Oliver Seeler's

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Universe of Bagpipes Antique Print Collection
~ Special Feature ~

The Crown Jewel of Our Print Collection

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's

The Strolling Musicians

size: 13.9 cm X 11.6 cm (5.5 inch X 4.6 inch)

Notes: This is the real thing - a Rembrandt etching, circa 1635, with the impression being the second state of three, struck between 1669 and 1750. We were extremely fortunate to be able to add this to our collection during the winter of 2014-2015, thanks in large part to the kind help of an expert in Rembrandt etchings, Jörg Wetterauer, who invited us to visit him in Stuttgart, Germany prior to our purchase.

Reams have been written about all sorts of technical and artistic aspects of Rembrandt's etchings, so we will only repeat here the often-heard statement that Rembrandt remains the unsurpassed master of the art of etching; his ability to elevate what appears superficially to be a sketchy, lightweight, casual, monochromatic medium into a super-sophisticated highly evocative conveyance of information and emotion is simply astonishing. Well, that's why he's Rembrandt!

However, little seems to be said in the literature about the instruments or for that matter about the players in this etching, so here are a few comments on those matters.

This etching is usually grouped together with about thirty-five other Rembrandts that all depict what analysts routinely describe as beggars. Whether or not Rembrandt intended for this piece to be considered in such a light is unknown to us, but it should be noted that there is a very old (and ongoing) tradition of "street" musicians moving through most if not all cultures, and not just their own, providing music in contexts in which it was otherwise unavailable. These are "buskers," not beggars. Some pundits argue that such people have "little to offer" in exchange for money, food, or goods and are thus indeed beggars, but that is not at all true.

The Audience (detail, enlarged)

First of all, acquiring, maintaining and mastering any of the more powerful "folk" instruments, here a bagpipe and a "Vielle" (aka Wheel-Fiddle or Hurdy-Gurdy) was, and remains, a skilled activity with a steep and bumpy learning curve. Secondly, in order to appreciate the effect of a busker in Rembrandt's time we have to imagine ourselves in what was a very quiet world, especially in rural villages. Today we are so used to constant noise, not to mention music of any sort on demand just about anywhere and anytime, that the sudden appearance of a couple of musicians on our doorstep might elicit a yawn rather than any excitement or wonder. But in those early times, when the chirping of birds and perhaps an occasional unaccompanied song was pretty much the extent of music heard, the effect was much more dramatic, as can be seen on the faces of the little audience in this etching. They are receiving something special to them, and they will certainly reciprocate as best they can without the thought that they are giving alms to beggars. That the musicians are poor (the Vielle player's toes are escaping his shoes!) is not because they are beggars, it is simply because their audience is poor.

So, What Did They Sound Like?

Unlike some early music savants we have no pretensions of being able to conjure up exactly what our two musicians sounded like.

click here to hear bagpipe and wheel fiddle

We can however give you a rough idea of what they might have sounded like. This is a track from our very own production, the CD album Bagpipes of the World. Here master piper Sean Folsom (who plays all thirty of the different bagpipes on the album) is playing a low-pitched French bagpipe, the Grande Cornemuse, with Swiss Vielle master Arrigo D'Albert chiming in at the 42 second mark. The album and individual tracks are available on line, Google it if you want a copy. Meanwhile, click on the painting above to hear what Rembrandt's Strolling Musicians might have sounded like (and we suggest staring at the etching while you do so...).

Why is little to be found in the Rembrandt literature about these instruments? These are two powerful instruments - the most powerful "folk" instruments of their day. They were most commonly heard by themselves rather than together. Each had the ability to provide music not only in an intimate setting as in this etching, but also for large, raucous outdoor celebrations (as can be seen in many other prints in our collection). One would think they might have been documented by writers of the time, like, say, weapons or trappings for horses or such, but while these instruments played a big role in the lives of the common people little - often nothing - was written about them and in most cases no examples survived. They simply weren't of interest to the powerful and wealthy who paid the bills of the writers of the day. Thus we have pretty much only the iconography to work with, always with its own set of questions, and thus there remain all sorts of mysteries about the origins, development, distribution and so on of these instruments. There were once at least one hundred distinct varieties of bagpipes in Eastern and Western Europe, and quite possibly double that number. And many pipers traveled extensively, introducing their particular bagpipe and music to new places. Today academics shudder when contemplating this quagmire, in which it is easy to suffer scholarly embarrassments, while others, ourselves included, take pleasure from the fact that so many mysteries still surround these wonderful early instruments. These mysteries allow speculation and imagination and even innovation to flourish (an example follows), as opposed to the sometimes dry, rigid demands and confinements of "higher" instruments and music, about which much more is known.

