The Concert is, to me, Vermeer’s most complex and difficult narrative. Maxine, in March of this year asked if the Procuress painting by Baburen, on the wall within this work, was of any iconographical significance. All of the paintings-within-a-painting find interpretation – by their content, of course, but also, I believe, by their positions in Vermeer’s composition. Nothing of a “vermeer” is random!I made comment on The Concert in reference to the CITTERN, which is the Guitar-like instrument on the table. I alluded to the possibilty that Vermeer could have been aware, through Terborch’s travels to England, of the word “sisters” meaning female syblings, and its homonym in Dutch, “cisters”, for this instrument.
The instruments each have symbolic associations. The cittern is the “female” instrument; the viola da gamba (cello-like instrument) with its deep tones represents the “male” presence, also favoured for the sensual connotation in the position of the instrument to the player in the playing. Virginals were made in the Mother and Child structure including the ottavino or extra removable keyboard playing one octave higher than the “mother” (pregnancy symbol). That is not what is here being played by the younger of the two women. It is a harpsichord (which is significant to the narrative)!
The male figure is central in our view and he plays the lute which is the instrument symbolic of romantic love in the art of the Baroque. Find baroque samples here:
The prostitute of Van Baburen’s “Procuress” ignites her concupiscent gent with a dalliance on the same instrument within the painting directly above the older pregnant woman on the right. Vermeer was, of course, conscious of his predecessor’s compositional positioning of the lute, so that the right-angled head or peg box angles toward the man’s heart. In the Vermeer? – The angle of the lute takes a comical turn down toward the young woman’s lap, and if I can be forgiven the anachronism – with the appearance of a targeting martian spacecraft from the old Hollywood classic, “War of the Worlds” (195?)!
The lute in the hands of the man is seen as an icoographical entity, but it also has positional ,directional and narrative intent within the composition. This is observed, as previously stated, in the composition of Van Baburen in its comparison with Vermeer’s comical downturn of the head of the lute. Vermeer makes the angling of the lute subtle by placing it against the dark harpsichord lid, but then increases the effect by continuing the line of the fingerboard with the dark line of the lid’s corner brace. By so doing , Vermeer has made a right angled oblique cornering to which the young girl’s angled head descends. This added corner in combination with the “cornering’ of the massive picture above and the dark lid of her instrument, makes of her bright figure a kind of semi-trapped individual, in a controlled, cloistrophobic (caged) space which could be ominous. Please contain that reasonable credulity about this interpretation, because the case I hope to elucidate, has not yet been made. Allow me to state , as an overview of this hypothesis, that each painting and musical instrument is positionally important in the revelation of the relationships of this narrative. The clothing of the players and the ‘directionals’ within the painting’s room setting are not only compositionally important, but help us decipher it’s meaning.
The link above could be of particlar value in terms of understanding The Concert in relation to the lute and the RUCKERS Harpsichord. The very interesting discovery outlined there for a reason why the Ruckers family decided to only make a specific kind of ‘double’ keyboard harpsichord and its relationship to the LUTE seems, to me, very pertinent to the relationships of the parties in The Concert. Congratulations to the researchers for their adroit analysis and appropriate conclusion.
The harpsichord in The Concert may either depict the single or the double keyboard type, but is likely the double for the very reason discussed in the link included in the September 9th offering above. The ‘Double’ would appear to have been particularly designed to play and accompany the very popular Lute music of the Baroque. It’s second keyboard, only down a fourth (4 notes) was not to be confused with the Virginals Muselar “Mother and Child” configuration which had the second Ottavino keyboard an entire octave higher. Therefore, the symbolism has an entirely different connotation. The double keyboard here would not denote a pregnancy (symbolically), but the romantic link being made. It would strengthen the connection being formed between the older man with the lute and young woman to acknowledge the musical connection. Again, please suspend judgement as to this interpretation and let us go on to the full scene in overview.
