For all its supposed majesty over all the European musical instruments, the organ is rarely depicted in masterworks of visual art. One catches distant glimpses of large organs in seventeenth-century interiors of Dutch churches in paintings by Pieter Saenredam and Emanuel de Witte, but these pictures include the instrument as decoration, distant props against which light streaming through leaded glass can play and which add interest to the white-washed walls of Calvinist architecture.
Images of the organist on the organ bench are even rarer. Nineteenth-century prints of Bach at the organ are among the kitschiest representations of musicians in the way they play up the menace of a demonic virtuoso at the controls of his monstrous contraption. Charming and illuminating as all those angels playing portatives (miniature organs that can be carried in one arm) in stain-glassed windows or Books of Hours may be, they don’t capture the King of Instruments in all his glory. In these images, the organ is more a tiny treasure than an object of wonder or ecstasy.
One of the reason that there are so few rich and respectful treatments of organists is that as musicians they are generally relegated to the organ loft, often hidden from view by a section of the instrument sitting on the gallery rail. In the damp organ balconies of Europe, the pious and disgruntled (none more capable of disgruntlement than the just-mentioned Bach) remained literally in the shadows.
It has been more than a year since I’ve been to a museum of any kind, and pandemic isolation has me recalling this week Titian’s Venus and the Organ Player, painted in the middle of the sixteenth century and now hanging in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie.
Instead of the dim musical garret of some musty church, this organist plays at the foot of the bed of naked woman clad only in narrow diaphanous textile spread across her lap and a few bits of jewelry. Cupid who either whispers in her ear, or simply nuzzles it, while reaching across her left bicep and onto her breast. These accoutrements and the winged attendant’s roving hand do far more to highlight her nakedness than to cover it up.
Impossibly, the scene seems to be placed outdoors or at its threshold. The lush velvet drape hanging above suggests a non-existent wall or big window thrown open to provide a long view of the landscape with mountains beyond. The rush of the coach pulled by white horses in the center of the picture only accentuates the apparent languor of the scene played out between the man and woman in their open-air boudoir. At first glance, the fluffy white lap dog seems the most excited living being in the picture’s foreground.
Not all scholars have agreed that Titian depicts Venus here, but whether woman or goddess she seems uninterested in much of anything beyond enjoying the fresh country air on her skin and the visual and aural attentions of the organist, whose gaze stands in for that of all viewers of the picture. This organist is dressed in fine garments with the glint of the dagger’s blade (which would match that of the pipes) sheathed in a burgundy scabbard that matches his jacket. Judging from his costume, he seems to be a young nobleman with keyboard skills, an appreciation of the female form—and a recognition of the sensual power of both. Music has brought him to the foot of the goddess, and he appears eager to get closer still.
There are sufficient reasons why anyone who knows something about the organ might be seduced into criticizing its treatment in this picture. The pipes are too squat, and if they sounded at all would produce a tubby, inelegant wallowing. However deftly this instrument contributes visually to the balance of objects and color in the painting, it is nonetheless jammed into the upper left corner. It is more a court dwarf in its stunted stature than a King of Instruments.
Titian knew this. He had studied with the Bellini brothers in Venice, who had provided paintings for the wings of the famous organ in San Marco built at the end of the fifteenth-century by Bernhard the German. Titian, too, had enough commissions for churches himself to know the proper scaling of organ pipes.
The more frequently depicted musical instruments of lute—which a nobleman plays in a slightly later version of this painting—or violin would appear utterly ridiculous if subjected to this kind of painterly distortion. But however misshapen this organ, it still gleams with the possibilities of musical seduction. Titian knowingly sacrificed verisimilitude for fantasy, in this case an organist’s date with Venus in the Italian campagna. The gawking organist’s mouth may be closed, but his fingers have been doing the singing.
Just how much the woman he serenades enjoys being the object of the viewers’ gaze can be judged by comparing this canvas to what is probably the most famous, and in every sense the rarest, painting of an organ, Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, finished in 1432.
As in Titian’s painting, that in Ghent is not a mighty organ for a church balcony, but a modest-sized instrument for the chamber. It appears in the altarpiece’s second panel from the far right. St. Cecilia wears a sumptuous cope and is seated at a meticulously painted organ. As x-rays analysis has shown, Van Eyck even repainted her left hand and the keyboard it plays for reasons of accuracy and up-to-date depiction of the fast-evolving music technology of the time. A version of this instrument itself has been reconstructed by organologists and actually produces beautiful sounds in a way that Titian’s never could, had anyone been foolishness enough to attempt a similar experiment with the later painting.
