‘Song from Hell’ hidden in 500-year-old painting – Listen to it

A US music student is believed to have unearthed a musical secret lurking in a painting for more than 500 years.

Amelia Hamrick, an honours student at Oklahoma Christian University, was recently poring over Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, which depicts the fall of humanity from the garden of Eden into hell.

Hamrick spotted a tiny, easily overlooked detail in the richly detailed painting’s lower-right corner: a man — who is being lashed by a demon’s tongue — with a musical score etched across his buttocks in Gregorian notation.

“It’s kind of like a 500-year-old ‘Where’s Waldo’,” Hamrick told the Oklahoman.

She transcribed the song into modern notation and played it out loud.


15 thoughts on “‘Song from Hell’ hidden in 500-year-old painting – Listen to it

  1. Really? Song from Hell? For centuries the die-go-to-heaven-go-to-hell crowd has threatened us with the claim that hell is a place of extreme torment and suffering. So how can anyone produce music in hell? Especially when music role on the human brain is to uplift?!


  2. I think someone’s been sipping the sacramental wine again. That sound is terrific! No way would you call that a sound from Hell. I mean, that’s modern music, unless of course he was being prophetic? There’s some devil music I absolutely love. 🙂


    • I guess the basics were there in the original, but Amelia Hamrick, being an honours music student, could well have given it a modern arrangement?


    • Gee,
      Wasnt it the late General William Booth of Salvation Army fame who is quoted as saying “Why should the devil have all the best music?” And he went on to make sure that the Salvos played and sang very enjoyable music from then on.

      In my library I have a book with close-ups of the various features contained in Bosch’s remarkable work. There are a number of musical points raised; and the particular detail that is quoted here has a couple of interesting sentences attached to it. The image has certainly not been only just discovered. –

      “Conducted by a hideous fanged frog demon, a terrorized group of choristers are forced to read hellish music (with notes like thorns or drops of blood) imprinted on a man’s buttocks. Their anguish and desparation is pitifully apparent as they struggle to sing a dirge of their damnation. One sufferer, crushed beneath the enormous music book and lute, is forced by a devil to point to the man impaled on the harp strings. He is pointing of course, for the viewer’s edification.”

      (The Garden of Earthly Delights by Peter S. Beagle – Picador 1982)



    By Jay Sheen

    Even though the boy’s passion was music, his father forbade having musical instruments in his home, because of his parental concern. Music offered almost no career security and he feared that his son might not be able to support himself, let alone a family, should he become a musician.

    A legal career offered a brighter future, the father insisted. And his son might very well have become a lawyer had it not been for a business trip his father took.

    Royal Patronage

    The father, a surgeon in the German town of Halle, had been summoned to the court of Duke Johann Adolf at Weissenfels, some 50 kilometres away. The boy begged to come along, so the father took him.

    While the father conduced his business, the boy, bored, wandered into the palace chapel and began improvising on the royal organ. Before long, the sound of footsteps caused him to turn. Standing there was the duke himself, watching in utter amazement at a boy playing such majestic music.

    “Who is this remarkable child?” the duke asked his staff.

    Learning that the youth was the son of the visiting surgeon, the duke spoke to the father and persuaded him that it would be a mistake to turn such a musically gifted boy into a lawyer. This it was that the father allowed his son, George Frideric Handel, to study music.

    After returning to Halle, Handel learned quickly. He was first a pupil of the cathedral organist, who trained him to compose and perform on several keyboard instruments as well as the oboe and the violin. Handel soon outgrew his teacher and left Halle, first for Hamburg, then for Italy, where he mastered the art of composing operas. Although only in his mid twenties, Handel’s growing reputation spread from Italy back to Germany.

    In 1710, a German prince, George Ludwig of Hanover, offered him the position of court musician. For any composer, this was a dream come true, because it provided a sizeable and guaranteed income. The only negative part of the position was that it meant writing only to the instructions of the employer.


    It wasn’t long before Handel became dissatisfied and bored with his work in Germany. He learned that Italian opera had been recently introduced to London and that its citizens could not get enough of it.

    Handel approached Ludwig for a short leave of absence. The prince granted Handel’s request, making it clear he expected Handel to return.

    “You may go for a reasonable time,” Ludwig cautioned. Handel left immediately and that “reasonable time” turned into 50 years. Handel would die in England, the country where he eventually chose to become a naturalised citizen.

    Arriving in England toward the end of 1710, Handel earned his first success with Rinaldo. The musical played for a remarkable 15 consecutive nights to packed houses. Handel turned out one opera after another, so that by the time he was 30, he had the distinction of being the most popular composer in England.

    In 1713, Queen Anne granted Handel an annual stipend of £200. Together with the income from his own opera receipts, he became the best paid composer in the world.

    When Queen Anne died, Ludwig, Handel’s previous employer, was crowned the new king of England. Deeply concerned about what Ludwig might do to him for deserting his service back in Germany, Handel wrote the exquisite Water Music , arranging for it to be played by musicians aboard a barge as the new king was rowed up the Thames.

    “What is that heavenly music?” Ludwig exclaimed, “I must meet the composer.”

