Play It Again, Jan

Music is integral to the National Gallery’s Vermeer show, perfectly representing the arc of life itself

Michael Prodger

 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.

The ability to play an instrument, and preferably several (though not too well) was a desirable accomplishment in both men and women, and because music is mathematically based it was often seen as a nobler art than painting. So when Frans van Mieris the Elder painted himself strumming a cittern he was showing himself as standing above the artisan. Gabriel Metsu may well have been a keyboard player because the same highly decorated virginal appears in at least four of his pictures-it was too expensive to be a mere prop. The scientist Constantijn Huygens collected a wide variety of instruments for his own use, even asking Nicholas Lanier, Charles I’s leading musician, for purchasing advice. The exhibition includes a clutch of period instruments as well as the printed songbooks that popularised the latest compositions.

While artists clearly relished the opportunities offered by musical instruments to display pattern, texture, and light falling on wood, ivory and tortoiseshell it was music’s role in courtship that attracted them the most. In this context Vermeer was just one performer among many. His guitar player looks off to the side-lips parted in mid song — at a figure unseen by us. Who but a man, though, would warrant her yellow silks with ermine trim and an expression that carries more than the pleasures of music making? In the Queen’s Music Lesson a man stands next to the virginal-playing young woman. Her head, reflected in a mirror above, is turned slightly towards him, although whether to look at her fingers or glance at him is unclear: is his raptness the result of her music or her closeness? His other keyboard-playing women look out frankly at the spectator, inviting us in to join them in a duet that may, just possibly, be not simply musical. In Vermeer’s highly attuned paintings the harmony of string instruments is subtly but unequivocally likened to the harmony of lovers’ hearts.

The exhibition reveals other complementary notes too. Wind instruments being played rarely occur in these genteel interiors because the effort distorts the face of the musician. Viols and flutes nestle next to skulls and hour-glasses in vanitas still lifes: the sweetness and transience of music perfectly representing the arc of life itself. Songbooks are a familiar presence, not just because of their practical role but also because they were frequently exchanged as lovers’ tokens. And the instruments themselves hold second meanings: the shape of the lute meant that it was recognised as a symbol of female genitalia and the curves of violins were understood to mirror the female form. If the songs work their intended spell, the hands in these pictures will soon press and caress flesh rather than keyboards or strings.

Any exhibition that brings together more than a couple of Vermeers is well worth seeing and this one places him in very good company. Its real achievement though is in separating a particularly resonant melody from among the superabundance of Dutch painting.

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