Top Five Apocalypses in Classical Music

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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:

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Comments [9]

Cathy Patterson from

I imagine this is the wrong place to leave this comment, but I stumbled upon this article while trying to figure out exactly how to describe the music of the punk band, X.

Jul. 07 2016 03:34 PM
J.B.Lee from USA

Messiaen's apocalypse, to me, is not Quatuor pour la fin du temps, but Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum,especially that last movement. Now there's an apocalypse you can't ignore!

Sep. 29 2012 06:06 AM
Martin Moser from New York City

As a decades-long fan of WQXR, I listen to your broadcasts regularly. On thing, however, annoys me in your rather recent publicity - your overuse and incorrect use of the term "classical". Any music scholar will agree that the "classical" composers are Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert and their contemporaries. The classical era was c.1775-1825.

NOT: Wagner,Berlioz, Menotti, Chopin, Debussy, Gershwin, Schoenberg, Ellington, et al, who were certainly great but of very different times and styles.

Why not consider revising your publicity to say things llike "Great music", "Timeless music" etc., thereby avoiding the misuse of "classical"?

Thanks for bearing with me. Best Wishes.

--A long-time fan and long-retired music educator.

Dec. 09 2011 10:00 AM
Will R from Rochester, NY

Let's not forget Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre. It's a more amusing sort of apocalypse, but it still counts!

Sep. 05 2011 03:16 PM
Edward S. Seeley Jr. from Brooklyn

Act III of Verdi's Rigoletto. Especially the raging storm during which Gilda rushes into the tavern. To be stabbed repeatedly by the sociopathic assassin. With Verdi showing us through chilling music the twisted malevolent Face of God, the Author of the Apocalypse.

Makes your hair stand on end.

Sep. 02 2011 05:03 PM

Maybe not quite apacolyptic, but I would include the finale to Malher's second symphony. Probably more of a revelation that an apocolypse.

Sep. 02 2011 02:32 PM
Amanda S

I guess we're using the term "apocalypse" rather loosely...most of those pieces do not literally depict the end of the world. Gotterdammurang, in particular does not. It depicts the end of the time of the Gods but the world does not end.

Sep. 02 2011 10:52 AM
Edward Lambertsen from Manhattan (Upper East Side)

"Antikrist" is an opera by early 20th century Danish composer Ruad Langgaard, and is available on DVD. Its subject matter is the end of time and the Last Judgment, which seems to be the sort of thing you're looking for.

Sep. 01 2011 07:16 AM
David from Flushing

Storm music is indeed rather common in classical music while earthquake less so. The human induced earthquake and volcanic eruption in Rameau's "Les Incas du Perou" act of "Les Indes Gallantes" being one example.

The only piece known to me that combines both storm and earthquake is the brief "The nations tremble" in Handel's "Joshua." The chorus cries, "heav'n thunders, tempests roar, and groans the ground" while the score is literally black with notes.

Aug. 31 2011 05:35 PM

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