Vermeer & Music: Guest Post by Christopher Bucknall of the Academy of Ancient Music

It is with great honour that I welcome our last Guest Post of the month – this by harpsichordist Christopher Bucknall of the Academy of Ancient Music. I have long been a fan of theirs, and I was more thrilled than I can say when they agreed to contribute. Please welcome Christopher and the AAM to The Seventeenth Century Lady!

I have always enjoyed popping into the National Gallery on breaks between rehearsals in the West End, and have so often gravitated to Rooms 25 and 26 to see the works from the Dutch Golden Age with their intimate portrayals of daily life in the seventeenth century. Drawing me to these paintings are the amazing light and energy of the works but also the occasional glimpses of musicians, giving us tantalising clues into seventeenth century performing practice and instrumental technique.

THE GUITAR PLAYER (De gitaarspeelster) c. 1670-72. Kenwood, English Heritage as Trustees of the Iveagh Bequest

When AAM approached me to play some concerts with violinist Bojan Čičić as part of the National Gallery’s ‘Vermeer and Music’ exhibition, it seemed like I had struck gold twice! The opportunity to play days worth of chamber music with one of my great friends and favourite violinists, and secondly to have an opportunity to explore the sound-world of some of these wonderful paintings that I have enjoyed gazing at for such a long time, were both offers that I could not refuse.

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In devising our programmes, Bojan was inspired by three distinct areas – music written in the Lowlands during Vermeer’s life, music from Dutch composers in subsequent generations, and music inspired by nature (another essential inspiration to both painters and instrument makers of the seventeenth century).

A YOUNG WOMAN SEATED AT THE VIRGINAL (attributed to Johannes Vermeer) c. 1670-1672. Private Collection , New York

Happily, all three areas provided an excuse to delve into obscure works that neither of us had previously performed. In the course of the summer I revisited familiar works by Sweelinck (the Ballo del granduca) and Biber (Sonata Representativa) and discovered much new repertoire. Previously unknown highlights for me were the beautiful Symphonia Sacrae by Nicolaus Kempis with their plangeant contrapuntal lines and virtuosic violin diminutions, the bizarre Sonata El Jardin de Aranjuez by José Herrando full of birdsong and Scarlattian invention, and the exquisite keyboard suites of Pieter Bustijn.

“Staande Virginaalspeelster” c. 1670-1673. National Gallery, London

Playing this repertoire in a small intimate room as part of the exhibition was such a pleasure on so many levels. Never before have I felt the connections between a painting and music so strongly as when I would play Sweelinck one moment, and the next be facing a picture of a musician playing music of this style in a room three hundred and fifty years ago; never before have I been able to query Bojan about the variety of positions he holds the violin on his body and have a myriad of images to back me up! I also found myself scrutinising the virginalists’ keyboard technique – “how could she possibly play Sweelinck divisions standing with the instrument at that height?” This in turn led to me asking questions of myself in performance.

“De muziekles” c. 1662-1664. The Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace

Being surrounded by such wonderful, intimate art over a long period was also wonderful in the way that I felt I began to develop relationships with the characters in the paintings, visiting them frequently and asking myself fresh questions about what they were playing, what they were talking about, what were they thinking. Even more wonderfully, the juxtaposition of live music and art depicting live music clearly brought up such questions to our audiences, who were so curious about the music and the different techniques required to play it. We fielded such an interesting mixture of queries and observations – ranging from detailed technical questions about our instruments through to genuine appreciation that the enjoyment that Bojan and I found playing this music together was so exquisitely replicated in the paintings.

A LADY SEATED AT A VIRGINAL (Zittende virginaalspeelster) c. 1670-1675. The National Gallery, London

Overwhelmingly, it was the sense of intimate communication in both the paintings and the music that we played that unified the exhibition. With such a superb concept, I’m sure that this will not be the last collaborative exhibition of this sort. Whilst I wait for the next one, I’ll continue to enjoy visiting Rooms 25 and 26, and understand the messages of the paintings just that bit better.

AAMThe Academy of Ancient Music was Resident Ensemble at the National Gallery in summer 2013, accompanying the exhibition ‘Vermeer and Music’.

This autumn the AAM features on a new film exploring Vermeer’s life and work, on worldwide cinema release on 10 October. Find out more at http://www.exhibitiononscreen.com/vermeer-and-music.

You can visit the Academy of Ancient Music’s official website, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter!

WOMAN WITH A LUTE (De luitspelster) c. 1662-1664 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Bequest of Collis P. Huntington

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