commentary to opus 73

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Visions for large orchestra after the Apocalypse of St. John the Evangelist, op. 73 (1980)


Beginning of Visions


First Performance : June 07,1980, Berlin, Philharmonie
Berliner Philharmoniker / Aldo Ceccato

American Premiere: October 9, 2003, New Orleans
Louisianna Philharmonic Orchestra, New Orleans / Klauspeter Seibel

Australian Premiere: 26. Juli 1985, Queensland, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Music Centre
Queensland Symphony Orchestra / Werner Andreas Albert

Orchestra: - - Timp., Perc. <3 - 4>, Hrp., Strings

Duration: 22 Minutes

Publisher: Schott Music

Conventus Musicus CM 108

Video: Hummel on youtube

Introduction to the work

The many-faceted images in the Apocalypse of St. John the Evangelist inspired me to this work. In two symphonic movements, I attempted to capture something of the fascination of the revelations and their significance for our time. In this, it was not only the dramatic scenes of this vision of the end of time that played a role, but rather the obscure numerical symbolism of John’s account that influenced the selection of material and the formal construction. In composing it, I attached importance to the comprehensibility of the musical thought as well as to a clear formal development.

The work begins with a five-note chord and its modifications. A triad motif (a symbol of the divine) joins in and gains in importance as the movement progresses. With the seven-fold repetition of the note f, the introduction is complete.

Bitonal sound mixtures characterise of the following, largely melodically determined section, ending in a cadenza for vibraphone.

A series of four notes appears in contrast to the triad motif. In the development which now begins, all the compositional elements are brought together. At the climax of the movement, which is immediately de-escalated, the triad motif appears unmistakably once again in unison. A contemplative episode exploiting timbres is followed by a short hefty outburst, in turn giving way to a tranquil coda presenting again the opening material.

The 2nd movement is essentially a stormy Allegro, representing the apocalyptic horsemen.

The first four notes of a 12-tone row take over the function of a leading motif. In contrast, characteristic rhythms impart a feeling, in this movement interrupted by numerous inserted passages, of exuberant music making.

After the extended rise in intensity in slow tempo, with the leading motif as a basso ostinato, the movement ends in an extreme pp. The four triads in superimposed layers symbolise at the close of the work the four gates of the heavenly Jerusalem.

The work came into being at the instigation of the Berlin Philharmonic in the months November, 1979 to April, 1980.

Bertold Hummel




The symbolic power of the images presented to us in the Revelation of St. John have often given rise to creative effort.

Numerous works of recent decades show us that especially artists in our times have an affinity with the pictures seen in the Apocalypse. A possible reason for this is the short step needed to connect the extensive wars and human catastrophes of our century with the predictions of St. John.

The questions put by critical minds of our day are obvious: are the evangelist’s images the hallucinations of a schizophrenic, the tortured wishful thinking of one imprisoned and persecuted? John seems indeed to have perceived voices, seen figures, heard song, trumpets and thunder, received instructions and carried them out. All symptoms for a psychiatric diagnosis of "mental derangement"...

Against this weighs the value of the message, the truth contained in the visions. In a number of images, battle and victory of light over darkness are expressed. In archetypal forms, the Apocalypse represents the drama of the world and humanity and is therefore "timeless". Can we not also say that the fate of individuals as well as of whole nations are a dramatic anticipation of the end of the world, towards which we are inevitably heading?

Even long before starting the composition of the "Visions" in November, 1979, I had already taken an interest in the fascinating "Book of the Seven Seals". Many visual representations of this vivion of the last times moved me deeply. A particular impression was made on me by Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for the End of Time", completed by the composer in 1940 in captivity in Germany, and which has from that time on been a key work in my creative life.

Not only the dramatic stations of the Last Judgement motivated me as a musician, but even more the mysterious numerical symbolism of the Apocalypse, which is particularly suitable for an abstract and textless treatment. It would lead us too far to attempt a comprehensive deeply psychological interpretation. Here are simply a few numbers which play a part in my composition and their significance.

The number seven (seven stars, seven lamps, seven seals, etc.) is mythologically the transformation leading to perfection. It points towards a wholeness, achieving its perfection in individual effects and developments. .

The number six stands for attachment to material things. The number four and its multiples, particularly 12, 24 and 144, expresses a final perfection when it is related to a five or thirteen.

Starting with Hebrew numerical symbolism, WEINREB writes:

"12 without the thirteenth is a state of struggle in which God battles against gods, as it is termed in the Bible, a state of continuous, restless motion. From thirteen comes redemption.

From the comments above, it is clear that what I wish to represent with my music is not only an illustration of individual dramatic scenes but also includes the world of images and their seals. Thus, for example, the reference to the heavenly Jerusalem - the eternal city of God - with its 4x3 gates, at the end of the two-movement work, is realised with the following musical means:

Four triads are gradually superimposed on each other to produce a sound containing all 12 tones. The work, which resulted from a commission from the Berlin Philharmonic, was completed on the 1st April, 1980. It is certain that I did not avoid the danger of including personal statements of faith in my "Visions".

Bertold Hummel



Nürnberger Nachrichten, 14th November, 1983

More harsh and relentless than in the friendly "Reverenza" of 1966 is Hummel’s language in the "Visions", premièred successfully by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1980. He took inspiration from the symbolic power of the biblical scenes in the Revelation of St. John. And he achieved a substantial and dense musical language, reflecting the apocalyptic catastrophes as well as the longing for peace and the confidence of faith.

