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Stop Press: New Bagpipes are a Bosched Job – instruments in the paintings by Bosch

My wife recently drew my attention to an article in The Guardian (8th November, 2010, G2 section) with the intriguing title “Shocking news from Oxford: You can’t play a flute with your bottom”. The story reported on how “a team of musicologists, craftsmen and academics” from the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments in Oxford had attempted to make “exact replicas” of the instruments depicted in the right-hand panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1505; Prado, Madrid). The panel, violently and shockingly, represents mankind’s descent into a hell where, amongst a variety of objects, musical instruments are inventively depicted as torture devices.

According to Andy Lamb, the Collection’s manager, the intention had been to allow visitors not only to see copies of the instruments so pictured but also hear them “play haunting melodies”. The results, however, fell someway short of this misguided goal: the instruments were discovered to produce sounds which were variously described as ‘musically unpleasant’, “painful to hear” or made “a racket that … is horrible”. Mr Lamb with a strange air of puzzlement is reported as saying of the hurdy gurdy (pictured above), for example, that “the design seems to be fundamentally flawed. When you turn the handle, you get a half-hearted buzzing noise, but you can’t get any melodies out of it. It would be difficult to hold because its strings are in the wrong position – and there is even a superfluous string.” The Guardian’s report continues that “the trumpet doesn’t have a harmonic series, the harp won’t make an octave, the lute collapses if you tune it, the shawm is “strangely proportioned” and the bagpipes, apparently, are a complete disaster.” They truly sound like the instruments from Hell.

If you think Mr Lamb would be repentant over this organological disaster, you would be mistaken. He claims that the project “was worth it. We are pushing the boundaries of music education forward an inch at a time.” And, perhaps he’s right: it’s good to have empirical evidence that a harp sticking out of the soundboard of a lute isn’t the best of musical designs. Or, perhaps, you feel the same as a maker friend of mine – who shall remain nameless (although his initials are SJ) – when he said to me: “I hope it wasn’t my money that was spent on this half-baked idea” or words to that effect.

Elsewhere Mr Lamb is quoted as saying “Although the painting itself has surreal elements – some of the instruments are being used to torture victims – it’s clear that for the most part the painting is a definite attempt to draw actual instruments of the period from their original designs” (my italics). In the light of this, consider Bosch’s pink bagpipe which sits on the head of the variously described “Tree” or “Egg

Man” (possibly a self portrait of Bosch himself).

I am willing to admit that I’m no expert on North Brabentian pipes of this period (the province where Bosch came from), so perhaps the chanters of that area did only have two holes on the top hand and perhaps they did have a short, thick matchstick-like drone (with real smoke). But, call me picky if you like, I’m not convinced that this looks like a 16th century bagpipe. I certainly can’t find anything resembling it on Chris Bayley’s The World of Bagpipes website which is a good clue that it didn’t exist. The only comparable pipe I can think of is Dominic Allen’s otherworldly Martian Bagpipe but I’m unsure that it is a historical reconstruction.

I must stop this train of thought since my tongue is getting so stuck in my cheek that I am finding it difficult to breathe. So, something a little more serious on Bosch’s pipes. Laurinda Dixon in a fascinating article, “Bosch’s Garden of Delights triptych: Remnants of a “fossil” science” (1981, The Arts Bulletin, LXIII, pp. 96-113), convincingly argues to my mind that many of the details in the painting are representative of alchemical equipment. Most interestingly for us is the observation that Bosch’s bagpipe is identical in shape to a common alchemical retort or alembic which, due to its similarity with the shape of the bag of a bagpipe, was known as a “cornamuse” (sic). Apparently in Conrad Gesner’ Trésor des rèmedes (1559) the retort was described, somewhat opaquely, as “shaped like a musical instrument which the Germans play vulgarly”! Cornamuse retorts could also be conjoined to provide a circulating apparatus called a “coitus” and this sexual connotation must have resonated nicely in Bosch’s mind along with the typically lewd subtext traditionally associated with bagpipes, a set of ideas entirely appropriate in Satan’s realm. So, contra to Mr Lamb’s claim, Bosch’s bagpipe is no more meant to be an “actual instrument of the period” than the knife with ears is intended to represent a piece of period cutlery.

In retrospect it seems clear that the Bate Collection’s team of musicologists, craftsmen and academics would have been better advised to have read Dixon first (or even to have talked to some luthiers). This way they would not have been surprised to discover, in a paraphrase of the immortal Danny Kaye, that a cornamuse retort is an ill- wind that nobody plays good.