If for whatever reason only the first eleven chapters of the Book of the Revelation were known to us, both the doxa and the Christian dogma would continue to see in the book a work of high religious and spiritual value.See below, The “Two” Revelations
If writing music to the Book of Revelation would simply require to “paint” all those images with musical colors, while rigging them with an effective harmonic edifice I may have already abandoned this project years ago. Why I finally decided to embark on it, is beyond me: it was always a “must do”, “someone has to” thing, that very much imposed itself upon me. Twenty-four chapters with four-hundred-and -four verses, in Latin, with no shortcuts or musical tricks, and beyond options such as tonal/atonal, or the like. The why still escapes me.
Introduction: John and The Book of Revelation
For a brief summary of my musical approach to the Book of Revelation I refer the reader to the page dedicated to the Apocalypsis Iesu oratorio.
No one will ever know when John of Patmos decided to write the Book of Revelation: was he still a youngster who read or heard stories about the end of the world? Did the inspiration come, like Cervantes, in an unjust captivity, in the contemplation of the gruesome cruelty of which men are capable of, those who hold the power to make the law, those who hold the power to enslave? Was John an old man when those images and symbols of the apocalypse engulfed him, possibly in a feverish and relentless manner? Did it happen all at once, or was it a life-time work, this final revelatory vision of the ancient world?
We know, apparently with some certainty, the approximate dates in which John decided to put his vision down in writing (68 AD, before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, or 96 AD), and we know a little too of his biography. There is something, but not much. Sometimes it is assumed that John did not managed to finish the Book of Revelation,and that a disciple (perhaps clumsy, or not up to the teacher’s standards) finished drafting it and order more or less in the form we know it now. I think there are great composers in Hollywood who have assistants also alla Asimov, with a small Santa’s workshop populated by elves. These are technical issues important only for those that want to see the man of the book. But for me as a composer these questions proved to have a very practical value. Whoever was its last editor, the author of the Book of Revelation had an artistic instinct of which much remains to be researched. Even after all those years. For me too, like for most of us, that author is John of Patmos, and his story fascinates me.
The problem of structure in the Book of Revelation
For a more itemized look at the structure of the Book of Revelation I refer the reader to the article in Wikipedia.
The chain of events presented to us in the Book of Revelation could be summarized as follows (according to the RSV outline of Revelation):
- Rev 1:1 Introduction and Salutation
- Rev 1:9 A Vision of Christ
- Rev 2 – 3 Message to the 7 Churches
- Rev 4:1 The Heavenly Worship
- Rev 5:1 The Scroll and the Lamb
- Rev 6:1 The Seven Seals
- Rev 7:1 The 144.000 of Israel Sealed
- Rev 7:9 The Multitude from Every Nation
- Rev 8:1 The Seventh Seal and the Golden Censer
- Rev 8:6 The Seven Trumpets
- Rev 10:1 The Angel with the Little Scroll
- Rev 11:1 The Two Witnesses
- Rev 11:15 The Seventh Trumpet
- Rev 12: 1 The Woman and the Dragon
- Rev 12:7 Michael Defeats the Dragon
- Rev 12:13 The Dragon Eights Again om Earth
- Rev 12:18 The First Beast
- Rev 13:11 The Second Beast
- Rev 14:1 The Lamb and the 144.000
- Rev 14:6 The Messages of the Three Angels
- Rev 14:14 Reaping the Earth’s Harvest
- Rev 15:1 The Angels with the Seven Last Plagues
- Rev 16:1 The Bowls of God’s Wrath
- Rev 17:1 The Great Whore and the Beast
- Rev 18:1 The Fall of Babylon
- Rev 19:1 The Rejoicing in Heaven
- Rev 19:11 The Rider on the White Horse
- Rev 19:17 The Beast and its Armies Defeated
- Rev 20:1 The Thousand Years (Millennium)
- Rev 20:7 Satan’s Doom
- Rev 20:11 The Dead Are Judged
- Rev 21:1 The New Heaven and the New Earth
- Rev 21:9 Vision of the New Jerusalem
- Rev 22:1 The River of Life
- Rev 22:8 Epilogue and Benediction
The problem of a list of facts and figures is that the book of John does not follow an easily intelligible timeline, indeed, its very recurrent and obvious sequences of seven do not help at all, to the point that some authors, with some justification, consider it as a distraction.
