A Musical Eschaton

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People have been fascinated by the end of the world for millennia, since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, who gave us the very useful and now very timely word "eschaton."

In Western parlance, the eschaton is the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. It has been a recurring theme in literature, art, poetry, music, and of course, in Hollywood, where New York is routinely annihilated and now has the whole world following it into the abyss in movies like The Road2012, and Legion. Now, we've landed on 12-21-2012. You know, the day on which the world should end, according to some widely debunked theories about the Mayan calendar. 

Classical music is full of apocalyptic visions, whether so named or not. Gustav Holst’s The Planets contains one of the most horrific visions of the end of the world in “Mars, The Bringer of War,” and does so without using a single word. This highlights my major beef with most of the eschatological stuff out there now (there’s a sign of my own impending apocalypse: using a fancy word like “eschatological” and finding nothing better than “stuff” to follow it). It’s too literal. 2012 shows everything falling down and crashing; The Road just takes some kind of Apocalypse as a given and leaves you to imagine for yourself what calamity might have occurred. Which do you think is more unsettling? It’s like horror movies – the scariest ones are the ones where you never actually see the monster; your imagination is much more equipped to scare the bejeezus out of you than whatever Hollywood’s special effects folks can come up with.

And so it is with songs. The best “End of the World” songs are the ones that leave you to imagine what’s happening. The Clash’s apocalyptic “London Calling” mentions a nuclear error, and an ice age coming, but aside from that, the imagery is basically just frantic calls of alarm and distress, that become more like personal pleas for help by the end. Even more disquieting is Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood,” one of a number of songs that uses flood imagery to suggest the end of things – and my personal favorite Song of the Apocalypse. “Waves of steel hurled metal at the sky / And as the nail sunk in the cloud / the rain was warm and soaked the crowd.” I don’t know what’s going on there, but it sounds pretty terminal.

Tell us: what is your favorite artistic vision of the End of Times?