Music for the Apocalypse

February 6, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Thanks to current events and to a certain person who has recently come to power, the Doomsday Clock has been set forward thirty seconds. What will you do when the end comes? And more importantly, what tracks do you have on your phone for the occasion?

The idea of the world ending is certainly not new; there are loads of artwork devoted to the idea, from ancient through modern times. We’ve all thought about “what if” at some point in our lives. I hadn’t really connected the end of the world and music until very recently – the inspiration for this post came to me in the middle of a video game: Fallout 4. To oversimplify, it’s a game where you shoot baddies in post-apocalyptic setting.

What happened was this: I had turned on a radio in the game to the “classical music station”, when I was attacked by a horde of zombies. As I exterminated this crowd of undead enemies, I laughed because the radio was playing the dulcet tones of Edward Elgar‘s “Salut d’Amour“. The juxtaposition of murdering horrific humanoid mutations and sweet, lovely music was perfect irony, and completely opposite of the typical battle music of video games.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this sort of irony. The most glorious moment in the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V comes when Henry (who by this point is barking mad) orders all his soldiers to sing a Te Deum and a Non Nobis in praise of God, who helped them slaughter the French in a bloody battle. The magnificent music plays during a single, four minute long shot of the battlefield, covered with mangled bodies and limbs: Not unto us, Lord, but to thy name be glory.

But let’s be realistic, we can accept the beautiful music coupled with bloody scenes because we’re removed from the situation. To have to face these horrors in real life is very unsettling. A more appropriate response would be the music in the 2011 film, Melancholia. To sum it up: people live screwed up lives, but it doesn’t matter in the end because a giant planet crashes into earth and destroys everything. This sort of despair is perfect for accompaniment by Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde (tragically, edited to fit the footage.)

Why so serious? If the world is going to end in flames, you may as well have fun while doing it, like in Dr. Strangelove! Don’t just drop that atomic bomb, ride it like a cowboy!

Did you know there’s an opera about the atomic bomb? Check it out!

So, nuclear war might end the world. If it did, would humanity descend into tribal warfare, fighting over food, water, and fuel? Brian May‘s killer soundtrack to Mad Max 2 will help you prepare for that.

But it turns out nuclear war is only one of many possible doomsday scenarios that threaten us. Climate change could turn our planet into a Waterworld.

Did you know there is a symphony about climate change? Check it out!

So, what are we to do? Well, on one hand, we could go into a panicked frenzy of despair:

or, we can stand up and do something about it:


November musings

November 12, 2016 at 9:36 am

We humans naturally compare our lives to the world around us – the start of life at spring, the fruits of summer, the autumnal decline, the dead winter. We find these cycles in many different aspects of our lives, not to mention our own existence. November, therefore, might be a time when we prepare for death, Thanksgiving, like a joyous last meal. Some people find this morbid, but, I find it comforting. Why else would we devote so much time and energy surrounding the end of our lives if not to bring some peace? We have religious practices to prepare us, social rituals to go through to help us through the loss of a loved one, and of course, art!

Johannes Brahms was utterly heartbroken when his mother died; he nursed his spirit back to health by writing what has become one of his best-loved works, his German Requiem.

Brahms’ mother died in February 1865; by the end of the year, he had written most of the Requiem. It is not a liturgical work – it is better described as a sacred concert work. It is a collection of Bible verses, sung in German, that gently take the listener through the stages of grief. Eighteen months later, Brahms completed a movement for soprano solo – some say it is his mother’s voice, singing from heaven:

And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice …
s one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.

Perhaps Brahms had finally come to terms with his mother’s passing.

It is necessary to note that Brahms was an agnostic; still, he chose to set religious texts. I don’t think this is that bizarre, really. Plenty of people with no religious beliefs will arrange for a religious funeral for themselves or a loved one. Even if the belief isn’t there, comfort can be found in moving through the rituals. You don’t need to understand German or be a Christian for this music to move you to tears. It is simply a human work – which I believe is exactly what Brahms intended.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.


Mozart, eat your heart out

October 26, 2016 at 3:00 pm

I’m said before that Mozart wrote the Requiem against which all others are judged. I’ve also mentioned how the intense emotions of that piece foreshadow a big change in musical style between the 18th and 19th centuries. Mozart’s is a masterpiece, classical in balanced form and romantic in dramatic execution. But what if we dump that balance and go straight for the feels – specifically, the OMG-I’m-afraid-to-die day-of-judgment fire-and-brimstone scared-out-of-my-wits feels?

Enter Giuseppe Verdi, the revolutionary composer who helped Italian Opera stay on the map. His Requiem IS an opera; the emotional drama is as chilling as Othello, heart-wrenching as Traviata, dark as Rigoletto. When we hear about the day of judgment, we are scared. We are very very scared. And when Verdi’s angel sounds the trumpet (at 2:25, “Tuba Mirum”), it makes me want to cower under my desk. Mozart’s Tuba? not so much. Makes me want to do a Mr. Bean dance.

Kudos to the performers here for having A LOT of singers in the choir, so the brass could play at full-volume!

The music is scary up until 4:10, at which point it’s the conductor’s face which is scary.