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Portrait of Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) - Caspar Netscher Signature and date bottom left: C. Netscher Fec. 1672

The Musical Life of Constantijn Huygens

Constantijn Huygens was the second son of Christiaan Huygens, secretary of the Council of State of the Dutch Republic, and Susanna Hoefnagel, niece of the Antwerp painter Joris Hoefnagel.
Huygens grew up in The Hague and received a thorough humanistic education in languages, sciences and the arts, as well as in dancing, fencing and horseback-riding. His father, who gave him his first singing lessons, took great care of his son's musical education both for aesthetic pleasure it might yield but for the purpose of improving his social skills as well. In the coming years, music would provide Constantijn invaluable assistance in his profession as the personal secretary to the Stadtholder, Prince Frederick Henry of Orange (1625–1647) and to the latter's son and successor, William II (1647–1650). He was always grateful to his parents for his education. In Huygens' words: "Thanks to them that a little child of five, I was fed sweet sounds along with my first spoonfuls."
At the age of five, Huygens learned to play the cittern (a popular metal-stringed instrument), followed by the viol and lute. His viola da gamba teacher was an Englishman called "William H." (perhaps the English military man William Heydon), and his lute teacher was Jeronimus van Someren, a local musician, who later taught Huygens' sons Christiaan and Constantijn. Huygens was taught to play the virginal and organ by the blind organist of The Hague's Grote Kerk, Pieter de Vois. Afterward, he learned to play theorbo and the guitar.
Huygens' youthful travels familiarized him with the musical modes and practices of the southern Netherlands, England (various visits, 1618–1624, from 1621 as secretary of diplomatic missions) and Venice (1620, as secretary of a diplomatic mission, where he had the opportunity to listen to the finest Italian musicians, including Monteverdi). In 1621, on his second visit to England, Huygens was knighted by James VI since he had greatly pleased him with his viol playing during his first visit 1618 even though the king was no lover of music.
In 1627 he married Susanna van Baerle, daughter of a rich Amsterdam merchant. Together, they had five children. After the death of Susanna in 1637, Huygens celebrated the pleasures and virtues of their married life in a remarkable didactic poem called
Daghwerck, which was not published until many years afterward. Until his death, Huygens was a member of the Counsel of the Domaines of the House of Orange. This position provided him with a permanent connection to the Orange Nassau family. Later diplomatic missions took him to Brussels (1656, 1657), Paris (1661–65) and London (1663, 1664, 1670–71).
Huygens' surviving correspondence, poems, diaries, journals and memoirs, furnish us with detailed insights into his musical activities. For example, he strictly separated his
negotium (employment) from his otium (leisure time, devoted to the arts, especially poetry and music). Although he considered music first and foremost as a pastime, he was also keenly aware that it was a means of self-promotion in both personal and professional circles. Music had played a significant role in securing contact with several musical amateurs in the upper-class society of the northern and the southern Netherlands, for example with the Haarlem priest J.A. Ban, or with the Duarte family of wealthy Antwerp jewelers. The Duarte family was known to have possessed particularly refined musical talents, as we will see from a closer look at this family.
Huygens considered Paris to be the center of the musical universe. In his correspondence with the French theologian and music theorist Marin Mersenne and the French philosopher René Descartes, he touched upon matters of music frequently. His contact with professional musicians included Antoine Boësset, Nicholas Lanier, Jacques Gautier, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Thomas Gobert, Giovanni Paolo Foscarini, Luigi Rossi, or the German Johann Jakob Froberger. Sometimes Huygens used them as intermediaries to acquire musical instruments or manuscripts. Gaspard Duarte supported Huygens with technical advise for the purchase of a costly virginal made by
Johannes Couchet (nephew of the famous Johannes Ruckers of Antwerp) in 1648.
Huygens had turned abroad to satisfy his musical appetite because he was deeply disappointed by the bleak musical situation in his own country. As a composer, he once referred to himself as "the one-eyed man who is king in the land of blind." The Calvinist practice of unaccompanied congregational singing in religious services was a musical horror for him. In 1641 he published anonymously the short treatise,
Gebruyck of ongebruyck van 't orgel in de kercken der Verenighde Nederlanden ("Whether or not to use the organ in the churches of the United Netherlands") in which he put forward the case for reintroducing the organ as an accompaniment to the congregational singing. The treatise aroused positive responses from scholars and literary figures alike, but at the same time incited fierce opposition from the clergy. Jan Janszoon Calckman responded in his pamphlet Antidotum, tegen-gift vant Gebruyck of on-gebruyck vant orgel in de kercken der Vereenighde Nederlanden (The Hague, 1641).
In all, Huygens composed more than 800 pieces of music throughout his life, mainly solo pieces for the five instruments he possessed. Unfortunately, almost every one of them is lost. Only one allemande for viola da gamba has survived.
His only published work (under the pseudonym
Occupatus—"a very busy man") is the Pathodia sacra et profana, published 1647 by the famous Parisian editor Robert Ballard. It contains pieces for voice and continuo in an expressive, personal style, combining elements of Latin psalms, Italian madrigals and French chansons. Huygens dedicated the work to one of his best musical friends, Utricia Ogle (born in Utrecht—hence her unusual first name). She was a talented singer and lute player and Huygens had frequently accompanyied her performances on the theorbo. In 1658, Huygens wrote about the Kerck-gebruyck der psalmen ("The use of the psalms in the church," i.e. in the service).
Since Huygens performed and enjoyed music exclusively within a circle of close friends belonging to the cultural elite of refined musical taste, his compositions in the Italian Baroque style were fairly inaccessible to the general public and thus could be appreciated only by a select few:
Nullement viande pour tout palais ("not flesh for every palate"—as he wrote.
We will meet Huygens again at the Duarte family as well as in the Muiderkring (Muiden-Circle).

"When, near the end of his long and hugely productive life, Constantijn Huygens wrote of the "effroyable liste" of his over 800 instrumental works, part of his mind must have been on posterity. We know that he kept his compositions in large volumes where they were carefully numbered. Sadly, although the Huygens Nachlass [estate] includes a vast quantity of poetry, prose and letters in the writer's autograph, today there is no trace of these music manuscript books. Huygens was proud of his musical accomplishments—justifiably so, judging by the quality of the vocal music in Pathodia (1647) – and he would have been aware that his literary output, much of which was of a semi-official nature, stood a better chance of preservation than his music. It is ironic that, despite the precaution of leaving the music autographs to his son Christiaan (presumably since he was the one of his children most likely to preserve or make use of them), the instrumental works today present the most prominent lacuna in the Huygens heritage.
Happily, a single instrumental work has now turned up in an unexpectedly remote source, the family library of count Leopold von Goëss at Schloss Ebenthal, near Klagenfurt in the Austrian province of Carinthia. The principal musical treasure of this important library, only uncovered by the American scholar, Douglas Alton Smith, in 1979, is a remarkable series of no fewer than 13 manuscript volumes of music in French tablature for lute, theorbo and viola da gamba from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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Paula Bär-Giese Hans Meijer