In the Ghent panel adjacent to the organist—at the right end of the upper register of the altarpiece—is an image of an unclothed Eve about to bite into the apple. On the cusp of discovering, or perhaps inventing, shame, she is neither enjoying her nakedness nor feeling in the least guilty about it.
Alongside Eve, the music of St. Cecilia and her accompanying angels comes from another time, another world—and another panel. The prudish 19th-century canons of the Ghent Cathedral did feel their own shame as well as that of Eve and Adam (seen in the far left panel a long way from his helpmate), and commissioned clothed replicas to replace the priceless originals. These were put back in their rightful place in the twentieth century; the clothed pair can still be seen outside the chapel where the altarpiece is now displayed.
In both the Titian and Van Eyck paintings an organist is next to a naked woman. If Titian had ever been to Ghent and seen the altarpiece, one might now be tempted to claim that his painting refers to Van Eyck’s by boldly inverting the relationship of figures, turning the organist towards the naked body and thereby embracing the sensuality of flesh and music—all without a whiff of guilt.
Interestingly, the Ghent organist and several other panels were acquired by the Germans in the nineteenth century and hung in the old Berlin Gemäldgallerie until 1918, when they were returned to Belgium according to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. That same year, the Gemäldegallerie came into possession of Venus and the Organ Player in what was the greatest changing-of-the-(organist)-guard in history—the departure of the pious Cecilia ushering out the Wilhelmine Age and Titian’s organist offering a fanfare for the roaring 1920s of the Weimar Republic.
Around 1550 Titian and his workshop made a series of paintings based on the motives and composition of Venus and the Organ Player. In his Problems in Titian of 1969 Erwin Panofsky virtuosically interpreted the evolution of these images claiming that “In the Berlin picture [the organist] has lost all contact with his instrument. Both hands are off the keyboard and his right leg is swung over the bench so that, apart from the other leg, his whole body is turned toward the reclining goddess at whom he looks with rapt attention.” This state of play was held by Panofksy to demonstrate the “triumph of the sense of sight over the sense of hearing,” since the organist had stopped playing to take in more fully the object of his desire. By contrast, the organists legs in the version now in the Prado are still under the instrument, and his hands still at the keyboard, though he is still limber enough to swivel his head to see Venus in all her naked glory. “Far from abandoning his instrument altogether,” writes Panofsky, “the player now attempts to enjoy the world of sight while not cutting himself off from the world of sound. We thus witness a slight but unmistakable shift from a total to a partial victory of the visual over the aural experience of beauty.”
In still another, supposedly final version seen in two other pictures (the better one in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, the other in the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York), Titian converts the organist into a lute player. For Panofsky, “this metamorphosis means more than the replacement of a keyboard instrument by a stringed one. It means that a musician interrupted in the act of making music by the sight of visual beauty embodied in Venus has been transformed into a musician doing homage to the visual beauty embodied in Venus by the very act of making music. It is difficult to play the organ and to admire a beautiful woman at the same time; but it is easy to serenade her, as it were, to the accompaniment of a lute, while giving full attention to her charms.”
Early in his career Bach was admonished for taking a “strange maiden” up into the organ loft unsupervised. He therefore might have had reason to contest Panofksy’s claims about the difficulty of serenading from the organ.
Panofsky’s real error, however, was to assert that the simultaneity of watching and playing is the highest artistic good and allegorical message to be taken from this series of pictures. The Berlin painting is the best of the series precisely because it captures the organist at the moment of leaving his instrument. This painting is not about the primacy of sight over sound, but about the irrepressible efficacy of music. Titian has chosen to represent the moment when musical play ends, the last strains echoing out of the chamber and into the countryside beyond. The painter suggests, through implied movement, the urgency of what has been played and heard and the feelings it his inspired. The cessation of the organ’s sound and the pivoting of the player away from his instrument and towards the bed explains why the little dog is barking. The organist has played his love song is now making his move.
So often hidden from view, organists are mostly absent in the history of painting because they are out of sight, invisible controllers of vast machines consisting of pipes, levers and wind ducts. Titian transports the organist down from the disstant heights of the church to the edge of the natural world and to human beauty’s feet. The artist reminds us that what has just ceased sounding within the world of the painting is the prelude—the musical Vorspiel/foreplay to love.
In response to my recent piece on a canned, Potemkin performance of Taps in the City Cemetery in Ithaca, New York, bugler Jari Villanueva writes:
Dear Mr. Yearsley,
Thanks for your article.
I run www.TapsForVeterans.org and am recognized as the “Taps Bugler”
We are trying our best to get the word out there that live buglers are available. The problem is not the shortage, it’s having a good system in order to hook up players with those who wish to have their loved one honored with a live rendition of Taps. Unfortunately, many families don’t realize it’s a Digital Bugle until they get to the cemetery.