Vermeer surprises the viewer with a right-sided composition – and still the light comes from the left. Countering this, the floor design made of tiles in a pattern of large black crosses, lead our eye into the space from the right side to the girl in the centre of the space (and our attention). The orthogonals of the RED (red and yellow are the harbingers of sensuality in Dutch/Vermeerian symbols) chair-back on which the man sits lead the eye through the lush YELLOW jacket she wears to a point on the horizon line behind her on the open wall to the left. The older woman on the right side lacks the power in her colour to compete, though she was dressed in the finest attire. The dress, since it was painted, has been damaged, but, still, it was not intended by Vermeer to attract our eye.
The Man, who is a gentleman only in the archaic sense, is dressed much as the Captain of the Home Militia of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. The large decorative swath of material indicates a high rank and the sword, aside from it’s symbolic meaning, as Protector/Justice, also indicates the Civic Guard is represented in this man. A man of this rank would not be a younger man, and certainly senior to the young girl. More is required on the relationship of instruments and paintings to the individuals.
In ‘The Concert’ the older of the two women stands before the Van Baburen ‘Procuress’ apparently gesturing to the timing of the song that she shares vocally with , at least, the younger woman. Reference to the difference in age between the two women is primarily based on the subtle folds of skin under the eyes of the ‘older’ lady, who is, also, found to be pregnant by the spreading of her rich fur-trimmed jacket. In fact, her proximity to the painting would not likely be incidental only, but is necessarily connected to the woman’s physical state in the interpretation of relationships within the narrative context. That the pregnancy is ill-conceived is sure.
The Militiaman sits dividing the second painting into halves. The painting, which decorates the cover of the harpsichord, even appears to have TWO horizon lines on either side of the man’s head. The content of each side and even the shape of the work is telling in the symbolic context. On the side of this painting nearest the young girl, the scene is of a comparitively lush, ebullient, summers landscape which relates on a par with the one above the pretty young woman. The horizon is high on this side and visually contradicts the lower one on the older woman’s side, which contains a barren, tumultuous, and indistinct view endind on the far right in faded reflection of the blue-gray woman’s gown! Noting the shape of the lid of the harpsichord, it would appear to crescendo at the end with the girl and decrescendo at the end of the standing woman. The last painting – another landscape of summer is inviting, except for two of it’s features. The heaviness of the dark frame weighs upon the girl like an omen and the picture itself contains a dead branch or tree. Published Emblems books, with which Vermeer was familiar, contained one showing a young woman, bereaved, beside the dead body of an old man, warning against girls of tender age marrying old men for any reason. The branch in the scene could be an allusion to this admonition in the relationship to the gent in The Concert.
The Concert- Above it was noted that the proximity of characters to paintings was considered significant to the narrative’s interpretation. The identification of musical instruments with the figures is more subtle, but just as revealing and equally linear. By “linear”, I refer to the left to right sequence of instruments, which can be assigned to the actors in their positions on stage. Beginning left, the brightly sunlit cither lies atop the carpet-covered table, the centre axis line of which is aimed directly at the girl. Vermeer has brilliantlly “colour-coded” each player by associating the cither (and tabletop, papers and the yellow/black motif next to it in the Belgian (?)rug to the girl and her Yellow/Black jacket, satin/caffa skirt, skin colouring, etc.; and, similarly, the under-the-table colouring of the viola is reflected in the dress of the jonker,- from his dark hair, coat and sash, the chair and even the scabbard. The lute and the harpsichord, BOTH, are connected to all three individuals. The lute’ as the man “aims” it at the girl is as telling as the older woman to the lute in “The Procuress” painting. The younger plays the harpsichord, but the colours of the older’s fur-trimmed jacket are seen reflected in the lid. The complexity of this work is astonishing! More to come.
