- learn that the book of Revelation is where most song lyrics in the New Testament are to be found concentrated in a single work
- consider examples of words and ideas from Revelation that appear in rock music
- learn the story behind an extremely popular and widely used Christian worship song
- learn why a famous quartet’s title derives from Revelation
- consider why texts from the end of the book of Revelation are set to music more frequently than other parts
Introduction: Music in Revelation
There is a lot of music in the book of Revelation, sometimes referred to as the Apocalypse of St. John, in addition to settings of parts of it to music throughout history. Apocalypse is the transliteration of a Greek word that means “revelation, unveiling, or disclosure,” so these are just two different ways of rendering the name, one transliterating while the other translates the meaning. Some who read the book are so fixated on what they believe to be predictions of the end of the world, the “last things” or “end times,” that they miss the prominent presence of singing in the book and thus may be surprised by how often texts from Revelation have been set to music. In fact, noticing the singing within the book may clue us in to what it is really about: a contrast between the heavenly worship in which those faithful to God participate and the worship of the Roman emperor. The misperception that it is about our future and the end of the world explains why we so frequently hear people get the title wrong and call it the “book of Revelations,” as though it were a collection of predictions and secrets about things still to come. There is no s on the end of the title. The single “revelation” is one that the book says was given to someone named John in the first century about things that were going on in his and that “must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1; 22:6). Two thousand years later is not “soon,” and the fixation on a futurist reading of the book seriously distorts our understanding of it. If we stop and take time to listen to the music, on the other hand, you will notice that the book is focused on contrasting worship. In heaven, with much singing, worship is offered “to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb” (Revelation 5:13). On earth, on the other hand, many worship the “beast,” who represents the Roman emperor and the demand that Christians participate in the imperial cult, which was considered an important sign of loyalty and was crucial to maintaining the stability of the Roman Empire. The heavenly singing is what the faithful on earth should aspire to emulate and participate in, directing their worship at the one true God even in an environment that might persecute and even execute them for this exclusive allegiance.
666 in Rock ’n’ Roll
When it comes to music that draws on the book of Revelation, an impressive number of examples are in the realm of rock music. Perhaps the most famous example is in the genre of heavy metal: Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast,” which draws selectively on parts of Revelation, apparently having been inspired by the movie Damien: The Omen II (or more precisely, a nightmare that ensued after seeing it). That series of movies in turn draws selectively on biblical sources to weave a frightening tale about “the Antichrist”—a title that in fact never occurs in the book of Revelation. When it occurs in 1 John 2:18, it adds a plural form of the word, suggesting there is no single “Antichrist” but a type of figure. Iron Maiden’s (and these movies’) exploration of this topic is thus no more and no less biblical than some examples from the realm of “classical” music, such as Rued Langgaard’s Antikrist. The use of the Bible in the libretto of that work is worth exploring in detail.
I wonder whether Peter Gabriel might ever have sung Charles Villiers Stanford’s “And I Saw Another Angel” in chapel at Charterhouse School, where the founding members of the band Genesis met. Gabriel and others mention the influence of hymns on their songwriting and music, and Gabriel drew directly from the same part of the book of Revelation for the words to the climax of the song “Supper’s Ready.”
Hymns, Choruses, and Other Church Music
Given that parts of the book of Revelation may draw on early Christian songs, it is fitting that from time to time the words have been turned back into songs for use in the setting of Christian worship. Far more hymns draw selectively on phrases and themes than actually stick close to words found in Revelation. Among those that do, the best known today is perhaps “Thou Art Worthy” by Pauline Mills. It was written in 1963, and the story of its creation that has circulated, if true, is quite remarkable. The songwriter’s son was a pastor, and prior to a visit to the church by his mother (of whose musical ability he was understandably proud), Rev. Mills told the congregation that they could suggest a favorite passage of Scripture to his mother at the start of a service, and by the end she would have set it to music. He did not warn his mother of this, however, so she was surprised to learn of her son’s promise when she arrived. Yet she rose to the occasion, and at the prompting of a member of the congregation whose favorite verse was Revelation 4:11, she produced a song that is still widely sung today.
A well-known instrumental work that derives its title and inspiration from the book of Revelation is Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps, or “Quartet for the End of Time,” alluding to Revelation 10:6, where an angel declares that “time should be time no longer” (KJV) or, as the Common English Bible puts it, “the time is up.” Messiaen composed and then first performed the work in a Nazi camp for prisoners of war during World War II. In that context, Revelation’s hope for an end to human history in its present form and its replacement with the kingdom of God would have naturally resonated with the composer, although arguably so too could a desire for time to simply end altogether (as a literal interpretation of the title might imply).
Another example of an instrumental exploration of Revelation is Edward Gregson’s Music of the Angels (as well as a couple of earlier works that laid the groundwork for it). It is not surprising that a work would be composed for brass instruments based on the description of angels playing trumpets in the book of Revelation.
