their own singing or provided the rhythmic grounds to the play of other fellow-musicians. Frans Hals set the roving rommelpot-player an everlasting monument with a renowned painting, of which a good seven variations are known today (S. Slive, catalogue 1974). He may have made two versions of the picture, one with five children and another with six, all cheerful listening to the smiling beggar's music-making and story-telling.4 Since Hals had ten children of his own, some of them may have modeled for the boys and girls.

=The Rommelpot, Jan Steen
The Rommelpot
Jan Steen
1660-62
Oil on panel, 32.8 x 26.1 cm.
City Art Gallery,
Manchester

Hals' treatment of the theme was pioneering for his time. Never before had the merriment of children and a beggar (beggars were traditionally represented in dismal circumstances and in bad humor) been the unique focus of a painting with all the figures shoved to the foreground. Hals' novel interpretation inspired numerous copies made both in and outside his own workshop. These copies have caused problems of attribution to art historians. Even after the thorough restoration of the so-called "Kimbell-version" in 1988, Frans Hals scholars are still in disagreement as to its authenticity.5 The original version with five children is probably lost.

A lovely contemporary version of Hals' composition comes from his best pupil Judith Leyster, who married the successful genre painter Jan Miense Molenaer. Her version may have been originated in the 1630s.6

Another Dutch painter who depicted the subject at least twice was Jan Steen. During his stay in Haarlem 1661-1670 he may have seen one of the numerous copies of Hals' work inspiring his own version, a genre interior with three figures. Like many other of his genre paintings, Steen portrayed himself, here as the rommelpot player, accompanied by his wife Margriet7 on the recorder while a third, obscure person in the background raises a glass. But contrary to Hals' innocent group of cheerful children surrounding an elderly musician, Steen's depiction is owerflowing with jocular eroticism.

In his popular Twelfth Night (below left) Steen again takes up the motif of the fool playing the rommelpot derived from the Brueghel-painting.

Jan Steen, Twelfth Night Twelfth Night (The Bean Feast)
Jan Steen
1668
Staatliche Museen, Kassel

In the seventeenth century, Twelfth Night (Driekoningen), which marks the end of Christmastide (see Midwinterhoorn), was an occasion for celebrate with family and friends. The person who found a bean in his cake during the gathering was elected "king." The highlight of the event was the king's first draught, taken to the call "De Koning drinkt!"8 In Steen's Twelfth Night 9 the young boy who has become the king, proudly wears his paper crown and takes his first sip of alcohol under the eyes of his tipsy mother. A woman dressed as a Beguine nun, most likely the lad's grandmother, assists the scene in silence. Steen portrays himself as low-life figure singing away while seated at the table. His wife Grietje smiles at the fool as a priest (see detail below right) serves to remind the distracted viewer that the Twelfth Night was indeed a Catholic feast. In predominantly Protestant Holland, this holiday was resolutely disapproved by Calvinistic clergy as it frequently ended in riotous carousals, so well known from Steen's paintings. Steen's paintings were popular despite the censure.

Molenaer, Two Boys and a Girl Making Music
Two Boys and a Girl Making Music

Jan Miense Molenaer
1629
National Gallery London

In Jan Miense Molenaer's cheerful Two Boys and a Girl Making Music (left) the rommelpot is at last represented as a children's instrument. A young boy plays a violin while the girl at the center of the picture wears a soldier's gorget and beats a pair of spoons on a helmet. The boy clad in red, evidently quite proud with his mansion, keeps the rhythm with his home-made rommelpot. The three children clearly belong to the lower class. Molenaer, whose work displays an enormous range of motifs, specialized in low-life genre scenes throughout his career.

One of the great popular traditions of the Netherlands dates back to the Middle Ages. On evening of Twelfth Night, groups of three children dressed up as the Three Kings went from door to door singing a sterrenlied and asking for a bit of money. In earlier times this procession usually took place with pupils from a convent school, guided by a priest.10 By the seventeenth century this custom had more and more been adopted by children of the lower class who must have accompanied their joyous revelry with the rommelpot (see also expert-box Fred J. de Hen).