The Concert reveals her secrets slowly! Again, the EMBLEMS play a part:
Here the reference is to two hearts atuned so that nothing need be spoken. The strings of an idle stringed instrument will sympathetically reverberate to another atuned to its frequencies that is played near by. These may seem pleasant thoughts, but in Vermeer’s painting they are having dire consequences. Vermeer’s pictures lull one with the timelessness with which they are imbued. As in other works, such as “Girl Interrupted at Her Music”, a passage of time and events is evident. (See November 14, 2001 above and the painting on this site) In “The Concert”, the movement-in-chair idea is repeated. The Officer has changed his position in his chair from facing the older woman, toward the younger. The sensual intent is declared, symbolically in the bright red chairback, the orthogonals of which are as misaligned as the man is in his chair. The perspective of these receding lines would go to a point on the horizon, if correctly placed, slightly LOWER. Instead, the lines pass neatly at the upper and lower edges of the girl’s yellow sleeve!
But here we observe something more sinister in the under-the-table, dark motives of the hypocritical Protector of the Home-front (as was suggested by the viola in the shadows of the table). It is not possible that the young girl’s exposed white slipper can occupy the same floor tile as the toe of this man’s boot without contact! Vermeer’s intent is clear. Whether the ladies be friends or sisters, the connivance of this reprobate malefactor will soon divide and conquer to a final disaster. Vermeer, again, warns his viewers through the narrative of this work, of the consequence of intemperate behavior.
This link no longer works, but it’s content is preserved here below and is the link at my third paragraph, above, showing the musical connection between the Lute and Harpsichord in the day of The Concert.
The text following is the beautifully logical analysis at that site of what is referred to as:
THE PUZZLE – Lute to RUCKER”S Harpsichord
The curious disposition of the original double-manual harpsichord has been the subject of considerable speculation since 1739, but especially so over the past fifty years. The problem, simply stated, runs as follows.
During the first half of the 17th century, the Ruckers family made two basic kinds of harpsichord. They made a standard single, 1×8’, 1×4’, C/E-c3, and they made a double-manual instrument, 1×8’, 1×4’, upper manual like the single’s, lower manual GG/BB-c3, but with the lower manual shifted to the left by a fourth, so that its apparent range was C/E-f3.
No contemporary explanation is known as to why the Ruckers made the lower manual differently, but there exists a letter showing that the family, in 1637, refused to make any other kind of double. The things that make the lower manual different from the upper (and hence from the single manual harpsichord) are:
a. The lower manual sounds a fourth lower than the upper.
b. The lower manual’s being at a different pitch requires the addition of extra strings at Eb-G#.
c. The lower manual plucks much further toward the middle of the string.
d. The lower manual has its buff stop divided exactly as the single does, so that the buff stop on the upper manual is shifted a fourth down.
So the problem can be expressed as “Given the differences between the two manuals on the transposing harpsichord, what was the lower manual intended to be used for?”
Four Proposed Answers
A number of answers to this puzzle have been proposed. It has been variously supposed to have been intended for:
(a) routine transpositions down a fourth or fifth to accompany other instruments
(b) the transposition from Chorton to Kammerton
(c) to provide less experienced or assistant choir masters a convenient way to accompany singers reading from chiavette
(d) to provide contrasting sounds between the two keyboards
While it is true, as Franz Felix suggested to me, that these instruments were “…intended to provide multiple practical solutions to working musicians”, I don’t believe any of these explanations can have been the primary reason for the production of these instruments.
For example, many writers (including Raymond Russell) have suggested that the lower manual was added to help players in the routine transpositions down a fourth and a fifth, which they commonly had to do. This would be a most satisfactory solution if the lower manual could be imagined as accompanying, say, an alto recorder playing music written for the descant. The problem is that the difference in pitch is wrong; the lower manual is a fourth below the upper. An alto recorder is a fifth below a descant.
A similar problem precludes the Chorton/Kammerton difference. The Kammerton (chamber pitch) is used to describe the pitch used for domestic music-making. The Chorton (choir pitch) was that of church organs, and hence church choral music. This distinction is attractive as well, but again the difference is different. Chorton is between a major second and a major third higher than Kammerton , and hence could not account for the difference of a fourth.