The Vielle is not as familiar to many as is the bagpipe. The short story is that it has a guitar-shaped or lute-shaped or just box-shaped body with strings that rub against a rosined wooden wheel which acts like a violin bow and is turned by a crank. The strings are stopped to different lengths by keys operated with the free hand. Here it is important to realize that the Vielle can be almost as powerful as a fair-size bagpipe and that like a bagpipe it has drones sounding continuously behind the melody. It also sometimes has a provision for creating a buzzing percussive accompaniment, somewhat like an overheated little snare drum. If you're interested in the wheel-fiddle/vielle/hurdy-gurdy, we have a descriptive feature with sound on the main site, at

Pipe and Piper
(detail, enlarged)

Rembrandt's bagpipe is a bit enigmatic. Bagpipes are like mushrooms, just about any sort can pop up anywhere anytime, and this is reflected in the iconography. So one cannot make too much of a typically French bagpipe appearing in English art, or an Italian Zampogna showing up in a German print and so on. However, Rembrandt lived in a region in which bagpipes had been very common for at least a couple of centuries, both physically and in the iconography that preceded his. The pipe in this etching is not typical of any particular known Dutch or Flemish bagpipe. It has two drones, the longer one with a cow-horn termination that both amplifies the sound and casts it forward, towards an audience. The second drone is of nearly the same length. We have seen both of these features before, but they are not common. The cow-horn is much more often seen on Eastern European pipes, although it does appear in the iconography of Western bagpipes, notably on the big Germanic "Grosser Bock" ("Big Buck Goat") illustrated in the 1619 Organographia of Praetorius. Here in the Rembrandt etching we are almost certainly looking at a Western bagpipe, as the chanter (melody pipe) is clearly of the conical sort, like an oboe, in contrast to the Eastern chanters which are almost always cylindrical, so of the clarinet-type sort. The context, in Rembrandt's area (so Dutch), also calls for a Western instrument and scale. As for the second drone, it would normally be tuned to either an octave or a fifth of the main drone. The apparent length is not consistent with either of those, but length alone does not determine the pitch, as the bore diameter and the reed also play large parts. So we can't just assume for example that a drone half the length of another sounds one octave higher, and so on. As for the chanter, it appears fairly long but not unusually so, and is thus probably in a fairly low pitch, but this is also speculative.

A few of many Western European bagpipes from Rembrandt's
times. Note the cow horns.
(from M. Preaetorius, 1619)

It is important to note that notwithstanding the details discussed above, the generic characteristics of this bagpipe, such as the general positions of the various pipes on the bag, the overall way the bagpipe is being held and played, and so on, are correctly depicted by Rembrandt. This is not always the case, even in works by well-regarded artists, who are sometimes at a loss about the basic workings of a bagpipe and also clearly didn't have one in front of them when they created an image, and who thus sometimes make a spectacular mistake, the equivalent of holding a violin with the wrong end under the chin. Here that's not at all the case, and the overall correctness leads one to consider it likely that the details are also accurate.

Returning to the Vielle, there is also a bit of an enigma here regarding its presence in this etching, as it is not a traditional Dutch instrument. The playing of the Vielle with a bagpipe is not any big surprise, but depictions of them together like this are not common. It appears that this is a box or guitar-shaped Vielle. That sort is associated mainly with Eastern Europe, and also, interestingly, with Spain. We can probably presume that the Eastern varieties would not mesh well musically with the bagpipe, which leaves the likelihood that this is a Spanish instrument. One wonders at the possibilities here. Spain had ruled the Dutch for many years by the time Rembrandt created this etching. Was the presence of the Spanish Vielle (called a Zamphona in Spanish, by the way) simply a byproduct of this association, perhaps unnoticed by Rembrandt (whose works have few musical elements)? Or is it possible that Rembrandt was making a subtle political comment, with the huge almost looming figure of the perhaps Spanish Zamphona player towering over everyone else in the scene, including the dejected-looking little dog on his leash? (Holland?) Pure speculation, of course, but fun and who really knows?

