Hieronymous Bosch’s 500-year-old butt song from Hell

June 20, 2015 • 10:30 am

This is a testimony to the tenacity of human endeavor born of curiosity.

Below is Hieronymous Bosch’s great, great painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which I had the pleasure of seeing (with no other gawkers around) when I visited the Prado about a year and a half ago. It was painted between 1490 and 1510. While the work clearly deals with themes of divine paradise and damnation, the interpretation of its many bizarre symbols has defied experts for centuries. But it remains a favorite of stoners and connoisseurs of the bizarre.

1280px-The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution

If you look at the right-hand panel that depicts Hell, you’ll see what looks like a lute about a third of the way up on the left side. Enlarged, it looks like this:

butt_song_1

As the Global Post reports, you can clearly see a song on the guy’s rump, and it can actually be played:

This original contribution to human knowledge comes from Amelia, a music and information systems double major at Oklahoma Christian University. She also likes to blog about nerd things, for which we’re eternally grateful.

Late one night, Amelia and her friend Luke were examining The Garden of Earthly Delights, the surreal triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, when they discovered something amazing:

“…music written upon the posterior of one of the many tortured denizens of the rightmost panel of the painting which is intended to represent Hell.”

After she stopped laughing, Amelia decided to transcribe the notes and record the song based on what she knew of Gregorian-era chants. Here’s the result:

But wait—there’s more. The writer of the website The Well Manicured Man, named Will, has turned the Butt Song into a full choral work. Click on the screenshot below to go to the page and hear it:

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 7.52.54 AM

Here are the lyrics:

butt song from hell

this is the butt song from hell

we sing from our asses while burning in purgatory

the butt song from hell

the butt song from hell

butts

Those sound like lyrics that Bosch could have written.

Music lovers and aficionados: what do you think of the composition?

h/t: Hempenstein, Stash Krod

66 thoughts on “Hieronymous Bosch’s 500-year-old butt song from Hell

  1. Absolutely adore Bosch! The wonderful deProef brewery in Belgium released a series of fantastic wild ales with bits of the paintings as labels, I highly recommend them!

  2. From the youtube notes:

    Posting on her Tumblr, a self-described “huge nerd” called Amelia explained that she and a friend had been examining a copy of Bosch’s famous triptych, which was painted around the year 1500. “[We] discovered, much to our amusement,” she wrote. “[a] 600-years-old butt song from Hell.”

    A math nerd she isn’t – or maybe the youtube author mistyped. 2000-1500=600?

  3. and it can actually be played

    Well, except for those few notes hidden around the curve of guy’s right butt cheek.

  4. At least traditionally, all Gregorian chants are attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, 590-604 — almost a millennium before Bosch.

    Bosch and Josquin des Prez were contemporaries…here’s a representative sample of what would have been at the top of the charts when this was painted:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oavoxxA-E40

    It’s highly unlikely anything notated without rhythmic variation would actually have been performed without rhythmic variation…it took a while for people to figure out how to notate rhythm; pitch notation came first. I know a musicologist who could offer some further insights, but it’s been ages since I saw him….

    b&

    1. Rhythmic notation was well developed by Bosch’s time, but it wasn’t employed for all styles of music. In fact, even today the chant books published by the RC church do not notate rhythm. If the “butt song” was a chant of some sort, then its rhythm would probably have been relatively free (i.e., with no regular pulse). Sadly I’m no expert in 15th-century music notation so I can’t offer an opinion on the rhythm of this particular song.

      1. Chant notation doesn’t notate rhythm as precisely as modern notation, but there were some vague temporal/durational indications. Unadorned neumes were the baseline. Adding a stem or a dot changed the relative duration, much like our current system, but without the exact proportional relationships.

    2. Do I understand then that GrCh is not just a !*style of composition*! (like impressionism) but a !*specific body of compositions*! attributed to Pope Gregory? Thus another composer cannot compose “Gregorian chant”?

      1. Trivia note:

        There are three separate and distinct Pope Gregorys after which the following four items are named.

        Gregorian chant
        The Gregorian mission
        The Gregorian Reform
        The Gregorian Calendar

      2. Yes and no. Technically, Gregorian Chant is the body of work preserved in the Liber Usualis. But, if you write something in that same style, the only meaningful stylistic label to apply to it would also be, “Gregorian Chant.”

        b&

    1. I think that it’s from The Life of Brian butt there’s a Terry Gilliam animation of a fanfare played ex ano.
      Nancy thinks it’s from the Holy Grail.

      1. I may be wrong ( it has happened) but I think those ex ano fanfares of Gillian’s might have appeared in several places, including the regular Python Tv shows.

  5. I would guess that Bosch was simply and randomly putting dots on lines/spaces, and not actually “composing” a tune.

    The first interval in the third “measure” of Amelia’s interpretation is a tritone, which any composer of the time trying to write a tune probably would’ve avoided.

    1. (There are more reasons it comes across as random rather than “composed”, but I’ll refrain from getting too nitty gritty unless someone’s really interested.)

        1. Well, first, there is a lot of redundancy, which typically would’ve been avoided. This takes two forms: 1) pitches repeated in immediate succession (although you sometimes see this in chant, you never see it to this degree); 2) “E” comes across as an upper limit in more measures than is necessary or typical for establishing such a “goal note”. It begins to sound monotonous (in the most literal sense 🙂 ).

          Additionally, although our modern conception of tonality would’ve been foreign to writers of chant, it’s still obvious that they perceived the relationship between the two pitches in a perfect fifth as very important (we call this relationship “tonic” and “dominant”). Chants typically begin and end on either the “tonic” or “dominant”. Since “E” is so prominent in this chant, and since it begins with “A”, one would be on firm ground asserting the fifth “A-E” as the definitive interval. So why does it conclude on “F”?

