The Music Lesson

The Music Lesson (1662-1665, Royal Colection, St. James’ Palace, London).

The Music Lesson

This image is taken from Essential Vermeer(

Claire´s project: The Music Lesson.

1. Introduction. 

The first thing to say before I present my personal creation is the motive that helped me to choose this particular painting, The Music Lesson. There is a mystery surrounding the painting as well as the title, because one could think that according to the tendencies in the mid-seventeenth century, what Vermeer used to paint was a compilation of everyday scenes, such as the scene represented in this painting, with a girl playing the virginal and her teacher next to her.

However, I was not surprised at all when I discovered little details that make this painting, in some ways, enigmatic. The mirror just over the girl’s head and with her face reflected on it; the reflection does not match with the position in which the girl’s head is. When we see the painting, the girl is concentrated on the keyboard, but when we look at the reflection, the girl’s face is turned to the teacher, with a look that could suggest desire, or love. There is a double meaning here, and I will try to unravel this mystery.

The first thing to say before I present my personal creation is the motive that helped me to choose this particular painting, The Music Lesson. There is a mystery surrounding the painting as well as the title, because one could think that according to the tendencies in the mid-seventeenth century, what Vermeer used to paint was a compilation of everyday scenes, such as the scene represented in this painting, with a girl playing the virginal and her teacher next to her.

There is also the reflection of the legs of Vermeer’s easel, in a possible attempt to remain alive in the viewers’ mind. Could it be a tribute to him? Or was it an intention to mix up the real world and the imaginary world of paintings?

The third strange thing in the painting is the viola da Gamba in the middle of the scene, as if it was abandoned there. As I have read, music was the expression of more intense feelings, and it was also an excuse for polite contact between the sexes. May be this abandoned instrument another strategy used by Vermeer to suggest the viewers the form of a human body? Or was a simple strategy to break with the apparent monotony?

There were some other curiosities in the painting that induced me to choose this particular work. However the title was one of the most important incentives, because music has become a really outstanding activity in my life. Even if painting is one of the most relevant artistic disciplines, I think music can help it to develop the influence on people. The sense of sight is so much used that we omit many details, to the point that colours, textures or forms can go unnoticed. The sense of hearing needs of a better training to get all the different details.

I do not really know if this feeling towards music is caused because of my parent’s lack of hearing; this situation may have been another incentive to develop my musical hearing, to appreciate every opportunity I have to listen to any type of music. In fact, I think music is able to create much deeper feelings than a mere painting, but if we add a musical environment to that painting, it will be almost impossible to forget the sensations springing up.

My intention is to give a different view to this Vermeer’s painting by adding some details and telling the reader a story about the enormous power music have in our minds, to the point that the girl playing the virginal will come to a point where reality and fantasy will be tangled up. My personal interpretation will play with the mirror as the link between the real world, with the real problems, and the imaginary world, in which this girl playing the virginal can do what she wants and can think by herself. It is the story of every girl that uses to daydream on a better future.

And I have to finish this introduction with a sentence that expresses all what I feel about music. This sentence is the one that appears on the virginal that plays the girl in The Music Lesson:

Mvsica letitiae co[me]s medicina dolor[vm].<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–>

“Music is the companion of joy, and the balm for sorrow.”


2. The Music Lesson.

She used to look at her reflection on the mirror every time she was obliged to play another boring song in the virginal. She did not like that instrument, she had preferred to play the viola da Gamba once again, but people said that the virginal was the appropriate instrument for a girl of her age. She really liked the sounds coming from this decorated piano, but the keyboard, its sequence of keys, white, black, white, black, white, black… transported her to a different world, a world in which she could choose what to do, no matter what her family thought.

The viola permitted her to enjoy music as part of herself. She touched the rounded shape of this instrument while dreaming about love and hate: she loved the teacher sitting next to her, but she hated all the paraphernalia prepared by her parents and by society as well to get young aristocrats together. People said she had to be a polite young lady prepared to entertain guests whenever it was necessary. But she knew the truth: that playing that instrument was an excuse to bring Stephen closer to her, in an attempt to fall in love with him.

Sophie was in love with Stephen, but she also knew his family had economic problems and needed a supporter to pay all their debts. She would be the walking bank solving all their problems. This thought made her sad, because she was not able to accept that she was nothing but a piece of meat. She felt exhibited, just as chops were in the market. She accepted her destiny as a rich and not loved woman when she was thirteen, and with sixteen she was able not to cry when she thought on the life waiting for her.