On Oudejaarsavond (New Year's Eve) or Saint Maarten (11th November) Dutch children went from house to house singing rommelpot-songs asking a few coins or sweets. Beforehand, they had no doubt eagerly built their rommelpots, each one trying to make "best" one that would make the most bizzare sound.

After the two tragic wars and the gradual urbanization of the Netherlands, many of traditional rites began to disappear, however, rommelpot-songs have resisted and are still quite popular among today's children. The rommelpot remains a popular instrument among many of the Dutch folk-groups to accompany many rustic boerenliederen (peasants' songs).

Music in Vermeer's Life: Conclusion

Molenaer, music Merry Family
Jan Steen,
1668
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Steen depicted his own family cheerfully engaged in making noisy music. Four musical instruments are to be viewed in the painting: the bagpipe, the fiddle, the transverse flute and a horn.

When Vermeer was a boy, he must have taken part in the endless cycle of public feasts and processions and years later. After he had grown up, married and moved with his family to his mother-in-law's house in the "Papenhoek" at Oude Langendijk, children knocked his door as he had done before, singing their little songs to earn a favor.

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 center 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.

A Lady Seated at a Virginal, Johannes VermeerA Lady Seated at a Virginal
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670-1675
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm.
National Gallery, London

Vermeer depicted an ideal harmonious combination of two "classical" instruments: the viola da gamba (though never actively be played in Vermeer's oeuvre) with its human-like sound, together with the soft-toned virginal, here symbolizing the harmony of two hearts in love.

But Vermeer took a different route, one more artistically noble and potentially lucrative, one that brought him into contact with the refined and sophisticated daily-life activities of the upper class. From his relatively humble origins, the courting Vermeer may have gained personal access to the upper crust of society through the patrician connections of his mother-in-law Maria Thins, through his patron Pieter van Ruijven, one of the wealthiest burghers in Delft, or perhaps, through his official post as Dean of the Guild of Saint Luke, to which he was elected twice.

This artistic decision was his own personal one, and his paintings, unsurpassed in their art, are the unequivocal evidence that he was right. As we know, music-making took considerable part in his œuvre. The side-by-side comparison below with a work by Vermeer's colleague Jan Steen may prove instructive.

Both masters depicted a considerable variety of musical instruments in Dutch 17th-century art, and the remarkable proportion of music-making in their respective œuvres is of nearly the same percentage. Although their personalities and artistic styles are so contrasting, they shared the same fondness of music. In his introduction to the CD De Muzikale Wereld van Jan Steen (1626-1679) / The Musical World of Jan Steen (see note 8) musicologist and master-musician Louis Pieter Grijp wrote:

"The musical world of Jan Steen ist finally completely different from that of painters such as Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch: not only is it more rowdy and more multifaceted, but also more personal and more specific. This can be explained on the one hand by Steen's intentional focus on popular culture, and on the other by the inspiration that he drew from literary and musical humour. It is through these factors that this music is able to teach us something about Jan Steen himself as well as about the culture of which he was part."

And this "popular culture" was exactly the same Vermeer had grown up and was in constant touch with throughout his entire short live.

Adelheid Rech
June 2008

Rommelpot resources:

