Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Linda Austern (Northwestern University, Evanston, USA)

“Et omnia vanitas”: music and a Baroque topos across media

No topos was more ubiquitous in the arts and philosophy during the Baroque era than the limits of worldly vanity, based on the opening words of the Book of Ecclesiastes and ultimately translated into every expressive medium known to the era. Most famous are the still-life paintings by Dutch, French and Italian artists of the seventeenth century, many of which include much-neglected musical imagery. What has gone almost entirely unremarked, however, is the extent to which music both influenced and borrowed from the genre, from the early seventeenth-century English court masque through such eighteenth-century oratorios as Antonio Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans. One of the earliest works in any medium to refer to the Biblical text “Vanitas vanitatum” is a canon by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck composed on those words in 1608, just when the artists of his native city of Amsterdam were developing the famous visual vocabulary for the vanitas still-life. The creation of such musical works may have helped set the pattern for including musical instruments and pieces of notated music in vanitas imagery throughout Europe. More importantly, and even less discussed by scholars, are borrowings from the visual vocabulary of the vanitas into collections of music and the decoration of musical instruments. This paper proposes to examine musical evocations of vanity during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries against the background of visual and textual references to the place of music among standard symbols of vanitas.

Last updated on 10 May 2004