If music may have, as I believe, something to say about the Book of Revelation this something is primarily structural. The task of organizing such a body of words into something comprehensible is already a musical enterprise of sorts, and the Book in some manner seems to lend itself to such approach. It is at times highly dramatic, but in stark contrast with dull moments (sometimes entire paragraphs) of mundane descriptions and uncomfortable invective. It is climatic but also (importantly) very repetitive. These contrasts weave in and out of a narrative with wildly uneven rhythms, recapitulations, uncalled for diversions, and interpolated fragments that seem to come either from elsewhere, or from second thoughts on the part of the author. The Book of Revelation is piled up in layers, it radiates from different centers sometimes getting nowhere; it is, in a word, an antiplot.
[Editor’s note: I do not believe that the composer is implying that the Book of Revelation cannot be read in an linear manner, so to say. As a matter of fact that is the usual, orthodox way of approaching its contents. At the same time this does not mean that those who see a linear continuity within the 22 chapters of the Book of Revelation imply that there is a clear and unified plot in the book. To the reader approaching this subject for the first time I would recommend Elaine Pagel’s Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation; an insightful introduction to the subject backed up by an erudite bibliography.]
The Book of Revelation begins with a vision of “the Son of Man” that paradoxically divests the divinity of the more human characteristics of the Christian God, in the form of Jesus Christ. In a sense this vision continues the process of deification of Jesus of Nazareth but in a more traditional, mythological context. Immediately after John explains what he sees in a purely symbolical manner (Rev. 1:20). This “explanation” is rendered sacramentum in the Vulgata, mysterium in the original Greek, and “mystery” in KJV, which I am not totally sure it corresponds to what the Greek text implies. Rev. 1:20 sets the stage for a string of visions that are supposed to be understood symbolically, but in which John’s benevolent explanations are left out almost entirely. And here lies the main difficulty of John’s account: it constantly shifts from the symbol, by which we are supposed to understand the whole of the book, or at least its visionary array, to the so-called literal, which can be perhaps understood as glossing the typological* structure of the Bible, in order perhaps to enhance or “explain” his message and images as such. “type-antitype”.
The question as to what those visions mean can never be fully answered: a dictionary of the apocalyptic imagery in the Book of Revelation is not possible.
Musically this has enormous consequences: should the composer (any composer) wish to transform the Book of Revelation into a musical experience can only do so either in the form of vignettes, and thus give free reign to whichever dramatic stance is dear to him or her, or else to follow the command given in Rev. 10:9 and devour the book as a whole. We know the consequences of that:
And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.
There may be various reasons why until now composers have not taken up the task of writing music for the full text of the BR. Size is one of those (this is ultimately what determined the oratorio form of Apocalypsis Iesu), also the need of it or the lack of occasion. Franz Schmidt was, to my knowledge, the one that came closest to it, but his rendition is also fragmentary. I am convinced that the true monster, the dragon that scattered all composers’ attempts throughout Western musical history is the narrative shape of the Book. Structure is the problem.
The Book of Revelation is a unity in the sense that it comprehends a much bigger unity; some may find the reading highly disturbing or the work of a madman if, truly, it was the work of one man alone. The Book of Revelation sits on top of a corpus of narratives called the Bible, which quotes, summarizes and, more importantly, re-contextualizes. This gives the Oratorio Apocalypsis Iesu an intelligibility that would otherwise would be missing: the Bible itself constitutes its program notes, so to say.
(Revelations 1:15 – And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. Excerpt from the oratorio)
Whichever the case, and from the musical point of view, the book attributed to John of Patmos has clear structural affinities with musical shapes. The Book can be divided in two main parts: 1-11 (part I) and 12-22 (part II), the last two chapters representing a major climax to the whole of the Book of Revelation, and the Bible itself. Part I thus coincides what the first three series, corresponding to the seven churches and the seven rewards, the seven seals, and the seven trumpets. Part II would comprise the other three series: apocalyptic visions, the seven vials, and the seven last things. The Book of Revelation, from this angle, presents a remarkable degree of symmetry.
This allows a thematic approach that may or may not coincide with the reintroduction of any particular content in the book such as, say, the wrath of God or the descent of angels. This is important: so called idée fixes will inevitably be present but following their recurrence and transformations will not give us the structural sense of the entire musical work: what they will give us is the sense of continuity without which any musical work may be unintelligible. Idée fixes or leitmotif are a technical device that allow the composer to characterize an actor or a circumstance in an extended piece of music. By extension, applying a number of composition techniques one may vary those musical ideas (motifs, cells, or what you wish to call them) to allow a development in that character or a change in the circumstances.
With these things in mind I set out to work on the Book of Revelations with the express purpose of making it musically intelligible. This may sound a bit too remote for, let us say, an audience that would see a comprehensive musical treatment of the work of a madman as the work of another madman. And yet the more or less clear intuition that there is a imaginative rhythm throughout the book and that this rhythm is a unifying principle, determined in my mind that it may also grant a musical treatment of the work. And so I made the decision to begin work on the oratorio.