From the Archives

Jonah and the Whale

Albertus Pictor, Jonah and the Whale (detail from ceiling)
Härkeberga Church, Uppland, Sweden

Dominick Argento:
“This blending of simplicity and sophistication”

Composer Dominick Argento drew from several sources to create the text for Jonah and the Whale. He found his chief inspiration in a work by the late 15th-century Swedish artist Albertus Pictor. In his liner notes for the original recording of Jonah and the Whale, Argento describes Pictor’s work and his own efforts to capture the spirit of the painting in a musical form.

Argento’s notes appear here with the permission of VocalEssence, which produced the original recording. They may not be reproduced without permission.

On the vaulted ceiling of the church of Härkeberga in Sweden is a painting by Albertus Pictor showing Jonah being thrown into the sea by sailors to calm the storm that threatens to overwhelm their small boat. Jonah’s hands are piously claped in prayer as he is about to tumble into the jaws of a great fish. A few feet away from him — and simultaneously, it would appear — a completely naked Jonah, hands still clasped in prayer, is being vomited up onto dry land after the three days spent in the belly of the whale, during which time not only his clothes but also his hair and beard have been digested.

Dominick Argento

What I find so endearing and winning in that painting — and in the stained glass, predellas, manuscript illuminations, and mystery plays of that period — is the nonchalant mixture of realism (the digestive detail, for example), naïveté (the mythological whale, drawn purely from the artist’s imagination), symbolism (the trefoil patterns scattered in the background: stars? Trinity?), and the blithe disregard for time and space (the two Jonahs and two whales, the dry land only inches away from the storm-tossed vessel). This blending of simplicity and sophistication produces, for me, a delightful dynamic often lacking in certain later and more orderly artistic attitudes, although the most potent example of it that I know appears in the classical era, in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

For better or worse, I have tried in my composition to capture some of the spirit of Albertus Pictor’s painting, bringing together disparate elements, idioms and techniques, as a glance at the text will easily reveal. The basic poem, “Patience, or Jonah and the Whale,” from Medieval English of the 14th century, is interspersed with texts drawn from the Vulgate Psalms (fourth century), a Protestant hymnal (17th century), traditional worksongs and sea-shanties (19th century), the King James Bible, and several other sources. This frequently creates intentional anachronisms: When the Old Testament King of Nineveh orders his subjects to “pray with all our might,” they comply with a Kyrie Eleison; Jonah, sailing to a biblical port, breaks out in a New England whaling song.

The music, too, is a combination of various idioms and techniques. The tune of the whaling song is authentic, but it is harmonized in a circle of fifths; the other worksongs were “invented;” the Protestant hymn is borrowed intact but the Kyrie and De Profundis are original; most of Jonah’s music is derived from a 12-tone row, featuring diminished triads (having imperfect fifths); most of God’s music is tonally anchored in major and minor triads (having perfect fifths).

And like the ceiling of that Swedish church, the background of my composition is studded with trefoil patterns: As noted above, the music of Jonah and God utilizes three kinds of triads; the orchestra itself is a trio of trios — three trombones, three percussionists, and three extended-range instruments (piano, organ, harp); the whale’s music is in 9/8 (3+3+3) and at the work’s conclusion it combines — in the key of three flats — with the hymn, “Praise to the Lord,” which is in 3/4 meter and six-measure phrase lengths (the reason it was selected).


Even the casual listener will notice that the whale (the trombone solo in the Intermezzo section) gets the best tune in the work. And this is as it should be since I consider the whale, not Jonah, to be the hero of the piece — a point, I hope, that the narrator’s concluding lines, as well as the music, will make clear.

— Dominick Argento     

From the album cover of the original Jonah and the Whale recording by VocalEssence.