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Music in the Time of Vermeer

by Adelheid Rech

A painting is a world without change and without sound. Vermeer's paintings, instead, are full of musical instruments and people making music. Music is present in almost one-third of his paintings, in one way or another. The fact that Vermeer portrayed so many musical themes is not surprising in itself, "at least ten percent of all seventeenth-century paintings, music makes its appearance in one way or another. In genre pieces, in which category Vermeer's work is generally placed, the percentage is even higher. For example, about twenty percent of Frans van Mieris' works, twenty-five percent of Pieter de Hooch's and almost fifty percent of Jacob Ochtervelt's deal in some way with music." Edwin Buijsen, "Music in the Age of Vermeer," in Dutch Society in the Age of Vermeer, (Zwolle: Waanders, 1996), 106.

The ability of painting to convey music and sound was not limited to the subjects they represented. Line, shape, and color, too, were central to a composition’s sense of harmony. When, in 1604, the Dutch theorist Karel van Mander (1548–1606) published his Het Schilder-boek (The Book of Painting ),Het Schilder-Boeck, written by Flemish writer and painter Karel van Mander, was first published in 1604 in Haarlem, in the Dutch Republic. This seminal work, written in 17th-century Dutch, is often translated as "The Book of Painters," "The Book of Painting," or "The Book on Picturing."It is composed of six parts and is a key source for the history of art and art theory in the 15th- and 16th-century Low Countries. The book achieved considerable success and was well-received upon publication. Van Mander passed away two years after its release. A second edition, including a brief, anonymous biography of Van Mander, was published posthumously in 1618. a manual for artists, he likened musical composition to the need for balance in a painted work: "Just as in music the multifarious sounds of the singers and the players harmonize, so here too (in painting) do the many different figures." Harmony, his dictum suggests, is found in the mechanics—or color and shape—of the composition, not just in the image itself.

Dutch painting experts generally believe that underneath Vermeer's seemingly straightforward portrayals of young people engaged in a pleasurable pastime lies another level of meaning which can be understood only with consultation of period emblematic literature and other historical references. To fully appreciate the significance of music in Vermeer's paintings, it is important to understand not only the related iconographical meaning, which is fascinating and informative, but alsot the musical milieu in Vermeer's time, the musical instruments in his compositions, their history and playing technique, and, lastly, the specific sounds of each instrument and the music performed on them. The following multi-media project investigates many of these issues.

The Concert, Johannes Vermeer The Concert
Johannes Vermeer
The Music Lesson, Johannes Vermeer The Music Lesson
Johannes Vermeer

Who Played the Music?

from: Edwin Buijsen, "Music in the Age of Vermeer" Edwin Buijsen, "Music in the Age of Vermeer," in Dutch Society in the Age of Vermeer, (Zwolle: Waanders, 1996), 110.

The popularity of music as a pictorial motif cannot be separated from the musical life of the seventeenth century. What we learn from documents, contemporary writings and visual sources suggests that in seventeenth-century Holland music making was popular among both high and low.

In the muziekherbergen (music taverns), and so-called danscamers (dancing rooms), there would be musical performances and visitors could also play the instruments themselves. On special occasions such as weddings and festivals, professional players would perform, while on ordinary weekdays the itinerant musicians would play. Their. instruments were simple—the hurdy-gurdy, the bagpipe and the rommelpot (rumbling pot), a percussion instrument.

In Vermeer's paintings we shall not find these popular instruments. On the whole his scenes depict the life of the upper class. In these upper-class circles music making generally took place within the privacy of the home. In view of the large number of song books published for use in the home, we may assume there was much singing. These books often had titillating titles such as Amorus Rhymes, The Frisian Pleasure Garden and suchlike. Famous Dutch poets like Gerbrand Bredero (1585–1618) and Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581–1647)did not scorn to write verses to be set to well-known tunes. Poets and music publishers aimed their works at a young public, full of high spirits and ready for amorous adventures. As well as love songs, there were of course songs of a morally invigorating nature, and instrumental pieces. Among women in particular music making was very popular and many ladies from well-to-do merchant families would have played one or more instruments. Since the young women did not have any form of employment, they would have had ample time for study and practicing. Enormous riches diffused in other ways through this relatively classless society and the Dutch were able to attract music, musicians and instruments from other countries. In many larger towns were Collegia MusicaA Collegium Musicum, often referred to in the plural as Collegia Musica, was a type of musical society or club commonly found in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands, during the Baroque period. These organizations were typically formed by amateur musicians and music enthusiasts who gathered to study, perform, and appreciate music together. They played a significant role in the cultural life of their communities, offering a platform for the performance of both vocal and instrumental music, ranging from chamber music to larger orchestral works. Collegia Musica often met in private homes, universities, or public buildings, and were instrumental in promoting musical education and the dissemination of new music. They also provided a social setting for like-minded individuals to discuss and engage with the art of music, fostering the development and appreciation of musical talent within the broader society. which had high standards, employing eminent foreign virtuosi, and their concerts developed into public concert-giving in the next century.