The Wheel-Fiddle, or Vielle, or is it the
Spanish Zamphona?
(detail, enlarged)

On the other hand, maybe the Vielle is after all of the Eastern European (perhaps Hungarian) sort, and maybe the bagpipe is also from lands lying to the East, notwitstanding its conical chanter. That would mean that our musicians might not be locals, but rather long-distance travelers, and that their music would sound especially exotic to Lowland audiences. Rembrandt has left us with a number of possibilities!

A minor observation is that most right-handed people (and many left-handed as well) play a bagpipe with the bag under the left arm, and service the upper fingerholes of the chanter with the left hand. Likewise, most Vielle players turn the crank (which is not as easy as it sounds) with the right hand and service the melody keys with the left. In our etching, these common positions are reversed. Does this argue that Rembrandt indeed "sketched" directly on the plate in the field, as is often said, when it would be much more difficult to reverse the orientation than when working in a studio? (Whatever is drawn on the plate will be reversed on the eventual paper prints.) If we can conclude from this that the work was drawn from life, that would increase the confidence that the general depictions of the two instruments are accurate.

Finally, we wonder about the name by which our etching is commonly called in English, "The Strolling Musicians." The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is of course very close to the source, calls this etching "Straatmuzikanten" which an English speaker should have no difficulty in translating to "Street Musicians." From that, especially in the context of the etching, it would be a short hop to "Buskers" or "Busking Musicians." A lesser leap, one would think, than applying the word "Strolling" which first of all is inherently inacurate as not even the dog's feet are in motion, and secondly is a word with certain overtones which are distinctly not a part of the world Rembrandt is showing us (one "strolls" in one's finery on a promonade on a Sunday afternnoon, etc.). We would like to know where and when and from whom the word "Strolling" came into this picture. Was this perhaps some sort of attempt at gentrification by an English or American auctioneer or dealer, like the renaming of cockroaches by Florida real-estate sellers into "Palmetto Bugs"?

In the end we can lay all such things aside and simply return to what is in front of us - one of the most wonderful renderings, by one of the greatest artists of all time, of the object of our affections, the bagpipe. O.S., Albion, California, January 2015

Addendum: Rembrandt's Other Bagpipe

We can find only one other bagpipe in all of Rembrandt's works. It is again in an etching, one that came seventeen years or so after ours, in 1654, called "The Adoration of the Shepherds: With the Lamp". This time there is no accompanist, and the bagpipe is quite "sketchy" and almost hidden in part (to the point of having been overlooked altogether by some observers). It is of a very common type for the time and place, unlike "our" bagpipe, and here, also unlike our bagpipe, it reads unrealistically. We tremble at the thought of presuming to criticize Rembrandt, but here are the problems:

The bagpipe's bag is inflated, which we can see from the bag itself and also from the fact that the drones are standing without other support and are not keeling over as they would if not supported by their inflated bag, especially if the piper is leaning forward. An inflated bagpipe by its nature is a bagpipe making noise, if not music, and here it would be noise, as one (or perhaps both) of the piper's hands clutches the upper part of the chanter (melody pipe), so he can't be playing a tune. Finally, the bagpipe is missing its blowpipe (by which the bag is connected to the piper's mouth and breath). We have seen all of these errors (or exercises of artistic license, take your pick) many, many times in bagpipe iconography. They never read well and most often merely reflect unfamiliarity on the part of the artist with the mechanics of a bagpipe. We don't know quite what to make of them here. Perhaps it was that "our" piper was indeed rendered directly from life by Rembrandt's remarkable eye, while this one perhaps was created in some less reliable way.

What Is An "Etching"? A Simple Explanation:

An etching is made by coating a plate of metal, such as copper, with a waxy substance. The artist draws by cutting into this coating with sharp metal tools, making lines deep enough to expose the metal below. The coated plate is then dipped into strong acid. The acid "etches" the metal, making grooves where it is exposed and unprotected by the acid-proof coating. The coating is then removed and the plate with its grooved lines is inked. The ink gathers in the grooves, and is transferred onto paper when the plate is pressed against it with great force. The advantage of this process is that the artist can work more quickly and freely on the soft coating than when "engraving" directly into the metal plate. It is also much easier to make corrections or changes before the plate is etched, whereas once an engraved line is laid down it is pretty much there forever. Disadvantages include a certain imprecision as the acid cuts into the metal. Etchings are often sketch-like and are generally more suited to artistic expression than to, say, scientific or otherwise precise representations.



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