There are interpreters of the Book of Revelation that see some of its chapters as digressions, or explorations of issues that would not therefore be included in the main plot. They see this plot as (at least roughly) linear and consistent with a main sequence of events. These digressions are often referred to as interludes. I disagree with this interpretation. True, you can see a progression from an approach to an outcome. Let ‘s call the approach originally, alpha ‘Α’ and its outcome omega “Ω” and make a representation of a linear sequence of events.
Α → Ω
We can now add the usual digressions, namely chapters 7, 10, 11 in parts, and generally also 14; these would be the interludes:
While such digressions are plausible, even in the biblical context (like the Cervantes kind in Don Quixote), in the structural context of the Book of Revelation we should go a little further and ask ourselves if there is another type of configuration more responsive to the narrative of the work. Let us review now the most commonly adduced of those configurations: the so-called septenary structure.
Septenaries and other key elements in the Book of Revelation
The septenaries in the Book of Revelation, it should be said, would allow me to reuse the same material, varying it or re-elaborating it depending on the circumstances. This already constitutes in itself a great help, and it allows me to find some orientation as to the planning of the project. The task in this case would be to identify the septenaries and conceive the work as a series of musical variations or elaborations of a subject or group of subjects. And musically this is feasible: narratively speaking (though perhaps I should say “narratologically”, as pertaining to narratology* ) I do not see it. Or simply I did not see it viable as a musical form that could sustain the whole, or at least to give the work a coherence that was beyond that of the musical form itself, one that needed to embrace the meandering meaning of the text.
Worse still: if the correspondence between all septenaries was used as a musical artifice, this would imply that some images or objects would become charged with an excessive importance, or sometimes devalued, or associated with conflicting or undesirable content in a different septenary (a content that may not be relevant at all just then). There are ample references in the text that make significant association of certain elements (objects, characters, etc.) to others who are not included accordingly in another septenary.
Some of these elements, such as the Book or the Two Witnesses, that seemed crucial to me to understand the message of the Book of Revelation, were not reflected satisfactorily in any of the numerological series that I could identify. I can certainly see a human-to-demonic association of the Two Witnesses (the two olive trees, two candelabra) with the two beasts, and the book with Satan’s deceitful propaganda unleashed in Rev. 13:14, and 20:7-10, that had afflicted and corrupted Babylon.
But for these opposites to make it into the overall musical structure I would have to (like I did) drop the septenaries as the main pillar sustaining the musical edifice. The septenaries are still musically there, to be sure, but the music has moved to enhance and connect more important correspondences and themes: those that connect John of Patmos’s priorities and mine as a reader or listener.
If to all this we add the fact that there are other important “numbers” in the Book of Revelation, specially twelve and four (five and six are also there, but to a lesser extent), these numeric symbols threatened with having to rethink the musical structure in numerological terms, and this did not convince me at all; despite knowing that elements of numerology and astrology had to be present in the mind of John of Patmos. To the point in which whole chapters of the Book of Revelation seem to be written large in the late summer night sky.
For further references and outline see this.
There are different versions of how to divide the Book of Revelation in series of seven events. The most obvious series leave no doubt and are included by many, but there are others that have been proposed over the years.
- The beatitudes (Rev. 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14)
- Liturgical acclamations of Christ (Rev.1:4-7; 5:9-10; 5:12; 5:13; 7:10; 11:15; 19:6-7)
- The spirits who are before the throne of Jesus Christ (7, Rev. 1:4)
- To what is also added seven hymns, and the seven epiphanies, and seven commissions that appear scattered throughout the text.
Besides these, Frye also mentions the seven apocalyptic visions that, significantly, include Rev. 14 prominently (commonly listed as an interlude):
- Birth of The Messiah (12:1-6);
- Defeat of The Dragon and Fall, (12:7-17);
- Dragons Rising Sea and Land (13);
- Vision of The Redeemed (14:3-4);
- Three Angels Messages (14:6-12);
- The Final Harvest (14:14-16);
- The Final Vintage (14:17-20).
