A note by Jonathan Palmer (composer) -
Doom paintings were encouraged by the early medieval Church as a means of communicating
religious ideas to a largely illiterate population. By showing the contrasts between the reward of
Heaven and the agony of Hell, Christians could be guided away from misbehaviour and sin.
The message was stark and clear: "Sin and you go to Hell, live a holy life, and you go to
Heaven". To the medieval parishioner, it must have been a terrifying experience, especially when
you often see monks and bishops being led off to hell. One notable feature that appears in many
Doom paintings is the tri-partite structure. There are often three clear sections with Christ
dominating the centre; on the side of Hell, (on Christ's left) the bodies are bent and contorted,
whereas on the side of Heaven, (on Christ's right) everyone is standing up straight because they
are good and going off to eternal paradise. As in a number of my previous works, a visual
stimulus has provided a powerful impetus for the music; a number of paintings being visited and
studied, and five being selected.
The paintings not only provided subject matter in the manner of a 'programme', but also a
structural template. While there are numerous triple elements contained within this work, the
outer sections are divided into two, giving the following overall plan:
1a. The Trumpet of Doom
The angels blow trumpets to raise the dead for judgment; the arresting musical figures being
derived from the opening three phrases of the Dies Irae.
1b.The Weighing of the Souls
To see if they are individually fit for Heaven, one person is often viewed on one side of the scale
while demonic creatures that represent the sins committed by the person are on the other side.
The two options are briefly described: the souls are either rising, going to paradise, or are being
led down into the discordant, incoherent noises of hell.
A timeless state is suggested by a sustained organ pedal, consisting of five superimposed
perfect fifths. The six notes are all held down by weight on one of the manuals, so that the player
is hands-free. Against this rhythmless background, can be heard the cries of entreating souls in
the form of plainchant, derived from Missa 'Orbis Factor' and Missa 'Cum Jubilo' (the Penitential
Act from each).
3a. The Harrowing of Hell
A reappearance of the disjointed chaos of Hell marks the point where Jesus travels into the
underworld to rescue the souls imprisoned there in order to lead them to paradise.
As the harmony of paradise is reinstated, a solitary soul (trumpet) reflects on the theme of doom.
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