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  • Driehonderd brieven over muziek van, aan en rond Constantijn Huygens
  • Kate Van Orden
Rudolf Rasch . Driehonderd brieven over muziek van, aan en rond Constantijn Huygens.2 volumes. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2007. 1269 pp. index. illus. bibl. €95. ISBN: 978–90–6550–967–3.

Scholars whose research concerns the philosophers René Descartes and Marin Mersenne, the poet and historian P. C. Hooft, or the mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens will already be familiar with at least a portion of the voluminous correspondence of Christiaan's father, Constantijn Huygens (1596– 1687). Constantijn served as secretary to the Princes of Orange, and later as a member of the Council and Exchequer of the House of Orange. In addition to his professional life as a statesman, Huygens was a genuine humanist. An avid poet, musician, and composer, during his remarkably long lifetime he developed an extraordinary coterie of friends who shared these interests. The modern editions of Descartes's and Mersenne's correspondence bear ample testimony to the esteem in which these luminaries held him.

The present edition of Huygens's letters, edited by Rudolf Rasch, concentrates on the musical dimension of Huygens's life. Huygens studied lute, viola da gamba, and the keyboard as a child, and although most of his musical compositions are [End Page 989] lost, he claimed to have composed almost 1000 (brief) instrumental pieces. What survives of Huygens's music is to be found in the Pathodia sacra e profana (1647), a collection of Latin psalm motets and Italian and French airs for one voice and basso continuo. Also surviving is a small treatise in which Huygens promoted the use of the organ to accompany psalm singing in the Dutch Reformed Church (published anonymously in 1641).

More significant than Huygens's musical and theoretical works, however, are his letters, which offer historians phenomenal insight into the activities of theorists, scientists, musical amateurs, and professional musicians of the age. So, for instance, collected here are the primary documents concerning the musical competition that Mersenne staged between Joan Albert Ban and Antoine Boësset in 1640 as part of a series of debates concerning music, the passions, and the proper goals of song. Huygens acted as an intermediary, passing along to Ban a French poem with the instructions to set it to music. Ban's approach to text setting was rigid, verging on schematic, so he was not likely to have fared well in the contest. Moreover, and unbeknownst to Ban, Mersenne rather chauvinistically chose for the competition a poem that Boësset had already treated to a very successful setting; as if this did not give the French sufficient advantage, Mersenne also altered one line of the poem. But although the contest itself was rigged, the debate preserved in the correspondence is a valuable source for understanding musical aesthetics in mid-century Europe.

Over 7000 letters to and from Huygens survive, and they were edited almost a century ago by J. A. Worp in the six-volume set De briefwisseling van Constantijn Huygens (1608–1687) (1911–17). Worp's transcriptions were fairly good (though by no means faultless). But in many instances he had incomplete control of or access to the primary source materials; new letters have also come to light in the last hundred years, which is unsurprising given that they are scattered among libraries in The Netherlands, Paris, Chartres, and London. Similar matters have rendered other editions out-of-date, and one very important edition for historians of music is by now an item only consultable in research libraries: W. J. A. Jonckbloet and J. P. N. Land's Musique et musiciens au XVIIe siècle: correspondance et oeuvre musicales de Constantin Huygen (1882).

Rasch's edition is impeccable in its transcriptions and nicely curated. There is also an extremely useful register of all the correspondents. And the edition itself is beautifully printed. I do wonder, however, whether more readers might have been better served had the fine introduction and translations of the letters been in a language other than (or in addition to) Dutch. It is true that Huygens was a polyglot — a large number of letters are in French, with others in Italian and...


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