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Top Five Apocalypses in Classical Music

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Between earthquakes and hurricanes striking the East Coast, events have become somewhat apocalyptic lately. Coincidentally, there’s quite a playlist to accompany such tumultuous disasters. Here are our top five works of the apocalypse.

1. Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Rather than greet Armageddon with a cacophony, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time serenades its arrival. Written while Messaien was a prisoner in Germany Stalag VIII-A POW camp, the music incorporates birdsong along the power of the archangel who announces the end of time. The quartet itself is liberated from the constraints of time in a way, as Messiaen never confines the work to a beat. Rather the musicians together create an elastic rhythm that more or less follow Messaien's instructions such as “infinitely slow.”

2. Scriabin: Mysterium (Unfinished)

While composers have written music to describe the apocalypse, the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin thought that he could help usher in a rapture of sorts with his Mysterium. The ambitious piece was supposed to transform mankind as artists from all media performed the work over its seven full days and nights at a specially constructed temple in India. Scriabin died before he could realize the project, leaving only the “Preliminary Act.”

3. Berlioz: Requiem

Hector Berlioz wrote music that seemed to predict imminent disasters. (The Witches Sabbath in Sinfonie Fantastique and his Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale are particularly portentous.) When the ambitious Frenchman decided to score a “Dies Irae” (Judgment Day) in his Requiem, he pulled out all the stops. The work demands an orchestra of 200 players. He instructed the brass section to disperse in all four corners of the concert hall to encircle the audience in sound. More than seven horn players announce judgment day, as a chorus sings out “Nothing will remain unavenged.”

4. Wagner: Götterdämmerung

In Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final opera of the Ring cycle, the composer dramatically dismantles the entire world he created. His hero Siegfried is murdered, the brave Brünnhilde jumps into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, the home of the gods gets burned to a crisp, and the Rhine overflows its banks, washing away the evil of the Gibichungs and restoring all-powerful golden ring back to its original protectors, the Rhinemaidens.

5. Menotti: Apocalypse

Gian Carlo Menotti wasn’t one for subtlety. His 20th century verismo operas drip with melodrama and over-the-top emotions. While he was writing them, he also composed a lesser-known poem for orchestra called Apocalypse. The three-movement piece, Menotti’s first purely orchestra work, begins with the horns and then becomes a mass of swirling strings. The 24-minute piece takes a more lyrical interpretation of the rapture than a fearsome one.

What music spells apocalypse for you? Please share your thoughts below: