Since the death of Hieronymus Bosch, it has been half a millennium – a length of time that is hard to imagine. The remarkable painter lived at the transition between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age, so in his works we find a reflection of the illuminations in Gothic-period books and of the newly emerging Renaissance. Much changed during his lifetime: the fall of Constantinople in 1453 extinguished the last glimmer of the antiquity, Columbus discovered the New World for Europe in 1492, and in 1514 Copernicus brought forth his heliocentric theory – we will probably never know whether this revolutionary information ever reached the town 's-Hertogenbosch in Brabant, a place that Hieronymus supposedly never left in his life. But that is not important. Bosch devoted himself to the exploration of other frontiers – he discovered the human inner world and he portrayed the landscapes hidden in it.
His real name was Jeroen (Jheronimus) Anthonisz van Aken, and he came from a famous dynasty of painters that originated in the German town Aachen, but he signed his paintings with a pseudonym derived from the informal name of his hometown – Den Bosch. In his youth, he took part in the construction of the magnificent cathedral in 's-Hertogenbosch, with its fanciful gargoyles in the form of various monsters and creatures. The grotesque figures apparently had such a powerful effect on the young man’s imagination that he later returned to them in many variants all his life. In his youth, he also experienced a devastating fire that reduced 4,000 houses to ashes. Later, this too many have influenced his depictions of hell on his famous triptychs The Haywain, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Bosch’s works have a connection with the devotio moderna religious movement, which was based on the mysticism of certain authors of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (We know that in 's-Hertogenbosch he was a member of the Confraternity of Our Lady, which was guided by the mystical teachings of Jan van Ruusbroeck, who also influenced the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam.) With inimitable inventiveness, his paintings depict the image of the human soul in its age-old struggle with sin. He skilfully describes the weaknesses that constantly threaten people and that can easily turn them into prey of the devil’s snares. Bosch’s style as a painter was very original. Playing a role, apparently, in his exclusive individuality of expression was the fact that he was financially independent and did not have to take into consideration the demands of patrons commissioning artworks; his large triptychs did not serve the official function of altarpieces.
Bosch’s boundless imagination spoke to other artists even long afterwards – whether the painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, also from Brabant half a century after Bosch’s death, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya three centuries later, or the twentieth-century surrealists Joan Miró, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí. Hieronymus Bosch still inspires artists today, and not just in the visual arts.
The Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch was commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the death of the famous painter. “At first, I was not at all certain whether I should accept the commission,” says the composer Detlev Glanert concerning the work’s genesis. “The original requirement was the composing of a real Requiem, and to that point I had never composed any sacred music – I’m not even a churchgoer. I therefore had to seek out a relationship with the text itself right from the beginning. I read it through very carefully, along with lots of information about Hieronymus Bosch, and suddenly it all began to draw me in. The text of the Requiem has an enormous tradition and great seriousness. Its roots go even deeper than to Christianity. It is tremendously inspirational if you think about light and darkness, and it represents an amazing treasure of Western culture. On the other hand, we have Hieronymus Bosch … in his works we find an expression of terrible fear of demons and devils, and also fear of not reaching heaven after death. For people in those days, salvation was enormously important; it was a topic of everyday discussion, and everyone took it truly seriously. Ordinary life revolved around a people not failing, so that their souls would not stray from the right path. For me, the urgency of this question was very important while working on the Requiem.” … “This led me to thinking about the seven deadly sins. Once you start to deal with them, you find out that all of us have a demon of our own – I was not aware of this until I went to work on the Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch. When you look at the sins themselves, you find that they conceal a description all of the problems that torment us in our contemporary lives. These sins conceal within themselves a very old, very deep wisdom, but also a tradition that still speaks to us today.”
Yes, in the scarcely imaginable half millennium that has passed since the death of Hieronymus Bosch, the way we see the world has changed – neither the earth nor even the sun are now at the centre of the universe. Science has advanced by leaps and bounds in its understanding of the macro- and microcosm. Mankind, however, still remains the same, with all of its shortcomings. And these shortcomings are well described by the main or cardinal sins as states of mind around which the whole sinfulness of mankind revolves. Hieronymus Bosch depicted all of them in his painting The Seven Deadly Sins, which you can still see at the Prado Museum in Madrid. We are unable to rid ourselves entirely of pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, sloth, and gluttony (or intemperance to be more exact), but unless we at least try to supplant them with their opposites – the virtues of humility, gratitude, charity, patience, chastity, diligence, and temperance – they will seduce us into committing more and more sins.
Detlev Glanert conceived his Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch as a depiction of the Last Judgment of a man at the end of his earthly sojourn. At the heavenly gates, when examining whether the soul of the departed is suitable for acceptance into paradise, the Archangel Michael uses the seven cardinal sins as a checklist. Parts of the liturgy for the dead are interspersed with Medieval Latin texts from the collection Carmina Burana that describe individual sins, which the archangel always presents by addressing the painter and introducing the demon who corresponds to the sin. As an experienced opera composer, Glanert handles tension and contrast masterfully, and in spite of the work’s great length, it never loses its momentum and drives ahead to the final catharsis.
The basic material from which the whole composition is built is a seven-tone motif, and all parts of the work arise from it. “I chose notes that can be derived in various ways from the name Hieronymus Bosch – like the way Shostakovich, for example, used the sequence of tones D–eS–C–H [in German, ‘Es’ is e flat, and ‘H’ is b natural] as his musical signature. I chose the suitable letters from Bosch’s name, including ʻrʼ, from which I derived the solfege syllable ʻReʼ. The result is a variable sequence that contains intervals of a third, fourth, fifth, and seventh. It was possible to work very well with it, so I built the entire Requiem on its basis. From that basic sequence, I derived a number of smaller motifs that sound very different, but that still come from the same material,” said the composer in explaining his method.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra gave the premiere of Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch during the anniversary of the painter’s birth in April 2016 at Saint John’s Cathedral in 's-Hertogenbosch. Since then, it has been played only a few times, most recently at the Barbican in London in December 2019 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Semyon Bychkov. So we now have a special opportunity of hearing it in Prague, of immersing ourselves in our inner world, and of examining our consciences to see where we would stand if the Archangel Michael were to call our names instead of Bosch’s.