Language of Hell

Back in the nineties, National Public Radio had a music program called Schickele Mix, hosted by the composer, musicologist, and all-round funny guy Peter Schickele. The program was “dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal,” and it was true to its motto. I got my hands on a bunch of the episodes and I am going through them slowly.

Towards the end of one, Schickele is introducing the end of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. He’s explaining what is going on in the clip he’s about to play. (I wish I could play it for you, but you’ll have to settle for the transcript.)

“The demons bear Mephistopheles in triumph. And then the chorus sings ‘Tradioun Marexil fir trudinxé…’ what is this? What it is, according to these notes, it says while the demons bear mephistopheles away in triumph, singing a chorus in the language of Hell, invented by Swedenborg in the eighteenth century. So there you have it, Swedenborg apparently invented this langauge. And it’s a perfectly appropriate language to go to Hell with.”

WHHAAAAAAAAATT?! Swedenborg invented a language of Hell? Holy…!

Ok, so Emanuel Swedenborg was a (no prizes) Swedish mystic, theologian, philosopher, born in 1688 and died in 1772. He is one of those unknown historic figures who exerts more influence than he gets credit for. Both Immanuel Kant and William Blake were Swedenborgians before they broke with from him, and traces of his thought can be found in Poe, Emerson, Balzac and others. (Swedenborg at one point declared that the Messiah would arrive in the year 1757. After breaking with Swedenborgianism, William Blake ridiculed Swedenborg for such an exact prediction, but also couldn’t not notice that it was his own year of birth.)

Among other things, Swedenborg claimed that he could talk directly to Jesus, the saints, and could communicate with the dead. Kant himself collected testimonies from people who claimed that Swedenborg communicated with a dead family member. From these visits to the world of the dead, I imagine, the language of Hell.

I say I imagine because I have no idea where Schickele is getting this from. Not that I don’t believe him, but I haven’t been able to find anything online to verify this. I downloaded the complete libretto and score of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust in hopes of finding the note Schickele was reading on the air – to no avail. Nor have any of the links to Swedenborg’s life story yielded any comment about the invention of the language of Hell. I don’t know where I’m gonna find this…

In the meantime, I’m giving you a page and a fragment of Berlioz’s score, containing the words from the language of Hell, sung by the chorus.



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