          1. Agreed, the tritone and ending on F were things that stuck out to me as well. Thanks for your analysis. 🙂

    2. I’m not sure when the association of the tritone with the Devil began, but it just could be a deliberate reference by Bosch

      1. I have a fuzzy memory of reading that it was sometime in the Middle Ages, that adding another tone or two “corrupted” the purity of the single tone. Hence the “harm” in “harmony”? Just speculating.

        1. Putting the “harm” back in harmony. I figure that would be my motto if I attempted a singing career.

  6. ” . . . what looks like a lute about a third of the way up on the left side.”

    An apparent precursor to the harp guitar. (Muriel Anderson among others can be found playing on Youtube.)

  7. I’d like to hear this played on a clavichord.

    I loved the chant. Would have been cooler in Latin.

  8. Hell isn’t just burning eternally…there’s music! Not the best music, but still, that’s good news. I was worried it was just pain and suffering.

      1. A lot of pop singers look like they’re in pain when they’re in the full swell of their ululations, perhaps constipated.

  9. A beautiful painting indeed. First time I heard the music too. That makes it even more special. Karen Armstrong once said that the english speaking world has a great literary tradition and that the Dutch have a more visual tradition.

    My personal favorite is “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Johannes Vermeer.

    1. Vermeer painted wonderful things. I especially liked his use of mirror reflections. I can’t believe I only got a C+ in Art History.

        1. That was my final mark for the whole course after all essays and exams. I didn’t like the class. I found it frustrating that the historical context was left out.

          1. Art History by definition can’t be looked at properly if the historical context is left out. A shame the teacher left it out. I’m glad you passed the course though.

        1. Haha. I’m glad I took the course but I didn’t like it. I found the professor snooty and the course excluded historical context which I think deprived the students of the chance to really understand the art.

  10. The music doesn’t have a clef, so the actual notes to be sung (and the resulting tritones) are not defined.

    (A clef is the symbol at the beginning of a line of music and it tells you what actual pitch is meant by each line and space on the staff–back then they used C and F clefs (you’ll see G clefs (the modern treble clef) now and then, but it was not that common), and they could go on any line. The transcriber has decided on C clef on the next-to-top line, which isn’t unreasonable, but it’s a transcriber choice. So while the size of the intervals and direction are given, the starting pitch (and therefore the major/minor sound) are not.

    By this time, the 5-line staff was normal for polyphonic music with rhythm, and the 4 line for chant, so that this is ‘chant’ is a good interpretation.

    I think it’s random on Bosch’s part, but I do like the choral arrangement of it, it’s a nice piece of music and quite evocative.

    Singers at that time would have just added B-flats as necessary to avoid singing the melodic tritone–the composer wouldn’t have had to notate it (and often didn’t).

    1. Yeah. I should’ve noted that my comments assume Amelia’s interpretation to be correct, which, as you point out in the case of the missing clef (rim shot), can’t actually be determined. Also because there is doubtless more “music” on the far side of the butt that Amelia couldn’t include.

  11. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/16/Josquin_Missa_BV_Kyrie.jpg

    is a Bosch-era polyphonic music MS (of a lovely piece by Josquin “Missa De Beata Virgine”

    It’s for four voices, and each part is written separately — the Soprano and Alto on the left-hand page, and the Tenor and Bass on the right (all would have been men (or boys) in this era).

    This Soprano part actually uses treble clef (looking a lot more like a “G” than now!), and various C clefs for the other parts.

    Note the long and fancy last note in each part! The copyist had some fun here (often these last notes are artistic like this).

    1. Sorry to be pedantic but I got it wrong, it’s the Tenor on the left bottom.

      By the way, if anyone would like to know why the Alto part (the lower of the two women’s voice parts today) is called “Alto”, from Altus meaning ‘High’, it’s because in the early 15th Century it was normal to have polyphonic music in 3 parts–the Superius, on the top, and the Tenor on the bottom–(Tenor from the word for “Hold” since the Tenor part held the chant melody if the piece incorporated one), and the third part, called “contratenor” meaning ‘going against the Tenor’.

      Later, when 4 voice writing became normal (mid century with composers like Dufay), the Contratenor function split into two parts, the contratenor altus (high) and the contratenor bassus (low).

      That’s why they’re called Alto and Bass.

      Later when 5 and 6 part writing became more common they just used prosaic words like “Quinta Vox” and stuff like that.

  12. Forgive me for being self-indulgent, and if you’re not a bonafide music nerd skip this.

    There actually are enough different clefs that any line or space on the staff can be ANY note, given the right clef. It used to be normal musical training to learn them all, but that’s not done much these days, even in music schools.

    As a joke, and to show that any note can be indicated anywhere, I wrote the following exercise:

    http://ball-so-hard-conservatory.tumblr.com/post/121218267766

    🙂 enjoy!

    (My music friends responded like this “my head hurts” and “I hate you”. LOL)

  13. I’ve always found it amusing that the devils and demons depicted in this work are – bilaterally symmetrical animals with forward-facing eyes…! No imagination whatsoever….!

  14. It’s funny that this kind of bizarre symbolism, though mainly associated with him now, wasn’t specific to Bosch, but appears to have been a whole sub-genre: I’ve seen a painting in similar style, but by Luke Cranach the Elder, in Berlin.

  15. Did you know there is another Bosch tryptic painting in a museum in Vienna … I saw it in 2006 and wrote about it in my travel journal … if I had a blog back then, I would have blogged about it

  16. [sigh]

    This is a good example of when I wish I was more musical. I cannot “picture” what the sounds would be like, other than the “this is higher than this” and so on.

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