The task of setting the Book of Revelation to music is riddled with difficulties at various levels. I will single out three in particular: the textual level (difficulties of the text and the chosen language), the structural level (the alignment of the shape of the text with a coherent musical form), and the musical level per se (encompassing the harmonic and motivic materials present in the score).
- Textual considerations
The language used in the Book of Revelation is intricate, repetitive, fastidious and controversial in its details, and difficult to sectionalize. This score follows closely each verse or paragraph giving priority to the conclusion of a self-contained sentence. Take for example the first few verses of the Book (Rev. 1, 1-4):
1 Apocalypsis Iesu Christi quam dedit illi Deus palam facere servis suis quae oportet fieri cito et significavit mittens per angelum suum servo suo Iohanni
2 qui testimonium perhibuit verbo Dei et testimonium Iesu Christi quaecumque vidit
3 beatus qui legit et qui audiunt verba prophetiae et servant ea quae in ea scripta sunt tempus enim prope est
4 Iohannes septem ecclesiis quae sunt in Asia gratia vobis et pax ab eo qui est et qui erat et qui venturus est et a septem spiritibus qui in conspectu throni eius sunt.
The first three verses constitute the first section of the work coinciding with the full statement of the mission (quaecumque vidit – “what he saw”, or “all of what he saw”), and the blessing to those who listen and serve its contents. This section is flanked by the Apocalypsis motif, and ascending five-note “eviscerated” motif (e-f-a-b-g) variously harmonized and varied throughout the work .
The fourth verse begins the admonitions by John of Patmos, first to the seven churches in Asia and eventually to the whole world:
Besides this, the choice of language alone is a key issue that challenges the composer, and specifically the western composer, with questions that go beyond the pragmatic. The final choice in the present score was Latin, as reads in the Vulgata. There are instances in which this choice affects (although minimally in my view) the content of the text. One famous instance is the spurious inclusion of the Latin name of the destroyer (“Exterminans”) in Rev. 9, 11 (coincidentally):
11 et habebant super se regem angelum abyssi cui nomen hebraice Abaddon graece autem Apollyon et latine habet nomen Exterminans.
However inconsequential, this specific verse gives rise to a musical passage takes the listener to a very specific time and place, and a very specific composer’s music:
In the draft score:
Which brings me to the next question.
- The structural level
– About the structure
There is an interesting entry by American poet and critic James Russell Lowell in which he compares Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Cervantes Don Quijote. He says that Don Quijote is “less verisimilar as a narrative” and that he is not even sure that it is a narrative as such. (The full quote appears in Ilan Stavans Quixote, The Novel and the World; 9, American Exceptionalism). If that is true of Don Quijote (which I am not sure), it is also true of the Book of Revelation.
“Narrative” is certainly a big word in music too, a word that divides audiences, composers, and academics. To what an extent the score of Apocalypsis Iesu reflects a narrative (that included in the Book of Revelation), or constitutes a narrative (that which the music itself may trace through devices and techniques characteristically hers) is an open question. The same as Don Quijote the task of the author is to put together a good number of dramatic events that at time contradict each others, and even show a perplexing degree of incongruity.
An apt definition of what the Book of Revelation is structurally, and one that I have used as a working hypothesis, so to say, throughout the length of the score is that given by Frye: he says that “the Book of Revelation is a dense mosaic of allusions to the Old Testament” (Northrop Frye, The Bible and Literature, lecture transcripts. italics mine). He continues saying that “Ezekiel and Daniel and Zechariah and Isaiah are made the stuff and texture of the vision that is portrayed in the Book of Revelation itself.” Frye says that for John there is no difference between what he sees in vision on Patmos and what he sees in the text of the visionary prophets “because what he is seeing is primarily for him the meaning of the Word of God. That is why there is such an emphasis on vision in the book, although Revelation is not at all a clearly visualized book (italics mine).
– Musical allusions
If there is something that I would like the score of Apocalypsis Iesu to be, that something is a shimmering reflection of all that has come before, musically speaking. In this sense, the simile of back of the tapestry, although a bit overused, may be an illustrative way of looking at it: threads connecting distant places, appearing when needed to lend their colors to the whole.
There are a good number of allusions in the score. Some are there to be heard and celebrated (mostly obvious quotations), some lend the score a quaint or exotic harmonic flavor, maybe a rhythmic strategy,or a melodic contour. Others are decidedly cryptic, and are there for the experienced listener or music lover, maybe for the keen professor or entendido. Alluding, quoting, copying to some extent is after all is what most composers do, mostly. The best do it best, the worst plagiarize. There some other composers, which I like and respect too, that do none of these things. They include mostly contemporary and modern composers from the Second Viennese School all the way down to Varèse, Xenakis, and Rhim. But that is another subject all together, and another music too.
(Taruskin‘s discussion of Handel’s borrowings and cannibalizing is very illustrative and colorful).
All in all I think it would be fair to characterize this structural level of understanding as the surface or naive musical level: it affects the structure insofar as it attracts or diverts the listeners attention, engaging her or his acquired musical knowledge. An experienced listener will have no problem in quickly disengaging from this passing moment (the way an experienced reader does, when reading a footnote or a page reference) and try to locate it into a wider context, perhaps literal (text) or musical overall (key, rhythm, interval, etc.), or simply register it.
Another level would be that of the textual or score correspondences. Here the listener is expected to have a minimum of competence in following the average musical flow. What that minimum is depends very much on what expectations composers place on their audience, or what level of compromise they are willing to reach. Some of these correspondences are very basic, and they have to do with rhythmic or melodic units, harmonic successions, or more generally musical gestures. It is at this level were the composer ties the different sections of the piece into a comprehensible musical whole: it is the level of harmonic and motivic connections. In sonata form, for instance, a tonal composer may decide to use the same motif in a different key (say the dominant), or bring it back in the recapitulation with a different instrumentation, or introduce a variation of it in the coda. It is the level that makes musical sense because it is purely (or almost purely) just the music.
Musical correspondences of these kind exist throughout the score, and provide the listener with a recognizable musical continuity.
There are other levels that music analysts say exist in a competent piece of music. In tonal music (the score of Apocalypsis Iesu can be said to be tonal) there is for instance the Schenkerian analytic hypothesis, which states that the music we hear constitutes a “surface” which is related to a “deep” structure in which different hierarchies are layered one on top of the other or intertwining in some manner: the deeper layer is thought to resemble a “I – ii – V – I” harmonic progression. Then there are other levels that have to do more with literature than music per se, the most salient one being the so-called narratological, coined by Finnish musicologist Ero Tarasti. I personally sympathize with these theories, both Schenker’s and Tarasti’s, but I see major difficulties in using that approach to understand not only my music but some of the repertoire to which these approaches have been applied. First and foremost I do not organize my music that way, consciously or otherwise.
There is some sort of “deeper” level to the score, one having to do with the way the apocalyptic imagery is organized in the Book of Revelation. Here the main issue is to decide whether there is a consistent relation between the image, or group of images in the BR, and the musical motifs that signpost the score.