One of the most loved paintings in Dulwich Picture Gallery is Gerrit Dou’s A woman playing a clavichord, but it has a sister painting, Young Lady playing the Virginal. This famous work of art is now in private hands and not often shown, but for the first time since 1665 the two paintings will be reunited and to celebrate their reunion there will be a concert at Dulwich Picture Gallery featuring just the kind of music these two ladies could have been playing.
Timothy Roberts will bring his vast experience of the instruments of that era as he will give a concert playing both the clavichord and the harpsichord, both kindly lent to the gallery for this special occasion, and the music he has chosen is also of the period. Tim has always been interested in keyboard music and grew up in a home filled with music, his father worked for BBC Radio Three. “When other teenagers were out having fun I was playing the harpsichord”, he says with a laugh.” I was self-taught and did not have my first lesson until my mid-twenties and then finally I was lucky to be taught by Christopher Kite, Professor of Harpsichord and Fortepiano and a meticulous teacher.”
These old keyboards were very practical, took little space and could be closed and stowed away. When asked why both Dou and Vermeer, his Lady at the Virginal can be seen at the National Gallery, chose to depict young ladies, Tim says that is a question for art historians but adds that these instruments were easy to tune as there was only one string per note. “And portraying a woman with a virginal or clavichord gave a painting a certain romantic touch, maybe to celebrate a girl’s talents as well as looks. In the 17th century the skill of keyboard playing was seen as an asset. I have yet to see a portrait of a young man playing any of these instruments,” says Tim Roberts.
“Unfortunately these lovely instruments fell out of fashion – the keyboard players of today see them as poor relations to the piano and their successor the spinet has likewise dipped in popularity and lost out to the grand piano.” This means there are few opportunities to listen to the music written for these keyboard instruments. Tim Roberts took great care in his choice, “I love spending time in libraries trying to find works not often played” and the choice seems to cover the whole of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries; England will be being represented by William Byrd, who died in 1623 and Henry Purcell who died in 1695. Tim Roberts will open the concert on clavichord playing the Pavane by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and one could well imagine Dou’s young ladies playing this mournful tune on their instruments.
The clavichord and harpsichord were only meant to be played in a domestic setting, recitals came much later. “The clavichord is among one of the quietest instruments and is well suited to an intimate environment with its singing tone, which produces shades of loud and soft like a human voice,” says Tim Roberts and explains that the clavichord has a striking action while the louder harpsichord has a plucking action.
Tim Roberts has had a glittering career in music, busy conducting, recording, composing and accompanying many singers as well as being part of different ensembles. “Now when I am reaching what some consider retiring age I am so happy to be able to choose what I want to do,” he says with a smile, and what he has chosen is spending long periods in both Mallorca and Provence as church organist. ”I am a bit of a nomad and there is no better way to get to know an area.”
He knows the gallery well as he lived for fifteen years in Sydenham and often had an opportunity to admire Dou’s painting as well as the Linley portraits. “I have recorded music of that era, songs that Elizabeth Linley sang as well as music composed by her organist brother. To finally play in the gallery will be very special for me. I have attended concerts there and love the ambiance and to play in the presence of Dou’s wonderful paintings will be a real experience.”
Just to add that it will be special for the audience as well. A unique opportunity to see the two paintings reunited and listen to the music they might have admired and played.
Keyboard Music from the Time of Gerrit Dou
A concert arranged by Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery
Tuesday 27 September 7.30pm
In the gallery
£20, £18 Friends, includes a glass of wine
£10 under 18s
Tickets can be booked via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
Or from the ticket desk in the gallery
Or by phone 020 8299 8750 Mon-Friday 10.00am -4.00pm ( £2 handling fee )