  • Oxford Music Online (former Grove Music Online):
    http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com
    article "Friction drums" (Drums, §1,4) : Anthony King, Mervyn McLean, Mary Riemer-Weller, Robert Anderson.
  • Ferd J. de Hen, "Folk Instruments of Belgium: Part I". The Galpin Society Journal 25 (July 1972). 105-110.
  • Seymour Slive, Frans Hals. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Royal Academy of Arts, London; Frans-Hals-Museum, Haarlem 1989/90. London, München 1989 (German ed.).
  • Peter Suiton: review "Frans Hals. Washington and London". The Burlington Magazine 132, no. 1042
    (Jan. 1990) 67-70.
  • Wikipedia-Netherlands:
    rommelpot
    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rommelpot_%28muziekinstrument%29
  1. To the various names of the rommelpot in Belgium see Ferd J. de Hen, "Folk Instruments of Belgium: Part I". The Galpin Society Journal 25 (July 1972). 105.
  2. To the social aspects of Brueghels Battle of Carnival and Lent and the religious controversies in post-reformatory Netherlands concerning discipline in faith see the comments by Roger Homan, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton, in: The Social Affairs Unit, <http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000829.php>
  3. Since the Middle Ages little shells have been a principal sign of the fool.
  4. To the extended version with 6 children Seymour Slive (catalogue 1974 to the complete work of Frans Hals) had counted a half dozen of copies still existing today (Slive 1974, L 3). See also S. Slive (ed.), Frans Hals. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Royal Academy of Arts, London; Frans-Hals-Museum, Haarlem 1989/90. London, München 1989 (German ed.), 148-51.
  5. See Peter Suiton in his review to exh. cat. 1989/90 (see note 4): "Frans Hals. Washington and London". The Burlington Magazine 132, no. 1042 (Jan. 1990) 67-70, here 70.
  6. See Slive, exh. cat. 1989/90. 151.
  7. "Grietje", daughter of the landscape painter Jan van Goyen.
  8. The call "De Koning drinkt" ("The King drinks") may be derived from a Flemish Cantio Natalitia (Christmas carol) from the 16th century, "Haest uw o herderkens", which tells from the three Magi ("Wise Men") who, after a long journey, have found the new-born Jesus with his mother Mary in a poor stable in Bethlehem. As they become witness of Mary's feeding her baby they call with great joy: "Den Coninck drinckt!". See CD Cantiones Natalitiae, performed by Camerata Trajectina, 1995. This call is also to be found in traditional songs for the Driekoningenfeest (Twelfth Night), like the popular "Drie Koningen Vreught" ("Three Kings' Joy"), where the refrain goes: "Vive la den Koningh drinckt." See CD De Muzikale Wereld van Jan Steen (1626-1679) / The Musical World of Jan Steen, performed by Camerata Trajectina, 1996. (See also "Suggested listening" at the end of section 1: Music and Dance").
  9. There exists also an earlier version from 1662.
  10. See Marita Kruijswijk, Marian Nesse, Nederlandse jaarfeesten en hun liederen door de eeuwen heen. Hilversum 2004. 42: Sterrenzangers. The collected money from the early "supervised" processions had certainly been used by the Catholic Church for the many clerical almshouses. After the 'supervision' had ceased the children were allowed to keep the money for themselves resp. their families. That's also why the custom of giving money changed here and there in favor of fruits or sweets, which the children could really keep for themselves. Unfortunately, in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century the sterrenzangers were more and more held as bothering beggars, and the Driekoningen-procession vanished in several areas.
    Today the tradition of the "Sternsinger" http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sternsinger
    (literally: "star singers") is again centrally organized by the Catholic Church, mainly in Germany and Austria, now in favor of large international development aid projects for unprivileged children. In today's Netherlands it is now a local children's feast, similar to Saint Martin.
The Battle of Carnival and Lent, Pieter Brueghel
The Battle of Carnival and Lent
Pieter Brueghel
Oil on wood, 121.3 x 171.5 cm.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Detail with the figure playing the rommelpot in the foreground, accompanying the procession of the barrel with Prince Carneval and the foolish person ringing two little bells.
The Rommelpot Player, Frans Hals
The Rommelpot Player
Frans Hals
c. 1618-22.
Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth

The large fox tail at the beggar's hat as well as the striking red baret of the boy to the right-side – both things attributes of the fool - point again to the playing of the rommelpot in the time of Carnival, although there were other times, too, for wearing grotesque headgear and playing the rommelpot (see below Jan Steen, The Bean Feast).
rommelpot player
One of the copies of Hals' Rommelpot player, with 6 children. The boy to the right now wears a more common felt hat. His awkward right hand from the first version (see the 'Kimbell'-painting) is now corrected.
Rommelpot Player, Judith Leyster (copy after Frans Hals)
Rommelpot Player (copy after Frans Hals)
Judith Leyster
c. 1630
Oil on panel, 39.1 x 30.5 cm.
Chicago, The Art Institut of Chicago
Jan Steen, Twelfth Night, detail
Twelfth Night, detail with the man who has taken the role of the fool, indicated by a small note at his fancy hat, just playing the rommelpot. In the background to the right the 'priest' is visible, his role also indicated by a note at his black hat.