    If there were any feelings of disappointment or anger on the part of King George (as Ludwig would be known), he never revealed them. In fact, he added an additional £200 to Handel’s yearly stipend!

    Career Standstill

    The next decade was a glorious era for Handel but by the mid-1720s, his popularity had declined, audiences had dwindled and in 1728, he was forced into bankruptcy.

    In order to survive, Handel turned to concert performances. While that brought him a steady income, he continued to turn out Italian-styled operas as well, hoping for a reversal of circumstances. Sadly, his operas failed to generate public support.

    Finally, in 1737, utterly exhausted from overwork and deeply disappointed, Handel suffered a paralyzing stroke.

    That stroke took away the use of his right arm, including the fingers he used to play the harpsichord and organ. Word of his stroke spread rapidly through Europe. The future Frederick the Great of Prussia wrote to his royal cousins in England declaring, “Handel’s great days are over. His inspirations exhausted and his taste behind the fashion.”

    Handel left England in the summer of 1737, hoping for a cure at the famous hot springs of Aachen, Germany. There he sat, day after day in the bubbling waters, tended to by the Catholic nuns who operated the facility.

    ……..to be cont’d


    (Part 2)

    A visit from God

    One day, Handel abruptly left the baths and dressed quickly. Several hours later, when he did not return for his next treatment, the nuns grew alarmed and began to search for him. Then, from the abbey church, they heard a burst of glorious music. Running to investigate, the nuns were stunned to see Handel, his right arm and fingers completely restored, playing the organ. Doctors could not account for his healing.

    Returning to London, Handel immediately began writing operas again, none of which were well received. By 1741, he again found himself deeply in debt. In the midst of that despairing time, a bulky parcel was delivered to him. It was from the poet Charles Jennens, inviting the composer to add music to what he had written.

    As Handel looked it over, he recognised that the writing was not entirely original. Rather, Jennens had creatively taken passages from the Bible and skilfully woven them into a stirring narrative of Christ’s birth, sacrifice and resurrection. Jennens called his work Messiah.

    Handel accepted Jennens’ offer and, seized by inspiration, wrote almost ceaselessly for three weeks. The entire work was completed on September 14, only 24 days after he began. Even Handel stared unbelievably at the enormous musical score he had composed.

    With the work complete, he stumbled to bed and fell asleep. When—17 house later—attempts to awaken him proved pointless, Christopher Smith, Handel’s script copyist, called for a doctor. When Dr Jenkins arrived, Handel awoke and strode to the harpsichord where he played a section of his new music. After he finished, Jenkins said, “Never have I heard the like of this. Surely you must be possessed of the devil. ”Handel gently corrected the physician, saying, “I think that God has visited me.”

    Paying people’s debts

    It was at Handel’s request that the first performance of Messiah took place in Dublin, Ireland, where he believed financial receipts would be most substantial. He also made it clear that he did not wish to profit from the piece. Instead, the money was to be given to the care of prisoners, orphans and the sick.

    His explanation: “I have myself been a very sick man and am now cured. I was a prisoner and have been set free!”

    As rehearsals took place, word of the music’s beauty quickly spread throughout Dublin. So many tickets wee sold that the newspapers appealed for women concert-goers to remove the hoops from heir skirts so that more people could be seated.

    Audiences were overwhelmed by Handel’s work. The second performance was so packed that panes of glass had to be removed to keep the concert hall from overheating.

    Following the Irish performances, £400 went to hospitals and infirmaries, and 142 prisoners were freed from prison because Messiah had paid their debts.

    English resistance

    Encouraged by his success in Dublin, Handel returned to London, where he was shocked to encounter fierce opposition to Messiah. For the clergy, Handel’s work was a sacrilege. They objected to Christian truths being mouthed by actors on a theatre stage. They organized a protest prior to the London premiere and they preached sermons against it. Unsurprisingly, the London performance of Messiah was a dismal failure.

    Nevertheless, Handel, himself a devout Christian, persisted in presenting Messiah. For several years, it continued to be denounced and boycotted. But eventually, the yearly performance of Messiah won over critics and became the highlight of the London festive season.

    When King George II heard the oratorio for the first time, he was deeply stirred. As trumpets rang out the great “Hallelujah” chorus, he spontaneously rose to his feet. A stir went through the audience and soon everyone else stood up. To this day, when the majestic “Hallelujah” chorus is heard, audiences traditionally stand out of respect.

    By the age of 67, Handel was blind. But every year until his death at 74, he continued to rehearse and conduct Messiah for London’s Foundling Hospital, often guided to the organ by two children.

    On April 6, 1759, Handel collapsed and lingered in bed until the night of Good Friday, April 13. He died in the early morning hours, on the same date Messiah had premiered in Dublin 17 years earlier.

    Two hundred and sixty years later, Handel’s Messiah continues to move its listeners as much as it did when it first made its debut.

    Three editions of Messiah

    The first published score of 1767, together with Handel’s documented adaptations and re-compositions of various movements, has been the basis for many performing versions since the composer’s lifetime. Modern performances that seek authenticity tend to be based on one of three twentieth-century performing editions. These all use different methods of numbering movements:

    The Novello Edition
    The Barenreiter Edition
    The Peters Edition

    SIGNS of the Times—December 2013


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