Seven Songs for the Apocalypse

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If the imbecilic New-Age misappropriations of ancient indigenous prophecies are to be believed, then this is no ordinary day. That's right, folks: the world is ending today, and here on the Arts blog, we're going out in style. Here are seven distinct musical visions of the apocalypse, so give 'em a listen and choose your own grand finale.

1. Mozart—Requiem—"Dies Irae"

No setting of the Latin Requiem Mass is complete without the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath"), a terrifying portrayal of the Day of Judgment as described in the book of Revelation. Mozart's setting of the hymn is as good as it gets for artistic evocations of the Christian imagining of the end.

2. Robert Johnson—"If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day"

The bleak voice and visionary guitar playing of Robert Johnson holds a special place among the occult legends of Delta blues. Johnson is reputed to have sold his soul to the devil, and in this song the divine power to end the world is invoked to express his wrath at an unfaithful lover.

3. Tom Lehrer—"We Will All Go Together When We Go"

Also known as Thomas A. Lehrer '47, this hugely underappreciated son of Harvard is arguably the most brilliant musical satirist in American history (not to mention a notable mathematician). This cheery tune, dating to the most nervous years of the Cold War, confronts the horrifying possibility of nuclear annihilation with razor-sharp farcical enthusiasm: "universal bereavement—an inspiring achievement!"

4. Jimi Hendrix—"1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)"

In a particularly LSD-influenced vision of the apocalypse, Hendrix audaciously orchestrates a mystical retreat into the sea in the aftermath of a global war. The video's sonic landscape composed of dreamy underwater effects should be conducive to the "revolution in consciousness" advocated by some of the New Age theoreticians.

5. Richard Wagner—Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods)—Final scene

In the fantastically cataclysmic finale of Wagner's Ring Cycle, the hall of the gods burns in the sky, signaling the rebirth of the world. The most impossible stage directions in the history of theatre include onstage fire and flood; the score proclaims redemption as the world is cleansed of its curse.

6. Talking Heads—"(Nothing But) Flowers"

Exploring the question of what happens after the downfall of human civilization, this hilariously upbeat jam evokes the lushness of a new Garden of Eden—and a speaker who longs instead to go back to "honky tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens."

7. The Beatles—"A Day in the Life"

The list of things we'll all remember about today (if, in fact, we make it through) is more likely to be populated by normal activities than any of the disasters listed above. But this song, the crowning moment of the Beatles' crowning album, nonetheless elevates the quotidian existence, half boring and half incomprehensible, to a majestic cosmic significance. The humming cacophony of instruments builds and builds to the breaking point, as if to portray each individual's private apocalypse—only to finish on an endlessly resonant E major chord.

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