Routine is not Revelatory – Destruction in the Book of Revelation


The usual associations of the Book of Revelation with plague and destruction can hardly be called a mystery and less of all a revelation. The exploits of the dragon and the beast are sadly commonplace and a daily occurrence there to be seen for those who care to look: either the beast behaves like men usually do or men like the beast, but the result is the same; and this was so too in John’s own time.

Routine is not revelatory. So what is it that lies hidden behind John’s prophecy if indeed it is a prophecy at all?

The centuries old search for ciphers and clues supposedly scattered throughout the book are an unnecessary distraction for anybody that may want to take a comprehensive look at that tough piece of visionary writing; they may be there, but as such those codes, secret or not, may be more anecdotic than structural for all I can see. Numbers and numeric references abound in the book and they may be taken in any which way you prefer, from the infamous Six hundred threescore and six (666) to the time, and times, and half a time of Revelations 12:14. Puzzling descriptions such as that of the seven-headed beast with ten horns, likened to a leopard, a bear, and a lion all at once, or the vision (more puzzling to me) of a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, have occupied great minds right from the start. Whether the exegesis is right seeing in those images evil empires and religious organizations is not to my mind as momentous as the perspectives open by the choice of images: revelation is not divination.  John seems to be extending the network of meaning to the point where associations such as beast=Rome, woman=Church, child=messiah do not add anything new (what would an imprisoned man whose whole race have been scattered and massacred be bitter about, after all? What hopes would he entertain?).

The visions themselves open the path to the revelatory and the sense of it all appears as a dramatic construct and not a convoluted syllogism. As such what it reveals can only be man in society from an altogether different perspective.

Centuries of commentary and research have done a lot to disband all the hocus pocus but fanaticism is tenacious.

Being concerned, as a composer, with structuring a complex source and not just clothe it with melodies (as it should be sung, and also heard) I need to have a clear idea of what the source is about. In this respect even the most faithful, or academic, find it uncomfortable having to deal with a repeated and divinely inspired mayhem: the clarifying and re-contextualizing of biblical allusions in the Apocalypsis (a technique of truth called typology) hardly needs so much fire and brimstone. There are different ways of approaching the repeated onslaught of heavenly anger, not least of all speculating that John did not know himself too clearly what to do with the stuff happening to him and inundating his imagination. I am not so much concerned with the number and origin of the sources that John had available at the time of writing the work with which we are now concerned: to which degree these sources make up a whole, to what extent do they juxtapose or blend, overlap or rupture the continuum, this is important above all from a structural perspective and as a composer is my sole concern save the fact that there is a reason, I venture, that setting music to it is happening at all.

In this sense there are several structural patterns that may be, and have been to be sure, discerned from the collection of texts we call the Book of Revelation. The sequential treatment of the familiar collection of plagues and destruction has a hypnotic effect, for instance, and that is the kind of thing I am looking for. When writing the music it is inescapable to consider whether, say, all the series of “seven” present should be also musically related. It is customary to see the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and then the seven vials or plagues as repeated series of events, and with all justification. One may go further and conceive that the rather extended exposition of the virtues and vices attached to the seven churches determine in some manner the numerological (if not simply numeric) significance of what comes after. There is also an embryonic series in Revelations 14 where seven angels are clearly involved (unless you are ready to have the messiah himself be the one described in 14:14). Here the use of dialogue appears to collapse that number to five instead, which are those who carry out the effective action.

So far these considerations have weighed considerably in my approach to the specific contexts in which the different series occur. It already established a number of melodic/rhythmic connections between the seven churches and the first series of afflictions and I would expect these connections, somehow transformed, to be there by the time we reach Revelations 16.

I should also clarify that Revelations 6 and 16 are among the most schematic in the book and musically at least is difficult to avoid an episodic treatment of the different sections (let’s say the “seven” events within each) collected in these chapters. Here the desirable musical development must either wait for future use – perhaps punctuating a number of specifics dealt only in passing – or expand into the musical equivalent of Revelations 9 where arid descriptions of monstrous and bellicose creatures bloat the reader’s imagination and, why not, his attention too.

Here we enter almost inevitably the revelatory or at least the hermeneutics of the text at its most literal. Pick one word, say fire (which occurs about 25 times in the average translation) or seven (54 times), the re-contextualization of these words as the work progresses calls for a little planning if not a strategy right from the start. Where seven is concerned the decision may seem almost trivial, as it seemed to me at the beginning: a certain intervallic shape must be used to convey its meaning. I will not enter here in why this had to be so, and I leave that for a later entry. Sometimes the motif cannot be dealt with in such an uncomplicated manner. The appearance of the four beasts (zoa, animalia) invoke a specific harmonic makeup with affinities to my own harmonic exploration and the development of it runs parallel to the research itself, and in that sense it is revelatory inasmuch as it is involved in the development of the score as it stands right now.

In conclusion I may say that as far as I am concerned the revelatory side of the book of Revelation is intricately bound up with the possible structures and meaningful allusions that the text renders, not only to the composer as a reader, but as a true composer of a superimposed unit of coherent interrelated meaning.