In All Saints Church in York is found one of the oldest and most beautiful examples of medieval stained glass in Europe. Particularly dramatic is the so-called ‘Pricke of Conscience’ window – based on a Middle English poem of the same name – which includes fifteen panels, each of which depicts a scene form the last fifteen days of the world. In the first nine panels we witness the physical destruction of the earth, followed by buildings (including All Saints itself) before mankind and all living things are destroyed. This is a simple moralistic tale to persuade sinners to repent; at the top of the window the virtuous are escorted into heaven whilst at the base others are taken by demons into hell.
In my Apocalypse I present the text which is drawn from the Pricke of Conscience poem in its original form and simultaneously in a modern translation (by poet Daniela Nunnari and myself) in a setting for unaccompanied chorus with high soprano soloist.
The narrative unfolds in the chronological sequence one might expect but the text constantly refers back to earlier events in the sequence to create a sort of montage which grows in density and complexity as the apocalypse becomes apparent, just as the eye might explore the detail of the window at will to create one’s own disaster movie, complete with flashbacks and premonitions.
The central soprano soloist – joined mid-way by two additional voices at either side of the choir – are the leading protagonists in the drama, angels of the apocalypse perhaps, extending the range of the choir both in terms of pitch and space.
Apocalypse was first performed by The 24 at York St John University, and was performed in Copenhagen and broadcast by the Danish Radio Vocal Ensemble (Robert Hollingworth) in February 2016.
On the first of the fifteen days
The sea shall rise (as the book says)
About as high as a mountain,
Full forty cubits tall for certain.
And the waves will rise up and stand
Just like a hill does on the land.
On the second day the sea will retreat,
that men will see what lies beneath.
On the third day, the sea will seem plain
And return to its calm state again
Just like it had been before,
rising or falling no more.
On the fourth day, there will a wonder be:
The strangest creatures of the sea
Shall come together and make such a clamouring
That it shall be hideous to men’s’ hearing,
But what their clamour will signify
No-one may know but God almighty.
On the fifth day, the sea will burn
And all other waters as they run.
And this will last from sunrise
Until the sun sets in the skies.
On the sixth day a bloody dew
Will hang from trees, and spring up on the grass below.
On the seventh day, tall buildings will fall,
Along with great castles, then towers and all.
On the eighth day, hard rocks and stones
Will strike together all at once
And each of them shall the other down cast
And against each other hurtle fast.
So that each stone on a different path
Will sunder the other into three parts.
On the ninth day there will be a great earth-quake
And all countries on earth will shake.
So great a noise there was never heard,
Than this one now, in all the world.
On the tenth day – for so it is given
The earth shall be made plain and even,
For hills and valleys shall turned be
Into desert, and made even to see.
The eleventh day, people will come out
Of caves and holes, and wend about
Like madmen, who’ve lost their wit;
And no-one shall speak to the others they meet.
On the twelfth day, the stars and all
The planets from high heavens shall fall.
On the thirteenth day shall dead men’s bones
Be put back together and rise all alone,
And above their graves they will stand;
This shall befall throughout the land.
On the fourteenth day all that live then
Shall die: children, men and women.
For they will with them rise again
Who before were dead - to joy, or pain.
On the fifteenth day, this shall betide:
All the world where we now reside
Will burn with flames which will not dispel.
Until the utter end of Hell.