The interval of a fourth between the reference clef and chiavette , however, does appear to match the interval between the keyboards. Vocal music in Italy was for a time written in a “little key”, transposed up so as to allow the tessitura to fit better within the lines of the staff. While any competent organist could have performed the required transpositions, Grant O’Brien argues in his great book Ruckers that the lower keyboard was made a fourth lower because for “rehearsals and training, it was necessary to use a harpsichord to avoid the expense of engaging blowers to operate the bellows of the organ. A student or assistant taking these rehearsals would have found the Ruckers double-manual harpsichord…indispensable.”
To see the problems here, we must first imagine the assistant choir director rehearsing the choir on Wednesday night in Amsterdam. The young director is seated at the instrument, and playing the various choral parts from music written in chiavette , a fourth up from reference.
The piece appears in F. If he were to transpose it down a fourth, and play it in C (on the upper manual), it would sound in the original pitch, and there would be no problem. But not being competent to perform the transposition, he plays the transposer’s lower manual, so that the sound that results is at the same pitch that would be played by the upper, if the piece were written in regular clef. This explanation might make sense had the Ruckers not put in extra strings for Eb-G#.Though the pitch is in general correct, when the assistant tries to play the G# key, expecting a G#, he instead gets Ab.The chiavette explanation renders inexplicable the fact that the Ruckers spent so much effort providing the extra Eb-G# strings, which are only of use if the music being played on each keyboard sounds in a difference key. If the “little key” transposition on the lower keyboard makes the two keyboards sound in the same key, the extra strings don’t make sense. They are a hindrance, not a requirement.
Secondly, we must confess the general implausibility of the scene described above; If your assistant director couldn’t transpose down a fourth, you’d be more likely to beat him with a stick than to buy him a $20,000 harpsichord. These instruments were the top of the Ruckers’ line – they cost between twenty and thirty pounds (with valuable decoration). It is inconceivable that these instruments were made for church rehearsal halls instead of the halls of royalty, the court, and the better homes of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, in van Dijck’s exhaustive catalog of harpsichords in old Netherlands paintings in Het klavecimbel in de Nederlandse kunst tot 1800 , while there are about a dozen two-manual harpsichords pictured, half of them transposers, most are in domestic scenes, and none are placed in any ecclesiastical situation – certainly not in choir rehearsal rooms.
While rehearsing a choir from chiavette may have been an occasional use of such an expensive instrument, the idea that this was its primary or ordinary function is simply not credible.
The fourth proposal, as set forth by R. T. Shann, is that the differences in the lower manual are not for transposing at all, but intended to provide additional contrasting sounds. He asserts that if the Ruckers had only wanted to make transposing harpsichords, then all they had to do was couple the keyboards together, as they did in the keyboards of the Mother and Child virginals. While I find this assertion wholly convincing, it does not really explain the real use for which the lower keyboard is intended. For an argument to be persuasive, it should account for all the differences listed above – pitch, extra strings, pluck position, and the unusual buffing arrangement.
A New Solution
David Ledbetter’s fascinating book “Harpsichord and Lute Music in 17th-Century France” helps explain an important aspect of the musical environment in which the transposing harpsichords were built. Lute music was at its greatest ascendancy during the first half of the seventeenth century. The gradual rise of the harpsichord as the favorite secular instrument took place during this period, but the established standard was the lute. It was in this period that the Ruckers made the transposing doubles (and refused to make aligned doubles, even when asked by Charles I).
The tessitura of the lute is about a fourth lower than that of the harpsichord. This is illustrated in the examples Ledbetter provides of musicians rewriting lute music for the harpsichord. Typically they transpose up a fourth , often from a minor to d minor. The fact that such rewrites were done clearly indicates a desire to play lute music on the harpsichord; I believe it also implies a desire to “play like a lute” on the harpsichord, to make a harpsichord sound like a lute. (One obvious provision for playing like a lute during this period was the lautenwerk, a gut-strung, shorter version of the harpsichord, which first came into existence during this same period. It however couldn’t be made to sound like a harpsichord , and nothing much came of it.)
