Music in the Daily Life of Vermeer: The Rommelpot
by Adelheid Rech
by Adelheid Rech
Although mainly seen as a children's instrument, the rommelpot was originally an adult's instrument, dating back at least to the sixteenth century. One of the first depictions of the rommelpot appears in Pieter Brueghel the Elder's comprehensive Battle of Carnival and Lent (fig. 1) juxtaposing feasting on Shrove Tuesday and fasting from the following Ash Wednesday on for 40 days until Easter.2
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 (fig. 2), 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.
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 (fig. 3) 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 (fig. 4) 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 (fig. 5). 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 (fig. 6) Steen again takes up the motif of the fool playing the rommelpot derived from the Brueghel-painting.
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.
Click here for period rommelpot music:
The popular rommelpot-song
'Ick heb zo lang met de foekepot gelopen', sung by children at Kloetinge (Zeeland).
Folksongs and Dances of the Netherlands. Collected and notes by Wilhelmina D. Scheepers. 1968.
Text of the refrain:
Ik heb zo lang met de foekepot gelopen
'k Heb geen geld, om brood te kopen
Geef mij een oortje, dan ga ik voorbij
(I have run so far with the rommelpot and still no money to buy bread. Rommelpottery, Rommelpottery, Give me a penny and I'll be off.)
In Jan Miense Molenaer's cheerful Two Boys and a Girl Making Music (fig. 7) 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 bizarre 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).
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.
But Vermeer took a different route (fig. 8), 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 oeuvre. The comparison below with a work by Vermeer's colleague Jan Steen (fig. 9) may prove instructive.
The traditional use of the friction drum (rommelpot)
Ferd J. de Hen
"As a rule the friction drum was (and in some villages still is) played with the so-called 'sterre-liederen' (Songs of the Three Kings during which a star fixed on a stake is carried round, hence the name 'star-songs' about Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, anyhow always after All Saints. (In Flanders pigs were killed during the month of November). Originally there were three men: one to carry the star, who was at the same time the singer; one lantern bearer; and the player of the friction drum. They represented the Three Wise Kings of the Orient, and were made up with the three ritual colours, for which they used soot, blood and flour, with the symbolic meanings: black, death; red, expiatory offerings; white, life. (Originally the pig's blood was used to dye the hands and face.)
Near Nederokkerzeel, there were three fixed periods when the instrument was used: (a) Christmas – New Year's Eve – New Year – Epiphany, (b) Shrove Tuesday, (c) Maunday Thursday (this also in Flanders). At these times there are always pig-bladders at hand since slaughtering took place (and even nowadays in some villages) at the following dates: (a) from a month after the 'alaut' (the harvest of potatoes), thus from the end of October and especially between the 15th November and the 15th December; this period is also called 'baumestijd' (the time of Saint Bavo), (b) one to three weeks before Shrove Tuesday they feast and drink well. All the tar-feasts of the guilds, fanfares and other societies take place in this period. (c) the period of the 'uitkom' (lit. the 'out-come', meaning spring), on to three weeks preceding Holy Week. The meat must anyhow be removed from the salt before the first hot weather. The bladders for use on these various occasions were hung to dry for one or two weeks.
The rommelpot used to be played almost everywhere in Flanders but had already disappeared in most regions before the first world war and was replaced by the accordeon. Till 1937 the rommelpot was played in Roeselare, in the Voerstreek, Leefdael, Bertem [and others], in Westmalle till after 1945. In Wakken (East Flanders), a singer with the rommelpot wandered around still in 1954, and in Berendrecht, Zandvliet and Dendermonde even in 1958."
from: Ferd J. de Hen, "Folk Instruments of Belgium: Part I," The Galpin Society Journal 25 (July 1972). 105–110.
Both masters depicted a considerable variety of musical instruments in Dutch seventeenth-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 is 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, but short life.