Detlev Glanert introduces his new Requiem in honour of the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch, premiered in the artist’s home town in November.
Before the commission for the Bosch Requiem, how had you discovered the artist’s unique world?
I’d known Bosch’s paintings for a long time and had always been fascinated by his overwhelming imagination, the intriguing details, the darkness, the contrast between holiness and sin, and the sheer apocalyptic impact. He truly sees the evil in humanity very clearly and informs us of man’s spiritual predicament and fall from grace. As a contemporary composer I’m also amazed by the sheer modernity in his art, which is often futuristic with its predictions of the machine age and weird apparatus including something resembling a telephone. He was also an experimentalist – at a recent exhibition I saw how he tried out ideas on the reverse of his paintings and began some of his pictures with a totally black canvas.
Is Bosch’s balancing of wild fantasy and structural craft instructive for a composer?
It depends on the composer. Some avoid fantastic elements in their music and others may not appreciate the mastery Bosch demonstrates in controlling the human chaos, such as in the crowd scenes. However, his balancing act perfectly fits with my own approach to creativity, composing music which explores the human condition through observation.
How much of Bosch’s work do you see fixed in a time and place and how much is universal?
The critical response to Bosch has shifted so he is now a universal figure in European culture. After his death in 1516 he was forgotten for a long time, then was rediscovered in the early 19th century as a bizarre novelty. In this 500th anniversary year he is rightly being recognised around the world as an extraordinary artist. This is partly due to our modern perspective in which we recognise the emotion of fear as a common experience. When you see it in his paintings you see it in yourself.
How did you approach the sacred history of the Requiem?
The heritage of the Requiem was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. As a believer but not a church-goer I followed Bach’s example of responding as a non-Catholic to these ancient texts. He tapped into the power and intrinsic dignity of the words as a devotional act and with a human-focused interpretation. Though written in the early centuries of the Church the Biblical texts remain a central anchor point for our civilisation between the Talmud and Koran.
What drew you to juxtaposing the Latin Requiem Mass with texts from the Carmina Burana collection?
The conception of my Requiem is to show the judgement of the soul of Bosch himself (or that of any other person) by accusing him of the seven deadly sins. For that I needed to find texts to complement the Requiem passages and this led me to the Carmina Burana manuscript. The poems chosen by Orff represent only a tiny part of this huge collection and whereas he focused on the pagan, I’ve selected more sophisticated poetry, even if it is describing sinners tempted by demons.
How has your writing for chorus evolved through your operas?
I’ve gained experience composing for chorus in different ways. The voices are sometimes speaking as one – as in a standard opera – or they might be wordless and disembodied such as representing the controlling planet in Solaris. The new element for me in the Requiem was having to set theological texts, which prompted an alternative style of writing. Rather than employing modernist techniques I had to think about eternity in the purest and simplest terms.
How have you divided up the vocal and choral elements in the Bosch Requiem?
The choral forces as a whole represent the soul of Bosch, while the speaker is the artist’s accuser – the archangel Michael. There are two choirs, small and large. In the beginning the small choir and the organ present the traditional Requiem text, and the sins are interpreted by the large choir, orchestra and especially the soloists. But, step by step, the large choir and the orchestra move across to the Requiem side, and from the Libera me onwards the soloists join them, until they are all united in the final section.
The work ends with an In paradisum and consoling words from Revelation. How do you see this summing up the work?
I see the gap between the Libera me and the In paradisum as the turning point of the Requiem: it is the final decision being made here that ensures the soul will enter into Paradise. Therefore I allowed myself to give the speaker some words from the end of Revelation that have resonated strongly since medieval times, as if we are passing through a door to eternal life. Although we undertake the journey with the soul of Bosch, the work can also be understood without reference to the artist. If we found ourselves in the face of the accuser we would similarly respond by saying "Libera me" – we are all sinners but we could all cross to Paradise.
Interviewed by David Allenby
Requiem für Hieronymus Bosch (2015-16) 75’
after the Requiem Mass and medieval poetry (L)
for solo voices, choruses and orchestra
Commissioned by Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
4 November 2016 (world premiere)
Sint Janskathedraal, ’s-Hertogenbosch
5 November 2016
Royal Concertgebouw Hall, Amsterdam
NTR ZaterdagMatinee series
David Wilson-Johnson/Aga Mikolaj/Ursula Hesse von den Steinen/
Gerhard Siegel/Christof Fischesser/Netherland Radio Choir/
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Markus Stenz
> Further information on Work: Requiem für Hieronymus Bosch
Photos: Bosch detail from Hell (www.hieronymus-bosch.org); Glanert (Bettina Stoess)
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