Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Proms

  • 1111/0+hn.1.1.0/perc/
  • SATB
  • Mezzo Soprano, Countertenor
  • 30 min

Programme Note

I always find the most difficult part of creating any new work is discovering its grammar; its unique musical DNA if you like. When I was presented with the exciting challenge of writing a piece based on Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-04), I spent a long time just looking and indeed listening to the painting gathering a knowledge of its potential sound world. On finally visiting the painting at the Prado in Madrid, I was stunned by the spectacular vibrancy of the colours… something that one never sees in reproductions. It brought the piece to life and began to define its various musical characteristics.

After many discussions with my collaborator, the artist and writer John Ross, we decided to create the character of Bosch, both painter and Alchemist, out of a sumptuous polyphonic vocal web of solo mezzo soprano and countertenor, providing a musical narrative that leads the listener on a strange Labyrinthine journey through the triptych.

The piece begins with the Creation of the World; an outer panel depicting a misty blue globe that was originally intended to open-up into two halves to reveal the three inner panels of the painting. As the music slowly unfolds, (a complex texture of eight-part chamber choir accompanied by tuned percussion, piano and harp) the two solo voices gradually emerge and lead the listener into the Garden of Eden, gradually revealing the geography from different visual and musical perspectives. The narrative is drawn towards the Christ figure in the foreground with Adam and Eve; the scene darkens and we arrive at the Garden of Earthly delights. At this point the character of Bosch dissolves and the listener is taken on a helter-skelter “scherzo”, a musical roller coaster that whirls around and amongst the multitude of bizarre characters, birds and animals that make up this compelling multi layered environment of humanity. Towards the end of this panel, the fast music suddenly freezes and the character of Bosch returns, slowly leading the listener away from the garden. The chorus appears and the music almost imperceptibly begins to descend into the dark endless despair of hell. For the first time in the piece, the two soloists split apart. Firstly we hear the solo counter tenor recite the tortured song of a sinner, accompanied by the instruments of hell, and the piercing stare of the Egg Man … perhaps Bosch himself ? The ghastly chordal cacophony of hell finally modulates to a tonal centre of A flat major. The mezzo soprano emerges once again, singing of happier times. She seeks redemption:

“Painter, painter, paint me a boat that I may dream I sailed to a sacred place”. The two voices join briefly together again and in unison sing “The garden gate shuts on the road ahead.” To the ominous tolling of two bells tuned to the devil’s interval of D flat and G, the piece and the painting die away to nothing.

The Garden of Earthly Delights was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and first performed as part of the BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall, London, on 18 August 2012 by Anne-Marie Owens, mezzo-soprano, Andrew Watts, counter-tenor, London Sinfonietta Voices and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Programme note by Simon Bainbridge