Category Apocalyptic Form Demonic Form (or Form of Wrath)
He also mentions a very interesting additional sevenfold “underlying symbolic model (or design)”, consisting of a number of categories, following a model outlined in his Anatomy of Criticism. This symbolic design is subdivided, or somehow refracted, between the divine and the demonic; here apocalyptic and demonic:
- God Enthroned in Heaven / Synagogue of Satan
- Everlasting Gospel (14:6) / Mystery (17:5)
- Seven Spirits before Throne / Seven Hills of Rome
- Morning Star / Wormwood Star
- Son of Man / Divine Caesar
- Bride / Great Whore
- White Garments / Scarlet & Purple
- Cry of Martyrs / Cry of Kings
- Lamb / Dragon, etc.
- Four “Beasts” around Throne / Four Horsemen
- Tree of Life / Harvest & Vintage
- Jerusalem / Babylon, etc.
- White Stone / Millstone
- “Chaos” (Water-World) (12:15-16)
- River of Life / River of Dragon
- Sea of Glass / Lake of Fire (20:15)
- Cup of Water of Life / Cup of Blood of Death
While the sevenfold structure is very close to what I, as a composer, needed to bring order to the musical avalanche that was coming, it soon became clear that it would not be enough.
The Book and The Little Book
(Rev 10:9 KJV)
Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.
The appearance of the “book” (Gr. Biblion, Lat. Librum) in Rev. 5 and its possible connection with the “little book” (bibliaridion, libellum) that made Johns’ entrails bitter in Rev. 10 (and may allude to Rev. 6:14) was a very significant musical and narrative item that made me rethink, at a very advanced stage of the work, the overall dramatic structure. The musical theme of Apocalypsis Iesu X took an unexpected importance, and served (in retrospect) to weave some musical strands of the work in a more coherent way. Additionally, the associations of the book thematic with what John had to announce to the “peoples, languages, tribes, nations, peoples, and kingdoms” (we missed one for an interesting sevenfold, maybe faithful?) were too obvious. Here, I thought, is the key to the book, simply that it is a book: not a treatise, not a code, nor anything else. And to John, writing that book must have cost him dearly, to the point of tormenting him even.
“Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the Angel, who is of standing on the sea and on the earth.”Revelation 10:8
To start writing this music I needed something stronger than the numbers, and this was what I found: a story about a character tormented by visions that he saw around him as much within himself.
He wrote a book (Revelation) that sits as much within, as atop of another book (the Bible) which he references constantly in the text. Certainly he had no idea that one day his book (or little book perhaps) would end up as the final chapter of the Bible, a book he knew so well, promoted, read, and worshiped by peoples he could not quite identify himself with (the Pauline Christians), or even agree with, and with the bitterest of ironies, destined to be in charge of the “Babylon” (Rome) he hated so much.
Not much given to letters, perhaps, but clearly struggling to articulate his vision, or visions, in an intelligible whole; John was an author who, since nearly two millennia, also had to come to terms with structural problems. Perhaps John had (more than once) to redo his work, to borrow from one side to put in another, rewrite and erase, rip paper or burn scrolls. Sometimes it might seem that all that imaginative tidal wave came all at once, almost obliterating him. But I doubt it. I think there are enough signs that the “book” took him pains to write and to a certain extent edit too. In my view there are too many reworkings for all that to have happened at once, and perhaps that is where some of those septenaries
The jump from the first to the second part, with the birth of the Messiah is sometimes understood as a strategy to increase the intensity of the Book of Revelation: “the bad guy enters” so to say. But I do not see it. Those visions came in a “before” or “after” a first draft: they are simply too powerful. Maybe so powerful that John left only a sketchy trace of those, the most chilling shocking images.
John seemed at times obsessed with his hatred of Rome, Egypt and Babylon of the book. Perhaps he was a man involved and active in the politics of his time.
