If you've ever seen "The Garden of Earthly Delights," the famed three-panel painting by Hieronymus Bosch, you've probably thought to yourself, "What the hell?" Because there, occupying the rightmost panel, is an extravagant, absurd, and shocking depiction of hell.
Amid the fire and brimstone of typical hellscapes, you'll spot a giant with trees for legs and a fractured eggshell for a torso; a pack of rats eating a knight; a pair of disembodied ears attached to an enormous knife blade; a birdman with a cauldron for a crown sitting upon a golden throne, devouring a live human. Even if you dwell on the serene left panel or wider middle panel of the work, you're still confronted with a supernatural, surreal vision that could put Magritte or Dalí to shame.
If you've never seen a Bosch painting, no, he was not a psychedelics-devouring, paint-splashing madman; he was a fifteenth-century painter from the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch, and his work inspired this weekend's performance at Duke by Cappella Pratensis, a choral ensemble that shares Bosch's hometown. On Friday, to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Bosch's death, the renowned group presents a series of polyphonic works composed by Pierre de la Rue. Born in Belgium two years after Bosch, the composer spent much of his life composing in Bosch's native city. La Rue's connections to Bosch extend beyond geography and temporal proximity—his aesthetic sensibility is similar in many regards, according to Stratton Bull, director of Cappella Pratensis.
"La Rue's a composer who's very busy. The whole concept of polyphony is to have multiple lines at once, four different songs going on at the same time," Bull says.
"Busy," and even "polyphonic," are equally fitting terms for Bosch's art. His works can read like twisted I Spy tableaux where many story lines are happening all at once. Throughout a La Rue piece, you may find yourself getting lost following one melodic voice before another catches your ear; likewise, Bosch's paintings contain dozens of scenes in which viewers can immerse themselves and wander through. The rich but overstimulating qualities of both artists result in works that are simultaneously harmonious and cacophonous: figures in Bosch's paintings are clustered with a degree of unity, but the density of the clusters can be confusing or overwhelming. The same is true of La Rue's elaborate, concurrent melodies.
"These aren't just serene and simple, calm melodies," Bull says.
La Rue's compositions possess beauty, as well as immense complexity and "moments of debauchery," as Bull puts it—moments that parallel Bosch's often irreverent and intricate art. La Rue's music might seem daunting, and Bull acknowledges the possibility of such a perception. But, ultimately, the music can speak to an audience beyond those who typically appreciate "difficult" music or classical music.
"My two little nieces were dragged along by their mother to a performance, and they completely loved it. They loaded up their iPods with polyphony the next day," Bull says.
Bull's not promising that Cappella Pratensis will transform attendees into lifetime polyphony aficionados, but he does believe in the vitality and continued relevance of the music, especially in a live setting. Recorded, music doesn't have quite the same power as when it unfolds in real time, but, as a Bosch painting can still evoke shock, surprise, and aesthetic delight in the hearts of twenty-first century viewers, so too can the music of La Rue.
"We just have to keep at it," Bull says. "It's not old music, or church music. It's just good music."
This article appeared in print with the headline “Polyphonic Spree."