So the decision to buy a harpsichord in Europe, in the early 1600’s, was somewhat complex. The buyer wanted to play the literature for the harpsichord, but everyone also loved the sound of the lute (which was frequently said then as now to be one of the most ravishing in all music).
Making a Harpsichord Sound Like a Lute
Now if I wanted to make a harpsichord sound like a lute , I’d play it in the lower tessitura, I’d buff it, and I’d pluck it nearer the center of the string. If we examine the differences between the Ruckers upper keyboard (the standard single) and the lower keyboard, we find that four accommodations have been made:
It plays a fourth lower. This would have been to play harpsichord music in the lower tessitura, so as to make it sound more like a lute playing lute music. (Philip Tyre has pointed out that the lower must have in fact been the more important manual, since the tuning pin labels on the Transposer are given in reference to the lower manual, not the upper.)
It has the extra Eb-G# strings. These were required, in meantone tuning, to keep the player from having to retune when moving to the lower keyboard and playing music that sounded in a different pitch.
The plucking point is much further toward the center of the string. While the lute, like the guitar, is occasionally plucked close to the nut, the normal playing position is proportionally much closer to the sound-hole. A quick survey of baroque paintings of lutenists, and the observance of modern performance practice will make this abundantly clear. The pluck point for the Transposer lower manual is dramatically further toward the center of the string, and it makes a very different, lutey, kind of sound.
The standard buff arrangement for a single manual harpsichord has been moved to the lower manual. A harpsichord can be made to sound more lutey by the simple expedient of pulling on the buff, which is often called the “lute stop” in spite of the other meaning of this expression. The buff hastens the decay of the sound and reduces some of the overtones. In the Transposer, the standard single arrangement, which is split at f-f#, has been moved so that the lower manual is split at this point, the upper necessarily now split at c-c#. This implies that the lower manual was the one more likely to be buffed. Significantly, the Ruckers never buffed a four-foot; in lutes, the unison strings are of gut, the octave of brass, so buffing a 4’ would have defeated the purpose of “sounding like a lute”.
All four differences between the two manuals are thus explained by this conceit: the Ruckers made the transposing doubles for secular use, for a market which valued the sound of the lute, and which they were able to supply by a modification of their basic single-manual harpsichord. This quickly became a popular form of harpsichord, and probably did “provide multiple practical solutions to working musicians”. The Ruckers family continued building them until the second half of the century, when the popularity of the lute began to decline.
Reid Byers, 283 Nassau St., Princeton, NJ, 08540, USA
Irene, you have not developed this page. I’ve seen all your posts. That will more than compensate, but it is a shame to some respect.
The Concert – It appears to me that the identity of the young girl, in profile at the harpsichord, is the same model as the Girl with the Pearl Earring. The portly gentleman with the Lute is likely Vermeer’s friend and mentor, Gerard Terborch, who may be the seducing gent in the Girl with a Wineglass. These artists liked to portray each other in compromising situations for fun. Terborch, in The Dispatch, I believe, portrays Vermeer as the wiley, seducing messenger of the love letter being written by the officer, who is identified as Netscher, Terborch’s known student. The sniffing hound, the playing card and the broken pipe, gives him away. Jan Steen seems to have, jokingly, used Johannes and Catharina as his models for his Bathsheba. The procuress hag with the letter from King David to the beauty that he saw bathing on her roof, is the king in disguise (or is it Vermeer?). This will seem quite a stretch of imagination until one actually places the head of Bathsheba beside the Lady Writing a Letter from Washington DC’s National Gallery. Then, see the similarity of features, in the same manner, comparing the hag with the Geographer! Vermeer used a male dressed as a procuress, it appears, in his Procuress. I wonder who he is?
Look our story today shows the Vermeer has been found in Blackpool, UK in the most unusual of places
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