Maybe (they are already many maybes), what today seems most spectacular about the Book of Revelation is what took John more efforts to articulate: those spectacular visions of monsters and disasters, evil megalopolis and paradisiac heavenly cities that altered the balance of his writing and of which he left us (with the exception of Rome-Babylon and the New Jerusalem) only an outline. Who knows, maybe even the Book of Revelation was originally an epistle that went out of hand, because John was not destined to teach but to reveal.
The “two” Revelations
From the very beginning, reading and rereading the Book of Revelation, I realized that to give to it a coherent musical shape I needed to break it down into parts. In one of those readings I was (once again) overwhelmed by the images of Rev. 12, the description of the woman in the sky (with the birth of the Messiah, if that’s what it is), and the terrible image of the dragon lurking and ready to devour him. Then I confessed to myself that I, as a composer, and perhaps spiritually too, was not ready to write the music that these grandiose visions demanded.
This vision coincided exactly with the second half of the twenty-two chapters that make up the whole of the book: eleven on each side. It was enough to give me an idea of the plan to follow: write the first eleven chapters of the book, and then re-elaborate the material in the second part, leading to a grand finale, so to speak. Obviously my joy did not last long: the real strategy revealed itself as a musical give and take between, not only the two parts of the text, but also between areas of it (even verses) subtly connected by specific words, objects, or feeling. And something else, a big thematic divide that complicated things even further. We may call this divide the missionary and visionary elements of the Book of Revelation.
From a pure compositional (musical) and thematic (literary) necessity, that first division of the text into two, that I believed at first somewhat arbitrary or convenient, turned out to add a new layer of meaning to the manner in which I saw the Book of Revelation.
The “First” Revelation Arch
If for whatever reason only the first eleven chapters of the Book of the Revelation were known to us, both the doxa and the Christian dogma would continue to see in the book a work of high religious and spiritual value.
The first eleven chapters cover the ground running from:
- Call to the apostle, his mission (Rev. 1-3) and vision (Rev. 4-5)
- Call to the apostle, his mission (Rev. 1-3) and vision (Rev. 4-5)
- Evil/Suffering, Destruction/Judgement
- Destruction of wicked Earth (riders and trumpets, Rev. 6, Rev. 8-9)
- Suffering of the faithful (Rev. 7, and also Rev. 11)
- Temporary victory of evil (Rev. 11:7-10, along with the appearance of the beast arising from the abyss)
- Arrival of the kingdom and the final judgment (Rev. 11:15-18)
- Final revelation of the ark of the covenant in the sanctuary of God in heaven (Rev. 11:19)
In Rev. 10:7 we are told that:
[…] in the days when it was the voice of the last angel hear, when put to sound, it will have accomplished the mystery of God.
That is exactly what happens in 11:15. Why does Book of the Revelation continue with eleven additional chapters after that? This may never be answered, it is one of those many paradoxes that populate the work, and that have kept experts and readers busy for nearly two millennia. But the fact of the matter is that it says so.
The “Second” Revelation Arch
There is no doubt that the second part (chapters 12 to 22) offers a similar structure, and possibly identical themes when compared to the first:
- Vision of the Apostle (Rev. 12)
- Vision of the Apostle (Rev. 12)
- Evil/Suffering, Destruction/Judgement
- Destruction of wicked Earth by dragon (Rev. 12:13, together with beasts rising, Rev. 13) and by angels (Rev. 14 second half, and 15-16, vials)
- Suffering of the faithful (Rev. 14, first half)
- Temporary victory of evil (references in Rev. 17:17, 19:19, 20:9)
- Judgement of Babylon-Rome (Rev.18) and men (Rev. 19:2 and 19:11, Rev. 20:11 & ff.)
- Arrival of the kingdom (marriage of the Lamb, Rev. 19:7) and the final judgment (Rev. 19-20)
- Final revelation of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22)
We may never get to know how the twenty-two chapters that make up the final draft of the Book of Revelation were written. There is no reason to think that the so – called grand visions came last. Perhaps the most arduous task was to give the whole work an epistolary and communicable form, i.e., to write the first eleven chapters after having experienced the dizzying roller coaster that goes from the appearance of the celestial woman until the arrival of the New Jerusalem. What good are these great visions in isolation? The ancient world was familiar with beasts, dragons, and celestial apparitions. John needs to provide his visions with a new Christian context but something seems to be blocking the way: this may be the reason why there is a continuity after chapter 11: the image of God portrayed in the first part is simply unreachable. All that will change in the final apotheosis in chapters 21 and 22: an apotheosis of feeling and true Christian faith.
