Harmonies of hell

for flute (doubling piccolo & alto), oboe, clarinet (doubling E flat clarinet & bass clarinet), bassoon, horn, harp, percussion (one player), 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, conductor (who also speaks).
20 mins.

Commissioned by Endymion Ensemble and first performed by them under their conductor John Whitfield at Harrogate International Festival on 7th August 1988.

Programme notes

The idea for HARMONIES OF HELL came from Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in 1505. This extraordinary picture shows man mindlessly pursuing pleasure; like all Bosch’s work, the central theme is that of sin. This was a common topic for an artist of the late Middle Ages; but in Bosch it transcended its period and context. The right-hand panel, depicting Hell, contains images such as a pair of ears attached to the blade of a knife, a bird-headed monster which swallows people and craps them into a cesspit, and the haunting figure of the Tree-man – a creature with a man’s head, putrefying body in the form of a huge egg (inside which is a tavern-scene) and legs made of tree-trunks rooted in two flimsy rowing-boats.

Bosch’s Hell also contains a band of musicians; and I decided to write the music they are playing. As I worked, I began to see parallels between Bosch’s vision of greed and the materialist culture in which we now live. For Bosch, Hell was no remote theoretical state, but real and present in 1505. There are many parallels between his period and ours: the Day of Judgement (then thought imminent) loomed large in the medieval sky; today we have an environmental equivalent hanging over us. And in the 1980s, when I wrote this piece, there was a parallel between the Black Death and AIDS: in each case a human catastrophe had been exploited by bigots and attributed to “sin”. If Bosch’s vision of evil had force in 1505, it is more relevant than ever today.

From the start, my piece refused to remain within instrumental bounds: words kept butting in, and gradually it turned into a melodrama. Here is a summary of the narrative. There are instrumental passages between these sections:

Introduction A limerick about Hieronymus Bosch, and an address to the audience. Hell is here and now: we create it ourselves. Hell is . . . Various definitions of Hell in a contemporary context. The two sides of selfishness: greed and loneliness. The Circle of Hell Symbolised by an excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia Trial on April 20th 1964. Immediately after this, he spent twenty-seven years in solitary confinement. The Circle of Hell is drawn by the first violin, who walks in a circle around the other musicians, playing as he goes. The Book of Wonkosh The god Mammon speaks through his prophet Wonkosh (played by the percussionist). His followers are whipped up to an orgy of hatred, and turn into mad dogs. The conductor calls a halt with a blast on a police whistle. Burial of a Stranger An old African immigrant has died. He came to Europe as a young man to train as a doctor or lawyer. Unable to complete his studies, he ended up as a labourer, or worse. Many such people come to our cities to improve their lot. The strain is too much; to return home is impossible; and they vanish into oblivion. Full fathom five: Refrains This excerpt from The Tempest is linked to the preceding section; a bell tolls through both. The poem is whispered in a ghostly form. Out of it emerges a group of instrumental refrains played by six of the musicians as they walk slowly around the platform – to end up at the front, facing the audience in two groups of three.

O Vos Omnes The conductor addresses the audience in the words of Lamentations (chap. 1, v. 12), punctuating Jacob Obrecht’s motet on the same text, played by the six players who remain seated. Obrecht was a contemporary and compatriot of Bosch. This text relates to the theme of the wayfarer, which figures in many Bosch paintings: ‘O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite, et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus’ (‘All ye that pass by, behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow’).

Giles Swayne 2008


“…the work is effective and curiously moving, because the music is continuously interesting and brilliantly written for the virtuoso players…Swayne is a dramatist by nature.”

Michael Kennedy – Daily Telegraph


Words by Giles Swayne, with quotations from Nelson Mandela (by permission) and Shakespeare.


ALL: Harmonies of Hell . . .

PERCUSSION There was an old fellow called Bosch
Whose pictures were creepy, but posh.
When they said “They’re obscene!
What the Hell do they mean?”
He said: “Diddly, diddly, dosh.”

VOICES Hell is you, and Hell is ME,
And Hell is anywhere we don’t have time to be
Hell is HERE and Hell is THERE:
Hell is Hell is Hell is . . .
Everywhere . . .
Everywhere . . .
Everywhere . . . (fading out)