article 84: Triple (Sextuple?) Portrait: Reincken, Buxtehude and...?

This painting (fig. 1), one of the most celebrated and discussed portraits of musicians, turned up in 1970 at the New York home of Hugh and Christabel Gough. Hugh, a famous builder of early keyboard instruments, was also involved in art dealership together with his wealthy and elegant wife. They invited me over to see it, after having made my acquaintance as a 17-year-old harpsichord major at Juilliard and given me a house concert on their Ruckers double (which itself has a fine Flemish painting on the inside of its lid).

Hugh explained that the large canvas was a portrait by a Dutch painter named Johannes Voorhout, of Johann (Jan) Adam (Adamszoon) Reincken (1643-1722), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), and an obscure composer I had never heard of named Johann Theile. The brilliantly colorful work later wound up at the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte – the perfect destination, since the meeting of these three was a high point in the history of Hamburg, and indeed of music.

Doubt has been cast on the portrait of Theile (1646-1724) since the recent discovery of an authenticated depiction (fig. 2). Scholars have claimed that it must be a different person.* But I don’t think that view makes sufficient allowance for different ages, changes in styles and personal appearance, and possible inaccuracies in both depictions. In any case, I see a distinct resemblance, especially in the nose and eyes. Theile’s age (28) when the painting was finished in 1674 fits. He is shown conversing with a gorgeous female lutenist, who I imagine represents Euterpe, Muse of music. The subject under discussion might be plans for an opera house in Hamburg, which would in fact open four years later with a composition by Theile. Later known as the “father of counterpoint”, Theile’s Musikalisches Kunst-Buch was doubtless a direct inspiration for Bach’s Kunst der Fuge.** I think it can be no coincidence that the figure has a canon on his knee.

This canon (fig. 3, inverted) contains crucial information. The Latin text is from Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” The inscription on the bottom of the page states (in abbreviated form): “In honor of Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reincken, brothers.” Reincken, who commissioned the painting at the high point of his reputation and prosperity, is seated at his own (probably Antwerpian) double-manual harpsichord, clad in the kind of rich robe which was oddly known as a kimono at the time. His musical “brother” Buxtehude, who, judging from the parts he wrote for the instrument, was a viola da gamba virtuoso, sits playing that instrument next to Reincken.

With these four personages (the little Moorish servant and probable slave excluded – should Reincken be cancelled?), the foreground register is identified with tolerable certainty. But what about the mysterious background scene? The man on the left is generally claimed as the artist Voorhout, but I think he looks far too opulently clad and hatted, leaning on his big cane, for a Dutch painter who had fled to Hamburg two years previously to escape the invasion of Holland by the Vladimir Putin of the era, Louis XIV of France. I would instead like to propose the Hamburg native Johann Friedrich Gronow (1611-1671, Latinized as Gronovius, fig. 4), who had taught young Reincken at the Athenaeum in Deventer and later secured a crucial loan for him from a Leiden Maecenas, Johan de Bye. Gronow married into a prominent Hamburg family, and finished his distinguished career as professor at Leiden.

This proposal is connected to the other two background figures, because I think the two registers of the painting separate the living from the dead, and Reincken’s benefactors from his colleagues. I know of no discussion of the other two figures, though it certainly exists somewhere. My own working hypothesis, if it deserves such a grand designation, is that Reincken’s Dutch mother, who died in 1657 just after her son obtained his first position as organist of the Bergkerk in Deventer, is shown beckoning Heinrich Scheidemann (died 1663), Reincken’s teacher, father-in-law and predecessor as organist at St.Catherine’s, into Elysium. The paradise shown in the distance, beyond an arch bearing statues of Apollo and a deity holding a laurel wreath, resembles classical descriptions of the eternal abode of the just and heroic. The female is modestly clad in Dutch style. The man in traveling clothes, looking at the lady who has preceded him with wonderment, has a prominent nose resembling that shown in the engraving of Scheidemann (fig.5). But both these portraits are sketchy, and the facial hair seen in the engravings of Theile and Scheidemann seems to be out of fashion in this painting.

This is obviously mere speculation – but of course I'm convinced, pending a better solution. Reincken, after quarreling with his employers, chose to be buried not in Hamburg’s Catharinenkirche, but in the church dedicated to the same patron saint in Lübeck, the city where his frater Buxtehude had worked for most of his life.

March 2, 2023

*The polymath Johann Philipp Förtsch has been proposed as the person in question, but he only left his law studies at Erfurt in 1674, the year of the painting. He is documented as a singer in Hamburg from 1678, so I think this suggestion can be discarded.

** John Koster reminded me that Bach borrowed the term Contrapunctus from Buxtehude's Fried- und Freudenreiche Einfarth (also of 1674), written in memory of his father.

fig. 1

fig. 2

fig. 3

fig. 4

fig. 5

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