Musical Instruments in Vermeer's Paintings:
The Cittern in Vermeer's Paintings
The cittern was one of the most popular musical instruments of the mid-17th century and it was also the one most frequently depicted by Vermeer. Although its form may recall the more familiar lute, it has a very different history and above all, it produces a very different sound making it adapted for different music. The cittern's string are made of metal while while the lute's are of natural animal gut. In particular, the brass strings of the cittern sound much louder, also because they are played with a plectrum. Its sprightly and cheerful sound is comparable to the modern banjo although a good cittern sounds a bit like the virginals. Instead, the lute is plucked by the bare fingers and produces a softer, nostalgic tone.
We find five citterns represented in Vermeer's 36 extant paintings even though the whole instrument is visible only in the Love Letter. The work's crystalline edges and brilliant color scheme which sparkles with life seem suggestive of the cittern's own tonal properties.The artist may have chosen to depict the cittern particular instrument because of its particular iconographical meaning which was more evident to his viewers although it can not be ruled out that its curious, almond-like form would have equally appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities.
In three paintings, The Concert, The Girl Interrupted in her Music and The Glass of Wine, the cittern lies partially hidden on a table or a chair even though the more informed viewer has no problem in identifying its typical flat body, different from the pear-shaped body of the lute. In the early Procuress instead, its typical ornately carved peghead leaves no doubt that it is indeed a cittern and not another instrument. In the Girl Wearing a Pearl Necklace a neutron autoradiographic image demonstrates that a cittern was also included a sixth time (it was set upon the foreground chair), but it was later painted out by the master himself for unknown reasons.
Girl Interrupted in
her Music (detail)
The Glass of Wine (detail)
Dutch: cister or cither
The cittern, belonging to the lute family, is likewise a "composite cordophone" (Hornbostel-Sachs, see Lute). The string bearer (neck) and the resonator (soundboard) form an organic unity; the sound is produced by plucking the strings, in this case usually with a plectrum.
Apollo Citharoedus with kithara
In Italian Renaissance humanist culture the cittern was regarded as a classical revival of the ancient Greek kithara (from which its name derives; see Winternitz), but it seems to have its direct development from the medieval citole and have likewise some similarities with the fiddle, as its plucked form. There are no surviving instruments from the early period, but various iconographic sources including intarsie, miniatures in manuscripts or sculptures. The composer and theorist Johannes Tinctoris seems to describe an early kind of the cittern in his De Inventione (c. 1487): "Yet another derivative of the lyra is the instrument called cetula by the Italians, who invented it. It has four brass or steel strings ... and it is played with a quill. Since the cetula is flat, it is fitted with certain wooden elevations on the neck, arranged proportionately, and known as frets. The strings are pressed against these by the fingers to make a higher or lower note."
The structure and tuning of the cittern varied almost from country to country. While in England, France and northern Europe the small four-course-instrument was mainly used, Italian musicians preferred the larger six-course instrument.
The cittern achieved its greatest importance in the 16th and 17th centuries. Above all in Italy and in England it was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice or for dance music. Later, many compositions were written expressively for it, often intricate and difficult to play. The first printed books, principally with pieces by Guillaume Morlaye, Pierre Phalèse, Robert Ballard and Adrian Le Roy (with instructions for tuning and stringing) were published in France and Flandern (1552-1582).
The first Italian publication of cittern music was Paolo Virchi's Il primo libro di tabolatura di citthara (1574) for a fully chromatic six-course instrument, which demanded considerable technical virtuosity. One of the famed Italian instrument makers for string instruments was Girolamo Virchi (father of Paolo V.) of Brescia, a centre for musical instrument making in that time. Some of his instruments have survived, among them the lavishly decorated cittern made for Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol (see right)
In England the first cittern music appeared in the mid-16th century in the Mulliner Book with eight pieces for four-course cittern and one for five-course cittern. The most famous English composers were Anthony Holborne with his well-known Cittharn Schoole (1597) and c (A Booke of New Lessons for the Cithern & Gittern, 1652).
Published music for the cittern in Germany is mainly represented by Sixt Kargel. The first two editions of his Renovata Cythara (1569 and 1575) are lost, but a reprint of 1580 survived. In the 17th century Michael Praetorius suggested using citterns in his vocal publications Polyhymnia (1619). A later 17th-century German development is a small, bell-shaped instrument, known as "Cithrinchen" (little cittern) which had its own repertory, but retains most of the classical characteristics of the cittern. In South Germany and the German-speaking areas of Switzerland the cittern remained in use until the early 20th century, but with some of the constructional features of earlier citterns. The various names like "Bergzither" (mountain) or "Thüringer Waldzither" (forrest) indicate its use mainly in traditional folk music.
Italian citterns were predominantly six-course instruments, either double or a combination of double and single course, many with a mixed fretting (complete and partial frets). French and Flemish citterns had mostly four courses: double first and second course, and triple (two upper octave strings and one fundamental) third and fourth. In England four courses were common, often tuned in unison.
Many tuning systems were used and employed usually the "re-entrant"-tuning (the first and second course were tuned down an octave, so that the third course was then the highest and became the melody course). The basic tuning of the cittern on the continent was a g d' e', and that of the English cittern b g d' e'. The tuning and the narrow range of the courses allowed the common player a number of simple chord shapes useful for simple song accompaniment and dances. This might be a further reason for the instrument's popularity.