Playing some music was the unique consolation prize for her, because music transported her to a different world in which the real world broke up and new opportunities appeared. She thought it was another trick of her mind, the “consolation of music” as she used to describe that feeling. There was this sentence written in the virginal:

Music is the consolation of joy, and the balm for sorrow.

The first time she saw the other world she was playing a baroque rhythm, and suddenly she felt a strange sensation, as if her soul had travelled. She felt comfortable in that place, not in her body, but with the same appearance she had. She was able to listen to the music she was playing, but she was watching a kind of film in which she was looking at Stephen with desire.

The sensation suddenly disappeared and she came to reality. Everything was as usual, and she felt terrified of the experience she had just lived. She could not understand what had really happened, and she kept this event in secret.

In her bedroom, she went over all the circumstances that led her to that paranormal experience. Was it a trickery of her mind? Was she going mad? Maybe she needed a little bit of rest, her parents had pressured her into accepting the concerted matrimony with Stephen so many times that both her mind and body were exhausted. She went to bed and forgot everything happened before that moment.

On Thursday she started playing another piece of music. In this occasion it was a rehearsal of a song she was going to play in a party her parents were organizing for her. She looked at the mirror and saw nothing. Her frustration grew as she saw Stephen withdrawn with his own thoughts. Maybe he was thinking on the party and the real possibility of announcing their wedding. She hated him because of this.

She looked out of the corner of her eyes and saw a strange glittering. The light entering the room was fabulous: there were three elegant windows and the light was yellow and bright. This light invited her to free her mind and enjoy a new pleasure: the pleasure of being an individual enjoying her individuality, her femininity and her ability to express her thoughts and feelings by playing a song in the virginal. She felt suddenly fulfilled. She realized she was able to enjoy the sun rays, the smell of flowers and the sounds of nature with no other ambition than to learn from all these things. She had discovered herself.

The reflection she saw in the mirror did not afraid her this second time. She knew that girl on the other side of the mirror was her real self, the one that was brave enough to do what she wanted, to say ‘no’ to the demands of society. She looked again at the mirror and forced a smile to make that reflected twin know that she had found the truth out.

Sophie was obsessed by her reflection on the mirror to the point that she started playing night and day that instrument she used to hate. She stopped eating and even dreaming, because she was so fascinated with the images she saw in the mirror that she desired to be inside that perfect world. The unique way to do this was by playing the virginal even in the small hours.

She was really sad because she knew her parents were worried about her, but she immediately thought about all the different situations to which her parents had led to, and the enormous amount of obligations she had before she discovered her secret world. In this way, she started hating everything but herself in the mirror, to the point that one day her parents gave up and fitted a room out with different instruments and many mirrors for her to be happy in that place. She went definitely mad.

Sophie was not worried about the fact that all her relatives thought she was insane, because she had some friends in that other reality. One of them was a man called Johannes Vermeer, a man who she first saw painting an image of herself. She asked him about the motivations he had to paint that strange image of a girl playing a kind of piano and looking at a mirror and he said:

I enjoy painting about the world that everybody considers real, but what I really try to do is to encourage people to look beyond the limits. Happiness is a mental state, and you have achieved this state through your music.

Sophie was amazed by the knowledge he had of the depths of her soul, and she fervently desired to have another encounter with this strange character. The opportunity arose early. When she was playing baroque music, Vermeer appeared in the mirror and continued painting that girl playing the piano. Suddenly she realized that what Vermeer was painting was the scene where her first vision on the mirror took place! The same dress, the reflection on the mirror of her face with a strange gesture, Stephen teaching her how to exercise her fingers to reach the most distant keys…

Vermeer smiled at the surprised face of Sophie. She was not able to understand what the mirror was trying to tell her, and she started crying. Vermeer came closer to her reflection and touched her hair. She felt a shiver down her spine.

Sorry for not telling you about my intentions, Vermeer said. I am painting you to teach people a lesson about life. Can you see the reflection on the mirror, Sophie? She is your real self, isn’t she?

What I am trying to do is to show people that these habits in life are obliging them to put aside the important things. You are a product of society to the point that you real self disappeared and started a new life inside the mirror. This way of life is destroying the good part of us, the spontaneous, happy and desirable part.

You have discovered the reality as such, and because of this you yielded to reason and accepted that you are not able to live happily in a society that obliges you to marry a man for money.

They say you are mad, they do not know what happiness is. If they were you, they would have done the same as you did, be sure of that.

Music has helped you to reach this point, Sophie. Do you remember the sentence, Sophie? Music is the companion of joy and the balm for sorrow. You have reached the sublime! Be happy, because the key to real happiness is knowledge, and you know it.

