Post-Schmidt, a novel musical Apocalypse
As noted in my recent review of last month's performances of Das Buch Mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book With Seven Seals) in Vienna, Franz Schmidt was the first composer to seek a musical form for the Book of Revelations. Was he also the last?
Readers of Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus, embarked on in 1943 and published in 1947, may remember reading of the demonic composer-hero's oratorio Apocalipsis Cum Figuris, inspired by and named for Albrecht Dürer's iconic woodcut series "Apocalypse With Pictures." Mann was a genius at making a reader hear music in the mind's ear, even music that exists nowhere else.
Such was the case for Apocalipsis Cum Figuris until 1984, when the Dutch National Radio commissioned Konrad Boehmer (composer of a recent opera after Mann's novel) a "Leverkühn" Apocalipsis Cum Figuris. Following Mann's road map, Boehmer produced a 37-minute lollapalooza for two solo voices on four-track tape, four percussionists, two pianos (one of them the composer Frederic Rzewski), three pop singers, and conductor. From its premiere in the modernist citadel of Donaueschingen, Boehmer's faux-Leverkühn made the rounds of avant-garde hot spots. The curious can find it on YouTube and Spotify, but to place it on a par with Das Buch von Sieben Siegeln would be a stretch.
Schmidt and Honegger: kindred spirits?
And finally, a note for further reflection. Could the closest analogue to Das Buch Mit Sieben Siegeln be Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc Au Bûcher, which premiered in Basel in May 1938, less than a month before the Schmidt? In a sense, both are poster art in excelsis, drawn in bold outline, painted in brilliant color. Like Schmidt, Honegger and his librettist, Paul Claudel, were aiming for a spiritual work accessible to a popular audience, anchored by a charismatic central figure and punctuated by vivid dramatic episodes spanning Armageddon to the Empyrean.