Dancing to Nero’s Fiddle: Thinking about the Apocalypse Through Music

“My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” – Jerome, Letter CXXVII (To Principia), 410 A.D.


“It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine” – R.E.M., It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine), 1987 A.D.

In July, 64 A.D., a fire destroyed 70% of Rome in six days. Half the city’s population was left homeless, and the Roman Emperor Nero was blamed for not doing anything. In reality, he was 35 miles away from the city when the fire broke out… at his Antium villa. He immediately returned and begun relief operations… but Nero is imagined as one of history’s most sadistic and cruelest leaders, thus Nero has been remembered as an Emperor who regaled in the destruction of his city… and no he did not fiddle, or play any other musical instrument, as Rome burned. Rome, at the time, truly was what Western Civilization considered the seat of all society… it’s ravaging by fire must have been seen as the end of the world.

Numerous sacks and destructions of Rome have always stood out as examples of the collapse of society. When the Visigoths surrounded and eventually sacked Rome in 410 A.D., Roman citizens and slaves alike must have thought the world had ended. Again, in 455 A.D., Vandals entered an undefended Rome and plundered it for two weeks. Time and time again, as Roman power waned, rising power among the barbaric tribes of Eurasia flexed their might and rode their steeds down the cobbled streets of Rome. Naturally, a villager in China did not know about this… or Rome… but if they did… they didn’t give a shit about it. One man’s apocalypse is another man’s non-news. Fear of the apocalypse is nothing more than the fear of change. Societies rise and fall. Decline of civilization is a fear that is reserved for a member of the society in decline.

The modern fear of the apocalypse, both in Biblical and nuclear terms, is definitely one that is grounded in history. One has to wonder, is the end of the world a localized question or is it truly one that affects every single soul on earth? If Western Civilization were to meet its demise… would a villager in Sudan really give a shit?

The only way one can imagine a total and encompassing apocalypse is to either prescribe to the religious belief in the time of judgement or the realistic fear of nuclear exchange among nation-states. Whether either of these truly happens, it is definitely something we, as humans, like to sing about.

I have discussed this before when I wrote an ode to Nena. Popular, and modern, music is full of songs about the apocalypse… some shitty, some catchy, and some that are classic. My personal favorites are:

– “2 Minutes to Midnight” by Iron Maiden

– “99 Luftballons” by Nena

– “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan

– “The Antichrist” by Slayer

– “April 2031” by Warrant

– “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

– “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden

– “Blackened” by Metallica

– “The Day the World Went Away” by Nine Inch Nails

– “Doomsday Clock” by The Smashing Pumpkins

– “The Final Countdown” by Europe

– “The Four Horsemen” by Metallica

– “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” by Timbuk3

– “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones

… and on and on and on… basically if an artist or band has recorded a song in the last 50 years that mentioned nukes or war or plagues (especially raining blood or frogs) or death may fall into this apocalyptic category. Honestly though, anyone can write a song about the apocalypse when the idea of nukes or disease is an easily identifiable fear… but what about the imagining of the apocalypse through classical music and the idea of the end of the world through the power and machinations of gods.

Here are five musical pieces that truly reflect the apocalypse in a manner befitting the end of the world:

Quartet for the End of Time” by Messiaen… approximately 46 minutes long that builds with a clarinet lulling one toward the obvious end… piano, violin, clarinet, and cello show that when the end of time is here… subtle sounds render more power.

Mysterium” (unfinished) by Scriabin… this Russian composer never got to finish this piece… which was a grand idea that was to be played for seven full days and nights. The “Prefatory Act” was the only part completed. If Messiaen’s clarinet intro was too peaceful for your apocalyptic nightmare… Scriabin is the composer for you… this first act is nothing but dark and dangerous.

Requiem” by Berlioz… “Dies Irae” (Judgement Day) in this is a brass piece that truly signifies the horns announcing the return of Christ. This is no piece being foreboding or peaceful… this is a glorious announcement… it even includes a chorus shouting “nothing will remain unavenged.”

Götterdämmerungby Wagner… the “Ride of the Valkyries” may have been the piece that Coppola used in Apocalypse Now… but this piece is the one where not only is man responsible for burning a funeral pyre and in turn, burning the home of the gods… but the very elements of nature (the Rhine River) play a part in the destruction. “Ride of the Valkyries” sounds moving and powerful… “Götterdämmerung” sounds like death.

Apocalypse” by Menotti… this is about the rapture… in a powerful and fearsome tone. Like Berlioz’s “Dies Irae” portion of “Requiem”… this brass piece builds and swirls. Yet, unlike Berlioz… Menotti doesn’t imagine a glorious return of Christ… this is more of slow, but steady … and flowing piece that rises and rises until the end.

When the end comes… and if I witness it… I don’t imagine my feelings will reside in R.E.M lyrics. I want to believe that I will feel the power of this five classical musical pieces. The Sudanese villager will be the one stating how he feels fine.