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"Perhaps the Greatest of Musical Paintings"

On Jan Brueghel’s “The Sense of Hearing”

by David Yearsley

In contrast to their still-life ancestors from the 17th-century, modern visual depictions of music would best concentrate on technologies of sound and the regulation of the senses: instead of a lute reclining alongside a half-filled goblet, the artist would present an iPod next to a can of Red Bull. The latter might be taken as an allegory for a modern world in which rampantly individualistic music consumption is paralleled by communal musical silence.

For all its excess of lavishly represented instruments and scores, the sonic space implied by Jan Brueghel’s, The Sense of Hearing from 1618, now in the Prado in Madrid, is strikingly lacking in representations of actual musical sound. Within the world of the picture the only music-making is either mythic or marginal: a naked duo comprised of the lute-playing Venus and the demurely singing Eros is the symbolic stuff of legend, like a visitation from one of the paintings hanging on the back wall or on the lid of the harpsichord, conveniently propped up by the scroll of the bass viol. As for a human ensemble, it is reduced to distant staffage, its music to be imagined only faintly, if at all, by the viewer. Brueghel’s canvas is paradoxically empty and full: music, that highest calling of human hearing, is evoked by its virtual absence.  The plentiful, but silent instrumentarium so masterfully depicted eloquently accepts, even celebrates, painting’s congenital muteness.

Though music is more absent than present in the painting, musical potential is displayed in all its combinatorial plenty: arrayed before the viewer are nearly unlimited possibilities of performance on instruments and by unseen voices of the music arranged on the circle of stands. These are partbooks from the recusant English catholic composer Peter Philips’ second book of madrigals published in 1603 and dedicated to the ruling couple of the Spanish Netherlands, the Hapsburg prince Albert and his wife Isabella: The inscription on the title-page of partbook facing us is meticulously executed: ”Di Pietro Philippi Inglese … Organista delli serenis. Princip Alberto e Isabella Archiduqui d’Austria … de madrigale a sei voce novamente composite.”

Like all allegories, the painting raises far more questions than it answers. For example, is there something to be inferred from the pictorial fact that there are seven part books and seven stools, although Philips’ second book is for six voices? Our own puzzlement at the recent and imminent uses of the instruments and partbooks is mirrored by the scrutiny a phlegmatic toucan gives the sackbut shoved under the harpsichord.  Like the other feathered musicians in the painting, this bird is a virtuosic singer, and therefore seems not a little skeptical of the merits of the instrument he considers.

The painting is part of Brueghel’s famed cycle of five works allegorizing the human senses that were commissioned by the city fathers of Antwerp as gifts for Albert and Isabella on their official visit to the city in 1618. The Antwerp administration stipulated that these be collaborative efforts to be produced by the leading artists of the city. The attribution to Brueghel is therefore only partly accurate, a reflection more of the modern obsession with single authorship.  Peter Paul Rubens painted the fittingly Rubensesque Venus and Pan.  That Peter Philips’ presence (through his notated music) joins that of Rubens and Brueghel speaks to the respected position in the cultural apparatus of the Spanish Netherlands’ Golden Age.

The music seen in the picture is Philips’ madrigal Qui, sott’ombrosi mirti, which lauds the ruling couple using many of the motives beloved by Jan Brueghel in his paintings: flowers, woodland nymphs: ‘Neath shady myrtles, amid flowery lawns , behold the Muses, behold the Graces here united; hark to the heavenly sprites singing with cunning art the lofty worth of ALBERT and ISABELLA.”

Among the team of Antwerp artists commissioned to work on these paintings was Joos de Momper, dean of the Antwerp’s painters guild of St. Luke’s from 1611. He was also brother of Cornelia de Momper whom Peter Philips married in 1591, but who died with the birth of their short-lived daughter Leonora the following year. Joos de Momper was recognized as of the finest of draftsmen by his Antwerp contemporaries. One of Mompers’ specialties was the blue-green Netherlandish landscapes like that seen through the arcaded window.  Momper could also have been responsible for painting Philips’ music into The Sense of Hearing as a tribute to his brother-in-law, and by extension, to his late sister Cornelia. Like Philips, Momper had spent time in Rome in the 1580s, Peter Philips, having fled there in 1582 and served as organist in the English College in Rome, a cauldron of rabid anti-Protestantism. Momper and Philips likely met in Rom at this time, and this may in turn have led to the introduction of Philips to Momper’s sister back in Antwerp.