Dutch Music and Songbooks

Love and Leisure, Marjorie Weisman

from: Marjorie E. Weisman, Vermeer and Music The Art of Love and LeisureMarjorie E. Weisman, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure, (London: National Gallery, 2013).

Whether sacred or secular, Dutch music of the seventeenth century was dominated by songs: simple, catchy and enormously popular. How were the songs disseminated? Oral tradition was strong, and it was also common practice for friends to exchange printed or manuscript music, even internationally, which the recipient would then copy and return. During the course of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam became a centre for music publishing, producing printed music to suit nearly every purse: from inexpensive song sheets hawked on street corners to deluxe music- and songbooks purveyed by publishers and specialist booksellers.

It is important to distinguish between two common types of musical publication: music books (printed scores, or tablature) and songbooks. Both were aimed primarily at amateurs with relatively little musical training, as full-time musicians were not only notoriously impecunious, but of necessity skilled mimics, adept at improvising and devising harmonies on the spot. Many music books contained ensemble music with melodic, bass, and harmony parts that could—depending on the instruments and players available—be performed using various combinations of instruments. Simplified adaptations of dance tunes were particularly popular, for accompanying dances among small circles of friends and family.

Unique among European countries, the Dutch eagerly embraced the printed songbook and developed it into a fine art. Described as 'a portable pharmacy for the soul', songbooks offered a selection of tunes designed to encourage love or soothe its pangs, dispel melancholy, or bring inner peace. The most deluxe publications featured varied typography and attractive layouts interspersed with engraved illustrations by well-known artists. Expensive volumes costing one or two guilders were often reissued in cheaper editions, costing just a few pennies, for a wider audience. The majority of songbooks contained text but no musical notation, just a brief indication of the tune to which they should be sung, typically traditional folk melodies or tunes imported from other countries. Verses could be sung to different tunes, and a single tune could host any number of lyrics. There was lively competition among publishers to include the newest verses, which ranged from poems by some of the most famous writers of the day, to amusingly vulgar rhymes and verses with strong local appeal that referenced area attractions or popular pastimes. These were the pop songs of the day: songs about love, drinking, sex, comic and satirical stories and, on occasion, even religious themes. Songs for a single voice were the most prevalent, sometimes accompanied by virginal, lute, cittern or other instruments.

Predictably, the most popular songs dealt with love in all its guises, and the most charming songbooks were those marketed to young adults enraptured by love's capricious triumphs and travails. Love songs provided entertainment and opportunity for romantic interaction, but also offered consolation in the event of disappointment. Illustrated songbooks were popular gifts from a young man to his sweetheart; most were quite small—about twelve by eighteen centimetres, or even smaller—and could be easily carried in a pocket or hidden from disapproving elders. Publishers quickly realised the commercial potential in the songbook's appeal as an intimate, erotic and eminently portable love-token. Some included a sentimental dedication page, with a space left blank for the suitor to personalise it with his beloved's name.

Den nieuwen oerbeterden Lust-Hof Den nieuwen oerbeterden Lust-Hof (The New Improved Pleasure- Garden)
1607 (title page)
Michiel Vlacq
Engravings by Daniel Vingboom

from: Jennifer Henel, "Striking the Right Chord: Seeing Music in Dutch Genre Painting" Jennifer Henel, "Striking the Right Chord: Seeing Music in Dutch Genre Painting," National Gallery of Art, accessed November 25, 2023,

For many in the seventeenth century, the question of balance (in painting) was not only visual, it was also aural. Indeed, during that time there was an awareness of and interest in a concept later named synesthesia, from the Greek syn (union) and aísthesis (sensation), meaning the union of the senses. Since the 4th century BC, theorists and philosophers, including Aristotle, have explored the link between color and sound, investigating the relationship between chromatic and musical tones.

These concepts were recognized and refined over the centuries by numerous scholars, including the seventeenth-century German Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher, who, among other topics, wrote extensively on music theory. One of Kircher’s most important theories was his work on the correspondence of musical notes to specific colors, which he coded into a chart and published in 1646 (for an adaptation of this chart, see at right). According to Kircher, deep, dark sounds of minor notes are associated with cool, deep colors, while the warmer, brighter sounds of major notes are warmer, lighter colors. As a Jesuit priest, Kircher believed that the coexistence of sensory functions had profound implications in worship and that the immersion of sight and sound had the capacity, as one scholar wrote, to “move the passions, to produce strong emotional effects that, under properly controlled conditions, [could] ravish the soul and lead the faithful closer to the divine.”

Kircher’s articulation of the multisensory relationship between color and music resonates with Van Mander’s advice for artists and suggests that the experience of looking at painting may engage viewers on a variety of sensory levels. For synesthetes, the integration of certain colors and shapes on an artist’s panel or canvas may stimulate a musical experience, which would allow them to “hear” the painting.


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