Serge Nigg: Jerome Bosch Symphonie

performed by the Orchestre Radio Symphonique de Strasbourg under Charles Bruck

(this work isn’t on YouTube, but this performance, perhaps the only one in existence for now, is on Spotify. It can be found here.)

(cover image by Hieronymus Bosch, courtesy of Museo del Prado)

Serge Nigg was born on June 6, 1924 and entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1941 after studying with Ginette Martenot, sister of the inventor of the ondes Martenot, who was herself a student of Arthur Honegger, and gave the premiere performance on the ondes Martenot of Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphony.

Nigg also in fact studied with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire (harmony) and Simone Plé-Caussade, who studied with, among others, Alfred Cortot.

He met Rene Leibowitz in 1945 and was thus introduced to serialism, making him the first French composer to write a fully 12-tone work, in 1946 (the same year as Martinon’s quartet we discussed a few days ago) with his Variations for piano and ten instruments.

Among Nigg’s output are two piano concertos (plus concertos with wind bands or string orchestra), two viola concertos, a violin concerto, a string quartet, three piano sonatas, and more. There’s really not a whole lot around about this guy or his works.

It seems fitting, though, that this work would be as… arcane (?) as the eponymous painting that inspired it. The work was a commission from the Strasbourg Festival, where it was premiered in 1960. The precious little information I could find about this work is either in French, or apparently based on the French (or vice versa), and is as follows, in French from IRCAM, and then in English, from Billaudot:

Au tournant des années soixante s’amorce une nouvelle période qui renoue avec la technique dodécaphonique mais dans un nouvel équilibre exempt de tout systématisme. C’est à cette période que naissent les œuvres que l’on considère comme étant celles de la maturité : La Jérôme Bosch – Symphonie, inspirée par le triptyque du peintre hollandais Le jardin des délices terrestres, créée au festival de Strasbourg en 1960.

And then… what’s basically (although perhaps not very elegantly translated) identical information:

Around the sixties : a new period began, characterized by a rediscovered dodecaphonic technique, but from which any dryness and systematism seem to be excluded. It was this period of balance, in which problems of “musical language”, vocabulary and syntax seemed to be resolved, that gave birth to “ mature” works…

…among which the Bosch symphony is listed.

The work is in three movements, as follows, and has a duration of a little over 20 minutes:

  1. L’enfer du “jardin des délices”
  2. La reflexion de l’Homme grave
  3. La Bacchanale du jardin des délices terrestres

If you’re not already familiar with Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, go do that. It’s the cover image of this article, and unexpectedly played a sort of… unintentionally major part of a manuscript I wrote (yes, like for a book) a few years back. It’s a fascinating, shocking, really otherworldly obscure piece of art that people have spent a very long time trying to explain. You know what they say about opinions.

Well, without getting into trying to elaborate on another art form, the triptych (so called because, you are correct, it has three panels) has a sort of progression from left to right. What can be incontestably stated about the work is that the left and center panels share a horizon (or skyline or whatever), so there’s at least some sense of connectedness between these two panels… the actual content, the story of these panels, is another story.

What can also be incontestably stated is that the far right panel, the darkest one, and the most terrifying, is the… end, the conclusion of whatever narrative is presented, and it’s generally described or thought of as hell, the result of man’s disobedience, or sin, whatever interpreters think that may have been (see Adam and Eve on the far left).

That being said, it interests me that the first movement of this three-movement piece refers to hell (‘lenfer) and not the third movement. This throws into complete confusion what one would think is the logical assumption that the three movements correspond to the three panels of the work as read from left to right. Guess not.

This work, like the piece that inspired it, both interests and perplexes me. It seems posed as a riddle, a presentation of very interesting material, be it painting or music, but that raises more questions than answers.

I wish this recording were of higher quality. There’s apparently one that won the Grand Prix du Disc from the ’80s, but it’s not on Spotify, and I was, come to think of it, too lazy to search elsewhere. There is a certain character that comes through in spite of the poor audio quality, and that’s one of vibrant color, and constantly shifting textures. From the lo-fi audio, this work may as well be from a chamber symphony, but it could perhaps have the vividness and roar of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Who knows?

The first movement seems not nearly as hellacious and raucous as the finale, with a mostly pristine (or at least more tranquil) second movement. There are also somewhat placid moments in this ‘L’enfer,’ like a violin solo. I’d say overall, in these three pieces, there’s a surreal nature to the music.

The second movement is more ethereal, chamber-like, with flute and piano at the opening. There is, however, a sick, almost diseased nature to the sound, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The ‘bacchanale’ finale is where we reach a culmination of the action. Have we come back to the sinful center panel, or are we still living the terrors of human hell? Hell if I know. At the very least, the music is more menacing. The piano is used in much the way Shostakovich adds an interesting, almost cold, hard texture to his symphonic tapestry. It’s the most driving, straightforward movement of the three, suitable for a finale, and eventually, tragically… deflates. It’s a reasonable end; I don’t mean that negatively, but…

Perhaps I’m also just too tied to the programmatic idea of trying to connect the three-panel painting with the three-movement work. Get me a modern, clear recording and then we’ll talk. I want to have more to say about it, but at this point, it’s more curiosity and questions and novelty than answers. Go check it out though. Slightly more information about the composer can be found here or here, in French (and maybe mostly the same as what’s on Wikipedia).

We’ve only got two more pieces left in the series, which is terribly exciting because one of them is just astounding, and the other is… at least interesting, so stay tuned for those and thanks so much for reading.


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