Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

Richard Egarr’s blog, Vermeer and Music

The feeling I get from the music of Vermeer’s time is the same I get from Vermeer’s paintings. A sense of freedom, spontaneity, naughtiness and passion.

Making music together has always been a way for people to interact, but that’s particularly true of the music from Vermeer’s time. The first half of the 17th century saw the dense, complex contrapuntal works by 16th century composers such as Palestrina give way to an expressive and freer art form, music based on single clear lines with a highly emotional impact – it’s this period too that saw the birth of opera. New ideas about simplicity took hold, and much of the new music being written was for just two players – a melody line that was usually accompanied by a chordal instrument, often a guitar, or a lute. This of course involved both a very intimate level of contact and also allowed room for much spontaneity.

It is this that Vermeer captures so wonderfully in his paintings – the sense of music created in the moment. Perhaps my favourite of his works – Girl Interrupted at Her Music, in New York’s Frick Collection, beautifully conveys that singular moment when you’re playing music with great partners and you find you’re working off each other. Look at her expression, the look she’s giving back over her shoulder to the camera, so to speak, which captures perfectly that moment of shared intimacy that’s part of music making. And of course part of that intimacy is the flirtation that would have gone on. After all, one of the reasons why music was such an important part of European society at the time was that it was a chance to meet and flirt, especially in such an intimate setting as that of a student and teacher. I think her expression is one of being “caught in the act”, something all musicians will recognise! Like with the best photographs, Vermeer’s paintings invite thoughts of what’s going to happen next, and what has just happened.

The instrument alone in The Guitar Player (above) carries a meaning lost on us today. The guitar was a relatively new instrument at the time. In the wealthy Dutch homes of the mid 17th century that Vermeer was painting, people would generally have played the lute – deemed a more “noble” instrument. The Spanish guitar was at that time something quite exotic, with exciting, erotic and new repertoire being written for it. This is quite a racy image! And look at her expression. Who’s she looking at? Who’s she playing with, just out of shot?

The Young Woman Seated at a Virginal might be alone, but there’s another instrument in the picture, a Viola da Gamba. This young woman is perhaps waiting for somebody to come and make music with her.

The instrument itself meanwhile, like the guitar in the previous image, is beautifully and lovingly represented. The positioning of her hands and the way she’s playing is absolutely correct in its detail. The Virginal we see in this painting was also known as a Muselar. They’re basically the domestic, amateur version of the harpsichord. The sound is a little different (it’s been said that Muselar sounded like pigs grunting!) as they’re plucked more towards the centre of the string than the harpsichord. Contemporary composers simply wrote keyboard music that could pretty much be played on any keyboard instrument. The Rolls-Royces of harpsichords and virginals were made by the Ruckers dynasty from Antwerp, a family who made instruments from the 16th to the 18th century. Their instruments are what you would have wished to own if you were a wealthy 17th-century Dutch family. The Queen has a Ruckers harpsichord in her collection today, but we didn’t quite have the nerve to ask to borrow it for our performances alongside the National Gallery’s Vermeer and Music exhibition (but if anyone at the palace is reading this it’s not too late…!). Our harpsichord is a modern copy of a Ruckers one, and the rest of the instruments we’ll be playing – a viola da gamba, lute, violin, baroque guitar, recorder and flute are also either copies or originals from the same period that Vermeer was painting.

Period performance means using instruments as close as possible to the period when the music was written. With them we aim to create a sound as near as we can get to that which the composer would have heard, but what’s more important is the sensibility of the time – the freedom. This music has to be passionate and free, and that is what we hope to convey as we play in the gallery alongside these Vermeers. Different pairs ofAAM musicians are going to be performing short sets every hour on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for the exhibition’s duration. We hope people will pay attention, but if they want to get up and leave that’s fine too. The idea of sitting down and listening in silence to a musical performance is only a 20th century one after all. In Vermeer’s time being involved in a musical performance was a live interactive experience. People weren’t expected to be quiet. Throw things at us if you feel the urge. Well, maybe not while we’re playing, but interact with us, or at the very least come and talk to us afterwards.

The feeling I get from the music of Vermeer’s time is the same I get from Vermeer’s paintings. A sense of freedom, spontaneity, naughtiness and passion.