The painting also dramatizes something Philips, Momper and Brueghel (who also made the obligatory trip to Rome) knew very well: that music is a sensual art, brought to life by Eros, who himself sings directly at us, in contrast to the more modest Venus who coyly turns away.  Other allegorical elements further play up the sensuality of hearing: the stag is a common 17th-century symbol for the power of hearing: this beast is recently matured, with a still-stubby rack. His cocked ears are for aroused hearing, but also suggest sexual excitement. The displayed headdress of the cockatoo perched near Venus’s fetching right elbow does the same.

By the time this painting was completed, Philips had already taken religious orders nearly ten years before, his entry into the priesthood coming nearly two decades after the loss of his wife. While Philips’ fame had been built on the composition of highly sensual, often erotic music—especially madrigals and settings of them at the keyboard—he concentrated on the publication of sacred music once a priest.  His counter-reformationist zeal blazes from the dedication of his 1613 collection of Cantiones sacrae, which Philips dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and claimed to have composed for “for the consolation and salvation of Christian people, the confirmation and amplification of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith, and the extirpation and confusion of Heresy and Heretics.”

Philips’ initial flight from England journey to Rome followed a typical path of English catholic refugees. Counter-Reformation Roman was where religious ardor comingled with the sensual music-making the Italians were so admired for. The account of English life in Rome published in 1582, that is the year Philips arrived in the city, by the notorious anti-Catholic spy Anthony Munday revels in the senses, from self-flagellation to culinary delights: “As for their fare [in the college] trust me it is very fine and delicate, for every man hath his own trencher, his manchet, knife, spoon and fork laid by it, and then a fair white napkin covering it, with his glass and pot of wine set by him.  And the first mess, or antepast as they call it, that is brought to the table is some fine meat to urge them [to] have an appetite: as sometime the Spanish anchovies, and sometime stewed prunes and raisins of the sun together, having such fine tart syrup made to them as I promise you a weak stomach would very well digest them.  The second is a certain mess of pottage of that country manner, no meat so in them, but are made of divers things, whose proper names I do not remember: but methought they were both good and wholesome.  The third is boiled meat, as kid, mutton, chicken and suchlike: every man a pretty modicum of each thing.  The fourth is roasted meat, of the daintiest provision that they can get, and sometime stewed and backed meat, according as pleaseth Master Cook to order it. The fifth and last is sometime cheese, sometime preserved conceits, sometime figs, almonds and raisins, a lemon and sugar, a pomegranate, or some such sweet gear: for they know that Englishmen loveth sweetmeats.”

Munday’s sensational and often lurid scenes of Roman decadence are as enjoyable now as they would have been to titillated Elizabethan readers keen to condemn Catholic excess.

Another account of church services in the English College in 1585, the year Philips left the institution, demonstrates the eternal incursion of sensuality into the divine realm.  An  English priest in Rome, Robert Parsons, wrote that “Every time some of the students celebrate their Mass here (which among many of them occurs quite frequently) they regard it a thing of such importance that they expect the Rector to concede them extraordinary music, and an even greater number of singers, and they also invite to the celebration their friends from outside, and this is a great bother to the Superior, and a matter of ambition among themselves.  Most of the problem would disappear if it were not for the solemnity of the choir … When the young students are sitting every feast day as canons in the church, which is quite small, various ladies come to sit very close, almost in front’ other youths and foreign gentlemen come to gaze around very indecently, whereby, I know in particular that some students have received great detriment, and one can only fear for the others.”

Although Parsons praises the choir, he also refers darkly to unnamed depravities within the choir.  “The choir needs some boy sopranos, who for the most part are wicked, on account of the bad experiences they have had with the other singers.” The smoking thurible and golden vestments, flirtation in the pews, depravity in the choir stalls: the repressive efforts of stern Catholic—and Protestant—clerics can never contain the gloriously transgressive power of music.

It was in this milieu—as devout as it was debauched—that Philips met Momper and was therefore later immortalized in perhaps the greatest of musical paintings. Philip’s literally central appearance in the magnificent Sense of Hearing by Brueghel and his Antwerp colleagues shows that for all the painting’s aural emptiness, it depicts a culture far fuller of musical feeling than the modern one so saturated in sound. Tethered to its iPod, this newer sense of hearing has the world of song at its fingertips, and is all the more lonely for it.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu