The guittar in Holland

Jelma van Amersfoort is researching the use and the repertoire of the 18th century cittern in Holland. While its British counterpart, the English guittar, technically a six course wire-strung cittern, has received some welcome attention from scholars and performers in recent decades, its continental cousins have so far remained somewhat neglected. Wire-strung, finger played guittars appear to have been a far more European phenomenon than previously thought, with distinct but connected repertoires in France, the Low Countries, Italy and German-speaking nations. In the Netherlands, the ‘cistre’ or ‘Guitarre Angloise’, as it was called, proves to have had a small but surprisingly significant presence in Dutch culture: it appears in art and literature, was played in concerts, and had a number of compositions written for it.


Two ladies making music. Charles Edward Hodges, Den Haag 1806. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

 Though the instrument was mainly associated in Holland with domestic music making by the upper classes, there are also records of it being played in the music room of Felix Meritis in Amsterdam and other public concert venues. English instruments and probably also instruments from Northern France were imported into Holland, but local luthiers also made them: various instruments by Johann Swartz and by Holland’s most famous violin maker, Johannes Cuypers, survive in museums and private collections.

In the 1770s the Amsterdam choirmaster David Leonardus van Dijk published four beautiful books of music for the instrument, filled with arrangements from very recent operas, guitar solos and guitar accompanied songs in French, Italian and English. These works appear to be all Van Dijk’s compositions and arrangements, influenced in style by contemporary cittern music from France and Britain, but never exact copies of works by others. The books reveal an internationalism that is somewhat reminiscent of Nicolas Vallet’s Secret des Muses for the lute 150 years earlier, with its comparable assimilation of international styles and themes for a favourite plucked instrument. The books also form a musical microcosm of some Dutch Enlightenment values: domesticity, openness to foreign influences and curiosity about the world.

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