Schafer Envisions Fire, Brimstone For End Of Time

R. Murray Schafer
At the Luminato Festival, composer R. Murray Schafer will serve up ‘Apocalypsis’ on a bed of fire and brimstone.
(Photo by Tanja Tiziana)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — It’s unlikely that anyone has ever accused Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer of smallness of vision. Many of his compositions are expansive music-theater works that present elaborate mythologies on an epic scale. One of his largest, Apocalypsis, will be presented June 26-28 at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. The production, at the Sony Centre for Performing Arts, will be performed by close to 1,000 singers, dancers, actors, and instrumentalists. Furthermore, the piece will be broadcast throughout Canada by CBC Radio, and, according to Jörn Weisbrodt, artistic director of the Festival, there are plans to release a commercial CD recording.

Apocalypsis in rehearsal
‘Apocalypsis,’ inspired by the Book of Revelation, seems rooted in ancient ritual.

With Apocalypsis, Schafer turned for inspiration to an author whose visions were also grand in scale. St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation  in the First Century A.D., and in this text he prophesied the destruction of the world during the End Times. Whether divine revelation, allegory, or hallucination, John’s vivid accounts offered plenty of material for Schafer. In the composer’s libretto for Apocalypsis (and Schafer is always his own librettist), John, the Four Living Creatures, the Whore of Babylon, and the Antichrist are all served up on a bed of fire and brimstone.

Luminato’s production is only the second full staging that Apocalypsis has received. The premiere took place 35 years ago, in the small city of London, Ontario, presented by the University of Western Ontario. I was at the 1980 performance, in London’s Centennial Concert Hall — not as a critic, but as a chorister (fourteenth baritone to the left, as I recall). I was also involved in designing and constructing special instruments called “angel wings” that are called for in Schafer’s score. They were large aluminum thunder-sheets noisily shaken by means of a rope-and-pulley system, and they produced a glorious racket.

Whore of Babylon on seven-headed beast in Russian engraving from the 1800s.
The Whore of Babylon sits on a seven-headed beast in this 19th-century engraving.

At the time of the first Apocalypsis, Schafer was just turning 50, but he still carried himself as a youthful iconoclast. He had not gone the route of many North American composers, with an extensive formal education followed by a tenured academic appointment. Schafer, by contrast, was a college dropout, and a largely self-taught composer who lived on a remote farm in central Ontario. It wasn’t hard to see parallels between his hermetic lifestyle and John’s exile on the island of Patmos.

Apocalypsis isn’t “sacred music” in any ordinary sense of the term. If it could be described as a Christian work at all, it invokes the origins of Christianity, before the  cathedrals were built, and the masses, chorales, hymns, and other musics we associate with institutional Christianity today were composed. At times, Apocalypsis seems rooted in even older ritualistic traditions — maybe Greek pantheism, or some kind of Judaic mysticism.

Lemi Ponifasio is the stage director for "Apocalypsis."
Lemi Ponifasio will direct nearly 1,000 performers in the immense, multi-faceted work.

The first half, subtitled “John’s Vision,” is a multifaceted pageant. There’s a deliberately rough-hewn quality about this music: it opens with a phalanx of brass blasting long, harsh notes, while John, in the throes of spiritual possession, chants, “In the midst of life, I have had a vision,” over and over. John’s vision involves plenty of crashing percussion, some fiercely energetic choreography, and a fearsome quartet of shrieking sopranos (the Four Living Creatures), among other apparitions. The second half is subtitled “Credo.” In contrast with the cacophony of Part I, Part II is tranquil and ethereal — a music-of-the-spheres wash of choral voices, accompanied by strings and distant (pre-recorded) bells.

The first production of Apocalypsis stretched the resources of the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Music to their limits. (However, it wasn’t quite on the scale of Luminato’s massive undertaking, and was staged by a mere 300 performers.) In rehearsals, Schafer was a strident, hectoring force, clearly agitated when student musicians were unable or unwilling to give him what he wanted. Yet somehow the thing came together, and — if I may say so, as one of the performers — the premiere was an awe-inspiring event. Toronto Star music critic William Littler called it “one of the most spectacular events in the history of Canadian music.”

Then Apocalypsis sat on the shelf for more than three decades — its sheer size proving too daunting for just about any choral society, its theatrical demands placing it outside the purview of most symphony orchestras. Perhaps an opera company might have staged it. But it’s not exactly an opera, and none made the attempt.

Weisbrodt was appointed Luminato’s artistic director, in charge of Toronto’s annual arts festival, in 2012. German-born, he came to Luminato from running Robert Wilson’s RW Work Ltd. in New York. “When I came to Canada, I had never heard of Murray Schafer,” he confessed in a recent interview. “But to me he’s one of the most important classical composers of our time, in the rank of John Adams and Philip Glass.”

His discovery of Apocalypsis came through a recording of the 1980 performance he obtained from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Listening to the piece one day as he was driving in his car was such an intense experience, he recalls, that he feared he might crash on the highway.

In Weisbrodt’s opinion, the work addresses fundamental questions of human existence. “How do we end, and how did we begin? It’s about the essence of art — the journey from chaos to order. First part is the destruction of the universe. The second part is about the possibility of a new vision.”

He goes on to say that Apocalypsis fits in well with Luminato’s mandate. “Whatever we program, we have to do things that no one else is doing in Toronto. And it really represents the city of Toronto, in all its ethnic diversity. I always say that my ideal audience is the subway. Here, we’ve put the subway on stage — it’s black, it’s white, it’s Asian, it’s native people.”

At 85, Schafer is now a soft-spoken eminence grise. (In a rehearsal for Luminato’s Apocalypsis that I attended, he sat to one side and discreetly conferred with stage director Lemi Ponifasio and conductor David Fallis.) Schafer is much honored in his native land, even if — as Weisbrodt implies — his international stature isn’t all that it should be. He might aptly be described as “world-famous in Canada.”

In his 2012 autobiography, My Life On Earth and Elsewhere, Schafer notes that he had 500 copies of the score of Apocalypsis printed, following its London, Ontario, premiere. With laconic irony he adds, “I still have 485 of them in my basement.” But now Apocalypsis is on the boards again — certainly bigger, and perhaps better than it was before. Perhaps the sprawling work will find a wider audience this time, and won’t have to wait another 35 years for a third production.

Learn more about Apocalypsis at Luminato and purchase tickets here.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and many other publications.