I am not attempting to resolve issues that have been debated for almost two thousand years, and without being fully solved for all involved. I just want to point out where my experience in reading the Book of Revelation led me, while trying to shape a coherent musical outline of that work. John of Patmos, it appeared to me, seemed to have written two books in one. There was no need to destroy the earth so many times with all sorts of plagues and disasters: it always felt like John was reaching for something he could not quite shape completely (until the very end of the work), and at times the whole thing reads like a draft.
Maybe at some other time it would be convenient to illustrate the composition process (including stylistic and syntactic considerations) in more detail, but here I am only concerned with considerations about the structure of the Book of Revelation. A structure, again, that must be plausibly reflected in a musical form that does justice to the story, not the store on a Procrustean bed.
“Double Arch” as Compositional Plan
From a creative perspective, one that is committed to give meaningful expression to its subject, the Book of Revelation tells us most of the time that everything has a beginning and an end, an Alpha and Omega. It speaks to us, calls us in a sense, to represent it and say it one more time, to retell the story with different accents and rhythms if that is what it takes, without adding or subtracting to it; that of itself is perhaps the greatest challenge of all. The book itself is the beginning and end of a cycle, one that repeats itself indefinitely but which is every time accomplished in each of us, who are the key and the axis of a wheel that does not stop.
That’s what God, in the account of the Book of Revelation, tells John: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” a new expression, like the famous formula of Einstein for physics, embracing God with the simplest possible written expression: a to z, α and ω.
Apocalypsis Iesu: Formal Structure
The formal structure of the oratorio Apocalypsis Iesu is determined by the basic structure already mentioned (α-ω) underlying the Book of Revelation in different ways. This way what the musical exposition of the book refers is clearly an arc:
Simple structure of Book of Revelation
Apocalypsis Iesu – Juscheld
Or as we say sometimes in other contexts “thesis – antithesis – synthesis”. This meta-structure could be seen as a formal universal resource present ubiquitously in the cultural and creative production of our human community through time: a literary structure, as we now say, or mythological, as we used to. From complex matters such as the Odyssey or the saga of Heracles in Greek mythology to a simple grammatical sentence (“Heracles is a Greek hero”), all creation or human utterance has a beginning and an end, either implicit or fully stated. This order is what primarily gives meaning and guidance to that process of rapport between the author and the reader. In other words, and from the point of view of the hypothetical author and potential reader (I being the author, and You he reader or audience):
Structure Reader-Narrator in the Book of Revelation
Apocalypsis Iesu – Juscheld
In this context the work of John has God himself as a “structuring” subject, that is to say, the A and Ω, the cycle itself. Depending on the perspective we take we could situate ourselves in the first case, which we may call “epistolary”, or in the latter case which we could then call “visionary”. The latter is characterized by the absence of direct speech or even description of any kind: it is the symbol itself before our eyes, or in our minds.
In other words, in the Book of Revelation the characteristic arc shape of all creative production is complicated by the fact that John is sometimes an active agent (Case 1), included in the center of the narrative, and other times he is a mere transmitter of visions that present themselves with increasing intensity and significance (Case 4). The reader, luckily, has to settle for Cases 2 and 3, and therein lies the conflict, since it seems highly improbable that most readers can share the visionary experienced that overwhelemed John in the island of Patmos, let alone share the insights of the Alpha and Omega itself.
Musically speaking this results in a different emphasis (theme, orchestral, harmonic, etc.) depending on the plane (or Case) we are moving on: the epistolary or the visionary.