Alpha and Omega (and Everything in Between)
Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and thus when those letters are mentioned in the book of Revelation, it is the equivalent of saying “from A to Z” in English. Few works attempt to explore the entire span of the book of Revelation in music. One of the few exceptions is Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals) by Franz Schmidt. The composer is reported to have said of the work, “If my setting succeeds in bringing this unprecedented poetry, whose topicality now, after eighteen and a half hundred years, is as great as it was on the first day, to the listener of today, then this will be my best reward.” Although the language and turns of phrase that characterize the book of Revelation may seem quite unique to many modern readers, the book actually draws much of its distinctive imagery from the Old Testament / Jewish Scripture. Nor is it the first or only work that might be placed in the category of apocalyptic literature. It would be fascinating to hear what composers who were motivated to set some or all of Revelation to music because of its perceived uniqueness might do with other apocalyptic texts were they to discover them. For now, however, simply have a listen to Schmidt’s setting.
Hilding Rosenberg’s Symphony no. 4, “Johannes Uppenbarelse” (The Revelation of John) includes text from Revelation interspersed with poems by Hjalmar Gullberg that are inspired by and allude to Revelation, making for a multilayered treatment of Revelation that bridges the ancient text with the composer’s time.
The end of Revelation, with its climactic vision of a new creation, is especially popular with composers, far more so than the sections about plagues and judgments coming upon the earth and its human inhabitants. Edgar Bainton’s “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth” is a setting of part of chapter 21.
Finally (as far as the musical examples included in the chapter are concerned), here is Will Todd’s gentle “No More Sorrow,” which succeeds in emphasizing the comforting message of the book of Revelation and, in particular, its climax through an extremely effective and moving wedding of words and music.
For a discussion of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the text of which is drawn from the book of Revelation, see chapter 28 about Handel’s Messiah. Brahms’s Triumphlied (Song of Triumph) is based on the same part of Revelation, chapter 19. As with all of the Bible, there are more examples than we can name, much less discuss in a way that might do justice to them.
Pople, Anthony.. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Seel, Thomas Allen.. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1995.
Wallin, Nils. L. “Hilding Rosenbergs Johannes uppenbarelse.”27, no. 1 (1952): 15–20.
- The song “Number of the Beast” (on an album with the same title) led some to denounce and protest the band, accusing them of Satan worship, which band members have pointed out shows that they did not bother to listen to or read the lyrics to the song, nor those of another track on the album with a biblical reference but largely nonbiblical lyrics, “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” Other heavy metal bands have faced similar issues: see the discussion of Metallica’s song “Creeping Death” in chapter 10 on Exodus. ↵
- On this, see further Sarah Hill, “Ending It All: Genesis and Revelation,” Popular Music 32, no. 2 (2013): 197–221. The song can be found on YouTube, including in the form of recordings of classic live performances by Genesis. ↵
- Another example of the use of words directly from Revelation in a worship song is “To Him Who Sits on the Throne,” written by Debbye Graafsma, which appeared on the rock band Petra’s album Petra Praise 2. ↵
- Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps is here performed by Antje Weithaas on violin, Sol Gabetta on cello, Sabine Meyer on clarinet, and Bertrand Chamayou on piano. Filmed at Solsberg Festival 2016 and shared on YouTube by the Hochrhein Musikfestival. ↵
- The trumpeting angels are also mentioned in the Genesis song “Supper’s Ready,” where they are said to play “sweet rock ’n’ roll.” ↵
- Even Pierre Henry’s very unusual work with narration does not include everything. You can listen to Pierre Henry’s Apocalypse de Jean on YouTube. ↵
- Quoted by Wolfgang-Paul-Saal. ↵
- Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln is performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Danish National Concert Choir, conducted by Fabio Luisi. It was recorded at DR Concert Hall on December 2017 and shared by the venue to their YouTube channel. ↵
- Håkan Hagegård, baritone, is the soloist in this performance of Hilding Rosenberg’s Symphony no. 4 by the Swedish Radio Choir and Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sixten Ehrling. Licensed to YouTube by Naxos Digital Services US. ↵
- The Exultate Choir, conducted by Thomas Rossin, performed this work by Paul Manz in memory of the composer, who passed away in 2009. ↵
- This recording of Bainton’s “And I Saw a New Heaven” by Bath Abbey Girls’ Choir, conducted by Huw Williams, is shared on YouTube by CHOR GESANG music magazine for the occasion of Remembrance Day 2020. ↵
- “No More Sorrow” by Will Todd was shared on YouTube by Exposure TV to promote the release of the album Lux et Veritas: Music for Peace and Reflection. ↵
- On this work and its relationship to current events in the time it was composed, see Daniel Beller-McKenna, Brahms and the German Spirit (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 77–78. ↵
- A few examples include James MacMillan’s “Alpha and Omega,” Patrick Hawes’s Revelation, and Knut Nystedt’s Apocalypsis Joannis. The latter’s Seven Seals: Vision for Orchestra, op. 76, should also be noted. I will also draw attention to James Whitbourn’s “He Carried Me Away in the Spirit.” Whitbourn has also explored the ending of Revelation in his “Pure Water of Life.” Other biblical settings by the same composer include his “Magnificat,” “Nunc Dimittis,” and “Alleluia jubilate.” ↵