Moralizing Mixed Messages: Musical Imagery and the Vanitas Tradition

By Edward Hafer.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Musical iconography in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings reveals a complex web of relationships between a conservative, moral society and the sensual allure of music. Emblem books from the period warn of music’s power to lead the listener down a path of “beguiling fantasies,” but also acknowledge that “though Musicke be of some abhor’d / She is the Handmaid of the Lord.” This dichotomy recalls the dilemma of St. Augustine who respected music’s role in worship while recognizing its tendency to distract. Painters of this period developed a rich iconography designed to preach temperance and morality, for life itself was a temporary condition that could be snatched away at any moment. Images warned against the vanities of earthly existence, those constant reminders of impending death. Music became a prominent symbol of this sort of Vanitas, for its sound is fleeting. Instruments and musical scores often appeared with other symbols of transience and moralizing messages that encouraged viewers to eschew intemperance. In this context, then, it is all the more surprising when painters and musicians utilize the same symbols to proclaim not the transience of life, but the transcendence of art and music over the earthly condition. This paper will address uncharacteristic manipulations of traditional musical symbolism in this period—especially in Edwaert Collert’s self portrait and images from Roemer Visscher’s emblem book, Sinnepoppen—to suggest that music was an art to be celebrated rather than feared. Then, I shall examine a canon by Sweelinck entitled Vanitas vanitatum, a work which, by definition, should suggest musical ephemera, but which can also emphasize the learned sophistication of its creator. These examples illustrate the complex nature of music and art in a society that typically encouraged musicians and artists to use their respective media to warn against their very existence.

Keywords: Vanitas, Music & Painting, Collert, Visscher, Sweelinck

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp.107-118. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.826MB).

Dr. Edward Hafer

Assistant Professor of Music History, Music, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS, USA

Edward Hafer, Assistant Professor of Music History, holds a B.A. in Music History and Literature from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the M.M. and Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has had additional training at Millersville University (Pennsylvania); Goethe Institutes in Düsseldorf and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany; and has participated in a seminar on the works of Richard Wagner at the University of Bayreuth. His research interests lie in the music and aesthetics of the nineteenth century. He has presented research on Wagner, Schubert, and music and painting.

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