The iridescent jewel shimmering in Johan Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring captivates the eye, but not all pearls are so perfectly shaped, weighted, or smooth. The French called rough or irregular pearls baroque, and the term now denotes the ornate and unpredictable art produced by seventeenth-century Europe. By turns intimate, brash, tender, and rousing, the eclectic music of Vermeer’s time contains pearls of myriad dimensions.
In the centuries before Vermeer’s own, Netherlandish composers dominated European music to an unprecedented degree. Adrian Willaert and Orlande de Lassus were among the dozens of Dutch and Flemish composers to staff important positions throughout Europe and make Netherlandish music an international style. By Vermeer’s day, however, the situation had changed. Civil discord and the rise of both France and Italy as cultural exporters gradually weakened Dutch influence abroad, and the advent of Calvinism strictly limited public music-making within the country itself. Aside from its famous Carillon towers, organs, and amateur music societies, there were relatively few venues for public concerts. One traveler passing through the Netherlands complained that the only music to be heard was “the jingling of bells and ducats.”
The seventeenth-century Netherlands retained a rich musical culture, however; it had simply moved to a more intimate, less public setting. Bourgeois amateurs pursued their musical pastimes privately among friends and family, and wealthy patrons commissioned works better suited to salons than concert halls. The subject matter of the Golden Age of Dutch painting underwent a similar development. While painters elsewhere busied themselves with religious or grand historical scenes, Dutch painters cultivated a strikingly modern interest in the ordinary and domestic. Rembrandt van Rijn, Dirck Hals, and Vermeer, among others, all demonstrated the same fascination with the humble but dignified life of the middle classes. Vermeer himself shed light on his era’s musical culture in such paintings as The Music Lesson, The Guitarist, and Young Girl with Flute. The Netherlands’ free and liberal press eagerly supplied these amateurs with music tailored to their tastes and abilities, and much of the music on this program draws on these publications originally intended for domestic merriment.
Der Fluyten Lust-hof (“The Flute’s Garden of Delights”) was published at mid-century in Amsterdam and collected many of the century’s popular tunes arranged for descant recorder. Its author, Jacob van Eyck, was a Dutch carillonneur who supplemented his income playing flute for churchyard strollers. “Malle Symen” (“Simple Simon”), “Daphne,” and “Engelse Nachtegaeltje” (“English Nightingale”) are all found in van Eyck’s anthology, although each had existed in popular culture long before and were often set by composers. “Malle Symen” and “Daphne” especially have the lilting, melancholy air of folk songs. “Engelse Nachtegaelgje” even seems to incorporate the bird’s song into its melody. Van Eyck treated each tune to progressively difficult variations to showcase his own considerable skill, and the arrangements on this program continue the tradition of adapting these popular melodies to specific performers and audiences.
A second important collection of music from mid-century Amsterdam is ‘t Uitnement Kabinett (“The Excellent Cabinet”), an anthology of pieces for one, two, and three unspecified instruments by both Dutch and foreign composers. The contents of this “excellent cabinet” offer a glimpse into the varied musical life of Vermeer’s contemporaries. Some of the pieces were common currency, including “Carileen,” a theater tune often paired with words about an amorous shepherdess, and “Frere Frapar.” Others, such as the German Johann Schop’s Praeludium, are progressive and challenging works that would have taxed any player’s ability. The Dutch public clearly wanted music suitable for a wide range of ensembles and technical skill. Nicolaus à Kempis orchestrated his many Symphonias for a varied number of instrumental combinations and introduced to them the virtuosic figuration characteristic of Italian sonatas. The dance suites of William Brade, an Englishman, and the elegant but demanding sonatas for viola da gamba by Johannes Schenk draw on English and French viol traditions, illuminating the intermingled national styles within the Netherlands’ cosmopolitan cities.
Samuel Scheidt and Heinrich Scheidemann were both German composers who studied in Amsterdam with the great Dutch organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Scheidt’s fame rests primarily upon his organ and sacred music, but his music for instrumental ensemble has great appeal, too. “O Nachbar Roland” adopts an English tune as its subject, first heard in the second violin, and spins a series of tightly woven variations leading to a climactic conclusion. The tune Scheidemann sets as his Judentanz (“Jewish Dance”) also has English, not Jewish, origins. It was a popular melody, appearing in van Eyck’s collection under the title “Kit’s Allemande.” Scheidemann subjects the tune to elaborate divisions and mutations, exploiting its colorful harmonic potential.
It is the Flemish composer Carolus Hacquart, however, who best captures the dynamic play of light and dark that so characterizes Dutch painting. His Sonata sesta, from the collection Harmonia Parnassia, boldly juxtaposes themes, affections, orchestration, and timbre. Surprising bizzaria, such as the rapid alternation of adagio and presto tempi within the same movement, lend this work a very Baroque unpredictability.
Cornelis Padbrué, a Haarlem town musician and one of the foremost Dutch composers of the seventeenth century, published one of the few books of madrigals on a Dutch text in 1631. Entitled Kusjen (“Kisses”), these pieces playfully set a translation of the Book of Kisses, a collection of erotic ruminations by Johannes Secundus. In each poem, Secundus invokes the ravishing lips of his mistress. Padbrué’s music embodies the text, often illustrating musically specific words and phrases, and loses none of its charm when performed by instruments alone. The opening lines of the Derde Kusjen (“Third Kiss”) give a taste of the poem’s tenor:
’Tis no Kiss my Fair bestows;
Nectar ‘tis whence new Life flows;
All the Sweets which nimble Bees
In their ozier Treasuries
With unequall’d Art repose
In one Kiss her Lips disclose.
— Michael Bane