The playing technique is similar to that of the lute, but the cittern is usually played with a plectrum. The solo repertoire, however, required a substantial technical virtuosity.
The early citterns – as revivals of the ancient kithara - were often depicted in a classical or mythical context and were associated with learning, philosophy and science, shown in various Italian intarsie of the late 15th and early 16th centuries (e.g. in the choir stalls of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, near Siena, or in the "studiolo" of Duke Federigo da Montefeltro, once in the ducal palace in Gubbio).1
The meaning in the Dutch 17th -century painting is rather similar to that of the lute: as a stringed instrument (with pairs of strings – the courses) the cittern symbolizes the harmony in love and family. The comparatively large number of depictions demonstrate the great popularity of this instrument.
♪ cittern resources:
Grove Music Online grovemusic.com:
entry "cittern": James Tyler
Robert Hadaway, "The Cittern", in Early Music, ed. J. M. Thomson, Vol. 1, 1973, Oxford University Press, pp. 77-81
George A. Weigand, "The cittern repertoire", in Early Music 1 (1973), op. cit., pp. 81-83
♪ suggested cittern listening:
Jan Steen - Schilder en Verteller ("Jan Steen - Painter and Storyteller")
(with four pieces for solo cittern and cittern accompaniment)
performed by Camerata Trajectina, 1992
♪ the cittern on the web:
"Renovata Cythara": The Renaissance Cittern Page:
From the ancient kithara to the Renaissance cittern
by Emanuel Winternitz:
"The history of the cittern, often called the English cittern, has been clearly traced back to Elizabethan times, when it was one of the most popular instruments, available in every self-respecting barber's shop for the convenience of the waiting customer. England's claim to the invention of the cittern dates back to the Renaissance: as erudite a humanist and music historian as Vincenzo Galilei writes in 1581 in his Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna: 'fu la Cetera usata prima tra gli Inglesi che da altre nationi, nella quale isola si lavorano già in eccellenza ...', But Galilei cannot have read his Dante well, for in the Divina Commedia, Paradiso, Canto XX, the cetra figures in a wonderful metaphor comparing the formation of sound in an eagle's neck with that of a cittern:
Eccome suono al collo della cetra
Prende sua forma, e si come al pertugio
Della sampogna vento che penetra;
Cosi, rimosso d'aspettare indugio,
Quel mormorar dell' aquile salissi
Su per lo collo, come fossi bugio.
(And as the sound takes its form at the
cittern's neck, and as the vent of the
bagpipe enters its neck, so the sound
rose up through the neck of the eagle.)
[Und wie der Ton am Hals der Zither seine
Gestalt gewinnt, und wie der Wind, der durchdringt,
Sie in dem Luftloch der Schalmei gewinnet,
So, keine fern're Zögerung mehr duldend,
Stieg jenes Murmeln jetzt des Adlers aufwärts
In seinem Halse, gleich als ob er hohl sei.] *
Cetera (cetra) means here, of course, the cittern, not the kithara of antiquity (which was also called cetera in Dante's time, as it still is today), since the neck is described as the place where 'the sound takes form', that is, where the stopping of the strings takes place. The metaphor could not be more telling! The names for old musical instruments are very confusing. The same instrument often had many names, and one name often indicated various instruments. The medieval vocabulary alone includes kithara, citola, cistôle, sitole, cuitole, sytole, cycolae, and later we find gittern, getern, kitaire, quitare, guiterne, guitarra. Which are actually the prototypes of the cittern and which those of the guitar? And are all of them children of the ancient kithara?
The Utrecht Psalter is of the greatest value in this investigation because it depicts an unusually large variety of instruments, and also because it frequently shows the ancient kithara side by side with an instrument that has the body of a kithara, but a neck in place of the yoke; in other words, a cittern - that is, if we want to project this term as far back as the 9th century. The frets are usually carefully indicated on the neck, and the graceful curvature of the wings corresponds precisely to that of the arms of the kitharas near by. – However this may be, the crucial question remains: do the drawings of the Utrecht Psalter reflect contemporary usage - that is, are these instruments of the 9th century? If they are, we now have reached the point where the technique - probably oriental - of stopping strings against a fingerboard had begun to rival and to replace the method of plucking open strings in kithara fashion. On this basis, therefore, we would have to interpret at least the orthodox kitharas in the Utrecht Psalter not as a survival, but rather as a revival, of the Roman kithara abandoned centuries before. – Thus, it is here, in the 6th century, when the Roman kithara was still alive in Byzantine-Alexandrian civilization, that we can conclude our voyage, recognizing precisely the same atrophic features which puzzled us in the citterns of Mersenne and in 17th-century Dutch genre painting."
"The Survival of the Kithara and the Evolution of the English Cittern: a Study in Morphology," in E. Winternitz, Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism in Western Art, New Haven and London, 2nd ed. 1979, pp. 57-65
* addition by A. Rech. German translation (in classical metric verses) of Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia by '"Philaletes" pseud. King Johann of Saxony, 1849
- see Emanuel Winternitz, "The Survival of the Kithara and the Evolution of the English Cittern: a Study in Morphology", in Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism in Western Art. Studies in Musical Iconology, 2nd ed. New Haven and London 1979, pp. 59-60.