Apotheosis in Music

Throughout history, musicians have attempted to represent encounters with the divine in music, or to use musical experience to give the impression of transcending time and place. This usually occurs as a passage at the end of a piece of music, often referred to as an apotheosis. The word “apotheosis” refers to the elevation of something to divine status. Portrayals of apotheosis are common in all forms of art. Here are some well-known characters in literature and film (well, these are all film by now) that are representative of apotheosis:

  • In the Chronicles of Narnia, the Pevensie children become kings and queens.
  • In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White.
  • Also in the Lord of the Rings, the ring-bearers (Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam) undergo some type of mystical transformation.
  • In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi.
  • Harry Potter becomes a wizard.
  • Any superhero ever.

Each of these characters assume qualities or powers that elevate them to superhuman or divine status. Apotheosis is also common in visual arts, such as Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait or this statue of George Washington, in which case artistic conventions lead the viewer to associate the depicted person with deity.

Over time, various techniques in music have become associated with portrayals of the divine. These techniques include:

  • Ostinato
  • Lamination (adding layers of texture)
  • Delamination (removing layers of texture, clarifying the texture)
  • Harmonic stasis on a major harmony
  • Rhythmic liquidation (liquidation meaning characteristic elements are removed)
  • Metric liquidation
  • Hymn

Most of these techniques contribute to a sense of the suspension of time, as if after the arrival of apotheosis the music is incapable of further progression. Time turns into eternity. An apotheosis may use only a few of these techniques. Sometimes present is the hymn, a subdued passage following the apotheosis itself with hymn-like texture. This may be representative of awe or worshipfulness in the divine presence.

Apotheosis abounds in the works of Beethoven. One representative example is in the final movement of the Pastoral Symphony.

Sections with timings for this recording:

  • A – 0:00 I
  • B – 1:12 V
  • A – 2:19 I
  • C – 2:54 IV / Sequence
  • A – 4:12 I
  • B – 4:58 I
  • A – 6:17 I

This movement is in sonata-rondo form, with the outline ABA (exposition) C (development) ABA (recapitulation). In this case, the first B section is in dominant, as one would expect in an exposition, and the second B section is in tonic. The C section in this piece begins with an independent theme, followed by developmental material. The expected return of the final A section is unsatisfactory due to an extreme reduction in texture and dynamic. This sets the stage for the apotheosis at 7:43. The thickening of texture and increase of dynamic contribute to the sense of lamination. The liquidated treatment of melody, rhythm, and meter projects a grand, stately character, while the pedal point in the bass keeps the passage harmonically rooted on the major tonic harmony. A hymn follows at 8:22.

Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy is another wonderful example of apotheosis.

Climactic failure is a central rhetorical feature of this piece, in which one build-up after another fails to deliver a satisfying arrival. At 14:15, for example, we might feel as if we have finally arrived at a culmination point, but already at 15:22, the music caves in again. This leads to several short sequential passages, interrupted in similar manner, creating a rather jagged narrative. At 16:26, the bottom drops out entirely. An ostinato in the trumpets signals the start of the apotheosis, the climactic arrival the piece has been striving for. The bass gradually returns, and layer upon layer of texture, with several ostinati, soon pervade the musical fabric in typical late romantic fashion. As with the Pastoral Symphony, any distinct melodic or rhythmic writing is absent – it’s all been liquidated. After a brief cool-down passage, the hymn comes in at 17:35.

Once the 20th century comes along, final apotheoses will at times stop abruptly or fade out, implying a never-ending cycle that only stops because, as mortals, we’ve got other things to do. Stravinsky’s Les Noces is a good example of this. It also features delamination, in which various elements of the texture are gradually stripped away in a kind of fade-out.

The final chorus gives way to a bass solo at 23:19, which is punctuated with various ringing chords. At 24:05, the bass solo drops out and the ringing expands into an angular motif that repeats in an irregular ostinato. The meter and rhythm are liquidated through unpredictable irregularity, projecting itself beyond the end of the piece.

Apotheosis techniques are also common in popular genres of music. The Beatles’ Hey Jude is a good example.

After the form proper (AABABA), a coda comes along at 3:10. The most obvious feature of this coda is the ostinato. Lamination keeps interest up, as various colors and textures embellish the surface. Less obvious is the liquidation of hypermeter. Whereas phrase lengths were irregular in the first three minutes of the piece, phrase length during the coda stabilizes at four measures per phrase. The intention of the ostinato and fade-out is that it keeps going on and on and on and on and on and on and

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