The musical structure of Apocalypsis Iesu is that of two parts (Part I and Part II) that share two common thematic areas, as I have already proposed: those thematic areas could be called, as far as their reader is concerned, humanistic (corresponding to what epistolary and missionary that is included in the book), and spiritual (or visionary). The first, or humanistic, deals with what Juan is doing (seeing, listening, and writing) and has experienced (his possibly traumatic biography). The spiritual perspective is the one that John transmits to us as a witness, the one that he attempts to articulate with the apocalyptic imagery that constitutes the most spectacular side of the Book of Revelation.
What necessarily interests me as a composer, in addition to the theme, is the degree of emotional intensity with which Juan involves the reader, not only with each of his images (or symbols), but also their hierarchy.
Thematically these two areas, the humanistic and the spiritual, are intertwined in two musical arcs, both with a clear and spectacular beginning, a series of conflicts/trials, and a typically apocalyptic or revealing resolution:
- Part I (first apocalypse):
- Heavenly Vision and Commission
- Contrasts between suffering of the faithful and destruction of the wicked
- Opening of the Sanctuary of God and vision of the Ark of the Covenant
- Part II (second apocalypse):
- Cosmic Vision
- Sharp contrasts (punishments and rewards)
- The New Jerusalem descends (without sanctuary)
Each part establishes a hierarchy of images or symbols that can be understood as framed in a self-sufficient (or in some way creative) musical structure. Let’s call those parts “acts” if you like, and those thematic areas that are intertwined in these missionary and visionary . In order to define these acts more precisely, or to give them a more relevant meaning in the context of the book, I am going to call the predominant orientation cycles in each one of them. Thus, Part I will correspond to the Missionary Cycle , and Part II to the Visionary Cycle , without losing sight of the fact that both are inextricably linked in the narrative of the Book of Revelation.
Part I: Missionary Cycle
The first part of Apocalypsis Iesu goes from App.1 to App.11. These two chapters constitute a diptych in the form of a choral symphony.
Part II: Visionary Cycle
The second part of the oratory is structured around a theme of antagonisms significantly more marked than in the first part. There is a clear continuity between Rev. 12-13, Rev. 14 brings back the missionary (or epistolary, elevated to revealing) facet of the Book of Revelation (and, in a sense, Rev. 15 might be understood as a continuation, despite to introduce the seven angels of plagues). Other thematic pairs are Rev. 17-18, 19-20, and 21-22.
To understand the Book of Revelation from an artistic perspective we have put ourselves first in its author’s place. That is the first and insurmountable problem: Where to start? So much has been written (and more is being written) about the Book of Revelation, that it is simply impossible to start anywhere other than reading it. Herein lies the second problem: we may not possess the parameters or even the same categories of judgment (or thought in general) as those early disciples of Jesus, in the era that followed the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
What to do? The answer: read it, in any case, and reread it until its structure, the one that best satisfies the questions with which we approach the book, makes its way into our minds. An additional, or perhaps complementary option is to spend a lot of time reading apocalyptic literature, and the comments that two millennia of Christianity have produced about the book of Juan de Patmos. Over time this corpus of comments, which is going from praise to denigration, it begins to take more or less, and figuratively, the shape of a cross: the spiritual (or “pneumatic”) axis goes from what we could call theological, going down to the purely historiographic terrain; both use the symbol as an interpretive tool, either in their mysterium aspect, or as a code to some extent decipherable. The other axis, let’s call it humanistic, inevitably horizontal, goes from religious fanaticism to its other extreme, the complete disqualification of the book; here fits both the speech and the most abject intolerance. In the midst of all this, how could it be otherwise, is the figure and the message of Jesus, of Christ.
As far as the creative task inspired by John’s work is concerned, the option of trying to embrace the message of the Book of Revelation through an artistic work remains valid, as much now as it has been since its inclusion in the canon. Many artists have dedicated their creative genius or at least their continued effort to this subject (see here or here for a good review of these efforts). Whenever the artist has found his inspiration in the Book of Revelation, he has to ask himself a question that could be called structural: the unity of the work. The vision must encompass the meaning of what the apocalyptic landscape present in the text shows, that outlandish parade of images to which only the apocalyptic adjective does it justice. And this is already a third problem: how much can the visionary and detailed gaze of the person who has to create it cover? It could be said in another way: what legitimates you to do it? Why do you want to do it?