Apocalyptic Music: Past & Present

Photo via Patrick Schneider on Unsplash.

Apocalyptic themes have played a major role in theology and literature throughout the ages. Most people are familiar with the Book of Revelations or the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, but apocalyptic writings have been part of Jewish and Christian writings since the religions’ beginnings. In fact, these topics of persecution and destruction date to the Second Temple in Judaism, ranging from 200 B.C.E. to 100 A.D.

Apocalyptic literature typically has some common themes: An angelic intermediary will provide a message from God, usually revealed through a dream or vision. The message from God explains to the people why they are being persecuted and why they haven’t been saved yet. The faithful must wait until the preordained time to be saved from their misery.

Most often, the adversary was Satan (the antichrist). While Satan is powerful, all is not lost. God will eventually defeat this adversary and create a new, more perfect world. The goal of these writings was to get the faithful to stay the course. No matter who’s persecuting you, God will set it right.

According to Colin McAllister, Assistant Professor of Music and coauthor of Music in the Apocalyptic Mode, “Apocalyptic speculation is largely a response to scenarios – societal, cultural, political, environmental – that seem untenable and insurmountable, beyond human cognition and agency: the order of the world is not how it is supposed to be.”

This chaos cannot be fixed by mere humans. Instead, it needs the assistance of a higher power to repair the world.

But apocalyptic themes don’t only appear in literature. They have also found their way into film, philosophy and music. As a musician, Colin’s focus has always been music. But after graduate school, he took a course in Latin. Later, he met someone who told him about the Book of Revelations and how a lot of old texts have never been translated. He started translating texts, which lead him to read more apocalyptic writings.

After doing some translations, he began to wonder how he could make these two different spheres of influence come together. Working with Lorenzo DiTommaso, Professor of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University Montreal, they began working on the Music in Apocalyptic Mode book. The book combines research into the field with essays written by composers who write on apocalyptic themes.

Apocalyptic themes in music didn’t stop with the ancient and Medieval times. Modern music has a lot of the same subjects, including persecution and destruction. One such musician is Bob Dylan. Many of his songs are about the end of the world. For example, “High Water” talks about environmental disasters. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” refers to nuclear war.

“Bob Dylan has a resonance with people in general, but it has apocalyptic undertones,” said McAllister. “Popular music essays show that this is not some historical artifact that can be swept into the dustbin of history.”

People are still speculating about what the Book of Revelations means. They still talk about the meaning of 666 and Satan.

According to McAllister, the book is not just a scholarly text that will appeal only to scholars, but that there’s something in there that will appeal to anyone who has an interest in music.

McAllister worked closely with Lorenzo DiTommaso, Professor of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University Montreal, to write Music in the Apocalyptic Mode. The book can be found wherever books are sold. McAllister also is the founder and director of Through a Glass Darkly, the world’s largest standalone apocalypticism conference.

McAllister would like to thank UCCS and the Department of Humanities for their continued support.