If the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age are to be believed then life in 17th-century Amsterdam, Delft and The Hague was lived to the accompaniment of music. In a period in which pictures were the great bourgeois art form, produced in their tens of thousands, an estimated 12 per cent of them include scenes of music making. Music is everywhere and no more so than in the work of the greatest artist of the age: 36 paintings by Jan Vermeer survive and 12 of them include explicit references to music (although he himself may well have not been able to play a note; in the inventory compiled at his death in 1675, no musical instruments were recorded).
Music in all its forms — allegorical, poetical, social, amorous and carousing — is the subject of the small but select exhibition at the National Gallery, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure (until September 8). The title is a cunning hook because there are only five Vermeers in the show, the gallery's own pair of music-making women — standing and sitting at a virginal — alongside the Queen's The Music Lesson, Kenwood's The Guitar Player and a further, untypical, girl at her keyboard. These though are accompanied by 20 other works by the likes of Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu, Carel Fabritius and Pieter de Hooch. Nestling in its collection the National has had the Academy of Ancient Music playing merrily away and this is as much a concert as an exhibition.
Music had a curious place in Dutch culture. When the Dutch Republic broke away from the control of the Spanish Habsburgs it lost both its court — the natural seat of musical patronage — and its Catholic faith too. The ruling Stadholder, unlike a monarch, was a servant of the people and less able to indulge his whims, while in Protestant churches music was played before and after the liturgical business but not during: service music meant unaccompanied voices. There was, however, a strong tradition of folk songs and itinerant players and most towns of any size retained musicians for civic functions from processions and fairs to weddings and banquets. While more sophisticated citizens formed select groups — collegia musica — to perform the latest high-end compositions (usually from elsewhere in Europe) the majority of music heard and played was déclassé and participatory rather than passive.
It was this sometimes harmonious, sometimes cacophonous world that Dutch painters reflected in their work. While an artist such as Jan Steen liked to show music as part of bawdy tavern scenes, a prerequisite of the kermis and drunken night out, the majority of the pictures in the exhibition are domestic. Music here is integral, is indeed a facilitator of emotional drama — it is a tool of seduction and capitulation, a signifier of class, a memento mori.