Within the multi-layered texture, weighty accents are set by the percussion forces (seven desks). Massive agglomerations contrast with delicate passages. Hummel places a religious confession of faith in a field of tension between chaos and order, between despair and redemption. Hummel’s "Book with Seven Seals" revealed itself effortlessly.


Times Picayune New Orleans (USA) October 10, 2003

For the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra's first Beethoven and Blue Jeans concert of the season, music director Klauspeter Seibel selected a late 20th century work to begin the program. Bertold Hummel's "Visions," based on the Apocalypse of the Book of St. John, is a work of great power that requires a full orchestra and a large percussion section.
Seibel and the orchestra revealed the variety of textures in the piece that make it so striking. The percussion section stood out in the performance, but the full range of the orchestra was explored by the composer -- and realized by Seibel.


Tagesspiegel (Berlin), 11th June, 1980

Bertold Hummel’s "Visions for large orchestra" in two movements after St. John’s Apocalypse, premièred here, puts all its money on imagination and sensuality in sound. The use of twelve-tone technique to organise the material and at the same time to provide motifs and themes lends to this collage in sound a structural foundation reinforcing the logic of the language of sound colour. Compared to this, the speculations in numerical symbolism which Hummel draws upon in his commentaries on the work are definitely of secondary importance, although no doubt of relevance for the ideological message of the work. But in the foreground we notice static layers of chords, extended twelve-tone cantilenas, contrasts of harshness and tenderness. A beauty of sound dominates. Hummel does not look down on references to tonal musical language, in the punctuating chorale passages for example; similarly with illustrative effects such as brass fanfares, side drum, timpani and tambourine as well as string tremoli to suggest the apocalyptic horseman. Lively applause and even a shout of "Bravo!".


Nürnberger Zeitung 14.11.1983

"None of this modern stuff, please!" - but now our Symphony Orchestra seems to have broken with its established classic and romantic repertoire: they led their season-ticket holders into the midst of shaking experiences in sound with Bertold Hummel’s "Visions" op.73 after the Apocalypse of St. John the Evangelist. In his vision of the last times, Hummel is interested not only in the dramatic events of the last judgement, but also in that obscure numerical mysticism (the world of the images with their seals) which Messiaen used in twelve-tone technique as "language communicable". Hummel’s musical idiom combines tonal and atonal passages, towering chords, polyphony, transparently interwoven melodies. Expressive spheres of lament, clamour and hope unite in a suggestive sequence of expressionist sound elements of vehemently dramatic effect. Sounds of magical force, scurrilously insect-like, turbulently swarming - although never with banal pathos as in Joseph Martin Hauer’s "Apocalyptic Fantasy" op. 5. Moments of sensitive gesture communicate something "sphere-like" reminiscent of Gustav Holst’s "Planets". Hummel’s message is always on the one hand encoded, at the same time joyfully sensual, with fantasy and irregularity but never droningly hollow. The pictorial and sensual qualities of this language, the wide spectrum from the light flurry of strings via increasingly dense or even tumultuous events up to the sudden, still moment of redemption in the almost extinguished strings - all these detailed tasks were tackled by the Symphony Orchestra under the attentive direction of Klauspeter Schibel with great commitment and awareness. Hearty applause, the composer was called onto the platform three times.


Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, 13th November, 1985

Even without exact knowledge of the fine points of the compositional technique involved, the listener is impressed by the refined combinations of sound, the variable forms and the expressive intensity of this tonally free music. The religious fervour of the first movement is based on a triad motif (symbol of the Trinity) which takes on a hymn-like brilliance in the brass above an iridescent bed of sound in the strings and percussion groups. In the second movement, apocalyptic terrors are conjured up, the "New Jerusalem" is addressed as the hope of mankind. In this, Hummel quotes the gregorian "Te deum" as well as the B-A-C-H theme with which the movement closes. Musical director Heinz Finger deciphered the visionary mysticism of this dissonant music with a fine sense of contour, precise accents and subtle gradations of sound. The mental energy, the formal consistency and the immediate expressiveness of the interpretation as well as the concentration and musicianship in all sections of the enlarged orchestra guaranteed the work a successful reception, for which the composer, present in the audience, could personally give thanks.


Das Orchester, 3/1982

Hummel represents the dramatic stages of the last judgement, its symbolic content and its obscure numerical mysticism in a pictorial musical language of rich sound and clear formal definition. This enables even the uninformed listener to find his way through the demanding music and thoughts of this work. The listener is further aided by the skilful and differentiated instrumentation of this music which uses bitonality and twelve-tone technique to say in music what cannot be put into words..


Graphical overview of the composing process


Texts from the Apocalypse for Bertold Hummel’s "VISIONS" op. 73

For performances of the "Visions", experience shows that it is good to have the relevant passages read by a speaker.

Bertold Hummel


I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty: (1,8)

On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: "Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea." I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. (1, 10-16)

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" (6,1)

I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror, granted conquest. (6,2)

Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword. (6,4)

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. (6,5)

I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth. (6,8)

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. (6,9)

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth. (6,12-13)

For the great day of his wrath has come, and who can withstand it? (6,17)

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came to me. (21,9)

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. Its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel. (21,10-11)

It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. (21,12-13)

The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass. (21,21)

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. (21,22)

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (21,23)

On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. (21,25)

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. (22,13)

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