Sophie understood what Vermeer was explaining her. She realized she was a lucky person because through music she had discovered a way to happiness.

Sophie continued playing the virginal, but she recovered the good sense, according to what her family said. From that moment on, she tried to show people what was beautiful and delicate in the world, in an attempt to bring happiness closer to society. And she achieved the better result, to be happy with herself in the real world.

3. Conclusion.

Although we think Vermeer is a painter of everyday scenes, the real fact is that he tries to show the viewer subtle differences with the real world that make us think about the lack of attention we have.

As I said in the introduction, our sense of sight is trained to see what we want to see. More than that, our minds are trained to think in a determined way, to the point that we are becoming more and more similar to each other. Vermeer is different from the other painters because he shows the little and usual scenes of life with a view that encourages us to think about the beauty that surrounds us.

A face on a mirror, some letters printed on a virginal, the bright colours of the tapestry, or the kind of light coming from the windows are, in my opinion, suggestions made by Vermeer. The sense of the sentence, Music is the companion of joy and the balm for sorrow leads me to think about the deep feeling Vermeer tries to transmit.

Vermeer was a prodigious artist and I have tried to pay my personal tribute to Vermeer by creating a story where I explain what The Music Lesson means to me. It has surprisingly required a big effort on my part, and to be true to myself, I thought I would not be able to create such a story, but I have enjoyed writing this.











2 responses to “The Music Lesson

  1. The Music Lesson depicts an “older” man (40’s?) who is entertained by a young woman who stands before the virginal’s keyboard (muselar – “mother and child” type. In Vermeer’s “Lady Standing at the Virginal” I have suggested that he used more than one symbol of a pregnancy to elicit its illicit nature within the context. One of these is the mother and child virginal such as the Music Lesson displays. One writer recently observed that the gent in this work may be the father of the girl and that it, again, may be Vermeer with one of his daughters. Since the painter is not at his easel, in the mirror, it could well have been, and particularly due to the unidentified (painter) painting of a “Roman Charity” that illustrates the ancient tale of Cimon and Peres, father and daughter, as she compassionately offers her breast to him who is starved awaiting execution in a prison, which is on the wall behind the man in Vermeer’s painting. Whoever the older man is, he is intended to be senior to the girl and for the same reason, I believe, as in “The Concert” of which I wrote in August through October of 2003. I do not think that he is intended to be the father in the context of the “Music Lesson”, however, but it’s possible that the man and girl who modeled could have incidentally, been related – we cannot know. The admonition here seems to be, as in the Concert against entertaining trouble in the form of the cad of an older man seducing the young woman in private.
    Vermeer may have revealed the methodology of a CAMERA OBSCURA in this painting by, first, the inclusion of the MIRROR, which reflects a young woman’s visage, and the partial scene behind her. In the reflection there, he includes his painters easel and a “paintbox” that may be the wooden item in the foreground of the Geographer as well. It may also have seconded as his painter’s stool, as the low vanishing point on the girl’s sleeve may indicate. Without the mirror, the presence and dimensions of an absent artist would not be known. As it is revealed, the LEVEL OF THE ARTIST”S EYE, as the viewer may determine by the mirror’s image, is very likely at the point of a NAIL, located above the mirror’s ornamental hanging device. As, also, the nail in the Milkmaid was given significance in its absence, so the presence of the nail, here, has been given the place-of-honour as the pin- hole in Vermeer’s Camera. Vermeer, in a sense, paints himself outside the room, as though a reluctant voyeur, observing the scene through the pin-hole of the Camera.

    The method of seduction, is the wine of the white decanter on the table, though no glass is shown. The evidence is with the girl’s skirt, which is not purposely raised revealing the (RED- sensual symbol)underskirt, as in Dutch pictures of ladies at work and protecting their clothes from soil. No. It would be raised higher in a symmetrical fashion and tucked in some way. I have previously written regarding the problems that the inebriated girl’s in Genre paintings by Vermeer and others had with skirts while seated. this Lady has risen, apparently, from an episode with the Viola da Gamba (symbol of a male) and is unaware of the skirt’s disarray. Vermeer further indicates her muddle and intoxication by means of the out-of-focus image of her face in the askew perspective of the mirror. The man is a patient predator and who is not the Gentleman Protector that his Society would deem him to be. The inscription on the cover of the virginal states that “MUSIC is the Companion of Joy and a Balm (or Medicine) for Sorrow.” Here, though, Vermeer has shown that one commits folly and errs if one considers WINE as the companion and a medicine.

  2. Pingback: 9 Possible Hidden Secrets Behind Famous Paintings·

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