What music accompanies the end of the world? I suppose it depends whether you’re cowering or celebrating, sitting, dancing or running for cover.
I ask ironically, of course, because the whole Mayan thing is silly. It’s a finite calendar, limited not because someone was attempting to make a prediction of our doom but simply because the date in question –which may be Dec 21st 2012 –was inconceivably far in the future.
In the late 1990s there was a genuine concern because computers hadn’t been conceived with an eye to the distant future: even a date as remote as Dec 21st 2012 come to think of it. Nope, the date of Jan. 1st 2000 was already daunting because it had a digit too many. Was this the end? No, although it was a threat to the smooth operation of our infrastructure, the banks, utilities, and all those systems we take for granted.
I make the comparison because the arbitrariness of the new millennium, and its extra digit, were beyond the imagination of those who had come before. I’d say it’s the same with our remote Mayan friends.
And so, as we smile, contemplating yet another end of the world scenario –smiling because for once it’s not genuinely terrifying, unlike, say, climate change, nuclear weapons, the loss of biodiversity through the destruction of rain forests, superbugs created by the rampant use of antibiotics, to name a few—I simply wonder what might be appropriate listening?
The End of the World is nothing new, and so of course there’s always been an artistic response to the idea. We’ve been dancing something like an Apocalypso for a very long time. I believe it’s a kind of egomania to tie our own lives to the doom of civilization or the planet, perhaps the flip side of Utopian longings. When we can’t picture a perfect world, we imagine that the mess we’ve made will be our downfall, rather than a mess that has good decades & bad decades.
So here are five different ways to think of The End, because there’s nothing particularly new about this idea.
1) I’ll start with something inspired by last night, spent in the company of Tafelmusik, Ivars Taurins & four soloists, performing The Messiah. If there’s a rapture and Jesus comes back, it would affirm the sorts of things you encounter in Revelation 5:12-13
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
This is a rapturous image of the end of the world, although in this telling of the story it’s what I’d consider a happy ending: at least if you’re a Christian. I don’t claim to be a theologian, but I understand that other religions have similar visions of eternity with a God on the throne.
2) the artist known to me forever as Prince was surely influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as much as by current events in writing 1999 which uses not just the date but the perennial fears of war. Speaking of apocalyptic doings, this song makes me feel old, for its discoey sounds, its familiar sentiments that at their worst take us back to the happy innocence of the 1990s. The end of the world was never so carefree as this time in a tune fully embracing our strange days (and while I may sound a tiny bit like Jim Morrison, we won’t listen to “The End”).
3) let’s get this one in right away because you knew I was going to, right? There’s actually an opera that shows the end of the world as they knew it, namely Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung. I chose this performance because it does have a wonderful sense of both an ending –particularly its clever handling of the gods, since imitated in at least a couple of Ring productions, including that of Robert Lepage. The Gods had been important in earlier operas, but here they’re reduced to the kind of status reserved for irrelevant deities, superstitions at most: symbols on poles. Sure, the action is more than a bit difficult to follow the first time, and the longer you watch it, the wackier it gets, given that directors often go off on wild tangents when they direct the Ring cycle.
4) REM’s end of the world, feeling fine. …did they get enough credit? i’m not sure. Again, as with Prince, wow does this sound old and yeah, boy does it make me feel, um yes, … old.
5) Here’s a purely musical way to look at the End. This for me is a utopian vision, via Beethoven in his Diabelli Variations. This segment (the last quarter of the set) begins an extended exploration of C-minor, before an explosive fugal variation, as cleansing in its way as the Rhine river flooding its banks at the end of Götterdämmerung, but without any singers. And then we have a serene final dance, as if we’re in heaven or a perfect world where Diabelli’s little dance has been reborn.