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Some Notes on the Text of the Oratorio The Book With Seven Seals
Certain parts of the Apocalypse that are especially suitable for setting to music have often been used by composers, but as far as I know mine is the first attempt at a comprehensive setting. As I approached this gigantic task, it became evident that it was necessary to contract the vast dimensions of the text to a size that could be grasped by the average human brain; and to do so without impairing the essence of the work and if possible without altering the text. The whole construction had to be left intact both in its general plan and in its internal coherence. I only deviated from the original in that I combined the letters of St. John to the Seven Churches into an initial address. Otherwise I kept entirely to the original: the calling of John by the Lord, his appearance before the throne, the ceremony of homage, the Book in the hand of the Lord, the vision of the Lamb, the acceptance of the Book by the Lamb – all this is taken almost verbally from the original. The short service of thanks completes the act as a “Prologue in Heaven”.
The first part of the work, which now follows, deals with the breaking of the first six seals by the Lamb; this is preceded by the story of mankind. After the blessed and hopeful spreading of mankind. After the blessed and hopeful spreading of the Christian message of Salvation by the white horseman (Jesus Christ) and his heavenly hosts, mankind falls prey to darkness and chaos. The blood-red horseman and his hellish army cover the earth and precipitate mankind into war, one man killing the other. The third (black) and the fourth (pale) horsemen of the Apocalypse lead on the results of war – famine and pestilence. The greater part of mankind sinks into despair and perishes; only a small number still remains faithful. At the breaking of the fifth seal the souls of the martyrs appear with other victims of men’s crimes. They call for justice and punishment. The Lord bids them have patience and promises that they shall have justice at the Last Judgement. Since the greater part of mankind is still living in sin and obduracy, the Lord calls forth earthquakes and floods and fire over the face of earth: so with the breaking of the sixth seal He destroys sinful men.
With this the first part closes. The natural break here gave me my sole opportunity to create a form suitable for music out of a mass of material unbounded as the ocean. From here St. John continues with ever-greater power, by the use of countless variations and repetitions of metaphors and similes, the story of his fight against Babylon the sink of iniquity (representing Rome) up to its complete annihilation, in order to stress and glorify the final victory of Christianity in the vision of the new Jerusalem. I have risked the omission of the first two factors in the antithesis Babylon – Jerusalem, heathendom – Christianity, sin – virtue and so on, including all that belongs to them. I feel that the fundamental antithesis loses nothing of power and significance through this omission, which by enormously lightening the material makes a proportionate second part in the spirit of the original possible.
The second part opens with the great silence that fills heaven at the opening of the seventh seal. During this silence St. John tells us, in parenthesis as it were, the story of the true faith and of its church, beginning at the birth of the Saviour, continuing with its fight against the worshippers of the devil and their false teaching, and concluding with its final victory.
After the great silence in heaven, which one assumes to last to the end of the world, seven angels prepare to sound the terrible summons to the Last Judgement. As in the original St. John only describes the Last Judgement briefly, but to announce the more vividly that the millennium has arrived and that an immortal race now lives on a new earth and under a new sky. Then the Lord speaks to the purified and tells them that He will dwell with them and be their father. After the purified have given Him thanks and homage with an Alleluia, St. John concludes his Revelation with a short explanation and farewell.
Apart from the one omission mentioned above I have kept faithfully to the original. My approach to the work has always been that of a deeply religious man and of an artist. This may account for a certain freedom in the conception; for instance that I have conceived St. John as a young man and given him music suitable for a young man, though he was in fact extremely old when he wrote his “Revelations”. As to the music itself, I shall confine myself to some remarks about the form.
Since it is the function of the text to provide the skeleton of the composition, thus not only to form the outer contours of the work but to exercise a proportionate influence on the construction of all parts, the vocal section appears to me to have the greatest importance in the general development. Nevertheless I endeavoured to achieve an even distribution of artistic tasks amongst all the contributing forces. A result of this is that the orchestra is never subservient nor dominating. Throughout it accompanies in a high dramatic style, and sometimes it paints a musical picture. On the other hand it has no independent movements, preludes or intermezzi. The latter are left to the organ, which is treated not as part of the orchestra but as an independent body.
The disposition of vocal sections is roughly as follows: St. John, who presents his Revelation between the musically identical addresses (the greeting and the farewell), is supported by the four soloists and by the choruses, who contribute partly as characters taking part, partly in assisting the narrator. Of the solo parts the voice of the Lord (bass) is the most prominent. It is heard three times: at the very beginning when it summons St. John, then in the first part where it quells the uproar in heaven and lastly in the second part to announce the message of salvation and mercy. Apart from various movements for quartet and ensemble, representing angels and the like, the soloists have two scenes for duet in the first part. They are that of the mother and daughter (soprano and contralto), and that or the two survivors on the field of carnage (tenor and bass). The choruses, distributed over the whole work in various tasks, have the following independent movements of importance: in the prologue the vision of the Lamb (with tenor solo), then the closing chorus. In the first part “King of kings”, the war, the uproar in Heaven, the end of the world. In the second part the summons to the Last Judgement (a quadruple fugue) and finally the Alleluia.
These brief notes should suffice to facilitate the understanding of the composition by those who hear it for the first time. If my musical setting of this unparalleled work, which is as relevant today as it was at its creation eighteen and a half centuries ago, should succeed in bringing the hearer spiritually closer to it, then that will be my greatest reward.
Franz Schmidt, written for the first performance on 15 June 1938