WORMWOOD. For bass baritone, child soprano, rap singer, violin, cello, piano and mixed choir(s). Commissioned by the Gryphon Trio with funds from the Ontario Arts Council, the Laidlaw Foundation and the Children of Chornobyl. Texts in English from The Book of Revelation and by the composer. In nine movements. 45 minutes. 2005. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


The Movements:

1. Apsinthos/Chornobyl (bass baritone, violin, cello, piano, choir)
2. The seventh seal (bass baritone, violin, cello, piano, choir)
3. The Golden Censer (bass baritone, cello, choir)
4. The Beginning of the end (violin, cello, piano, choir)
5. The First Four Trumpets (bass baritone, violin, cello, piano, choir)
6. The Fifth Angel (rap singer, violin, cello, piano, choir)
7. The Sixth Angel (bass baritone, piano, choir)
8. The Final Plagues (bass baritone (narrating), violin, cello, piano)
9. Welcome to the New Jerusalem (child soprano, violin, cello, piano, choir)

Program notes:

Wormwood was created as a response to a commission by the Gryphon Trio, Canada’s pre-eminent piano trio, for a concert on April 9, 2006 at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. The forces available for that concert were a bass baritone (Pavlo Hunka), a number of combined choirs who participated separately in different presentations during the event and the trio. Along the way, as the ideas for the work gradually unfolded, I requested that we add a rap singer and a child soprano for isolated appearances in two movements of the work. 

As is usual with my music, many forces come together to shape the inspiration for each composition. In this case the starting point was a conversation with a young monk at Mt. Athos, a monastic community in northern Greece, nearly twenty years earlier during which I was told that “Chernobyl was predicted in The Book of Revelation”. It was not an unusual statement to come from the mouth of an Orthodox monk, given the pronounced apocalyptic tenor of eastern Christian mysticism to which I was accustomed to since childhood. This statement, however, did not make specific sense to me until one day shortly before embarking on the composition I asked Roman Borys, the cellist of the Gryphon Trio who is of Ukrainian background, whether the word ‘Chornobyl’ (the Ukrainian name for Chernobyl) meant anything in particular in his ancestral tongue. When he said that it meant ‘Wormwood’, the English word for Apsinthos (the name of the ‘death star’ in the Book of Revelation that was hurled to the earth and poisoned the planet’s waters, causing a great many people to die) I knew right away that the appropriate passages from the Book of Revelation (chapters eight and nine) would provide the bulk of the text for this work. The eerie name coincidence between a two thousand-year-old book and a contemporary catastrophic event was enough to get my creative juices flowing.  

For a person like me, steeped in Christian mysticism and in the belief that, even in its darkest moments, human history is our individual and collective response to a divine plan for the salvation of humankind, a text like The Book of Revelation is not easy to ignore or pretend it is not there. The reason why I have not used this text in any of my previous works based on Biblical subjects is probably because apocalyptic texts embody the danger of becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. This is a widely acknowledged danger that has concerned sages and students of prophesy alike throughout the centuries: for example, God instructs Daniel to keep the last prophesies of his book sealed till the “fulfillment of Time” and Nostradamus by his own admission intentionally scrambles his predictions of the future so that they do not become a tool for evil in the wrong hands. But prophesy is also a demonstration that history is not the cumulative interaction of surface causalities or haphazard events, such as natural disasters or human error; that history is not ruled by chance but by a far more complex and purposefully designed plan for humanity’s spiritual ascent. Finally, like in the Book of Jonas, prophesy is a warning rather than a fixing of events that are predestined regardless of our personal and collective response. The fact that prophesy is fulfilled at all is an indication that we, individually and as a species, have not heeded to its warning. Due to this inherent complexity and nature of prophesy, I have avoided apocalyptic texts in my work, preferring instead devotional texts. Until now, that is. 

While meditating on the apparent appropriateness of the selected texts from the Book of Revelation for this particular project, I remembered that years ago I read about a collective study of this book by a prayer group in Virginia Beach in the early 1940’s under the guidance of Edgar Cayce, America’s greatest prophet and one of the most powerful influences on my own thinking and work. According to this study, the Book of Revelation is a detailed description of the transformative processes taking place within the body, mind and soul of an individual who begins to resonate with the “Christ pattern”, or “wears on the Christ”, as mystical Christianity would call the same phenomenon. Thus, the ‘seven churches’, ‘seven seals’, ‘seven angels’, ‘seven bowls’ etc. refer to various transformations—and resistances to such transformations thereof—within the body which are associated with the seven Chakras or energy centers, which in turn are associated with the various glands of the endocrine system. Central to this approach is the belief that a historical meeting with the triumphant Christ will not take place in the arena of human history before it takes place in the form of a mystical union within us. Therefore, the ultimate battle between good and evil, the Armageddon, is first and foremost an internal process of spiritual transformation and emancipation. It is this internal process that is being described in John’s Book of Revelation. Part of it is the description of a transpersonal process common to all human beings, while another part describes John’s own personal enlightenment as he, in a state of heightened awareness, was witnessing this transformation taking place within him. According to this account, the nature of religious experience within individuals is not uniform. In the opening, John distinguishes between seven such states calling them the “seven churches”. He begins his writing by criticizing the false comfort that many churches/individuals find in their own recipes for collective/personal salvation; where potentially (but not always) ‘empty’ ritual becomes a substitute for profound spiritual experience. 

Once I decided to explore this interior aspect of the Book of Revelation in Wormwood, it became clear that I would need to also add my own texts which redirect the universal and apocalyptic towards the internal and personal. So I copied the text from the eighth and ninth chapters from a small compact Bible (which two ‘Gideon’ missionaries gave me on my way to work just a few days before embarking on this composition), turned the prose narrative into ‘stanzas’ with minimal interference with the original text, and then interpolated stanzas of my own text between the original ones which matched the rhythm and flow of the original text. At the end of this process I had what amounted to lyrics, ready for musical setting. 

Lyrics were appropriate for what I had in mind for the music. Apocalyptic texts, like the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass crave for ‘apocalyptic’ music treatment, like in Verdi’s Requiem or Pederecki’s Passion, and I have certainly visited that route in my own earlier work Constantinople. In Wormwood, however, I wanted to explore other musical traditions in which Biblical text has found a comfortable home in the past, and which were perhaps lying outside my own musical radar screen. It was partly because of this, and partly because of the fact that, as I was meditating on the Chernobyl disaster, another disaster in New Orleans was occupying the television screens of North America and the thoughts of people around the world, (and yet another one soon after than in Pakistan and North India), that my attention was also drawn to more contemporary events of an equally apocalyptic nature. If this work was to alert us to an apocalyptic ‘here’ and ‘now’ and to the mounting pressure upon individuals for their transformative process to reach a critical stage by an imminent deadline, then the music should urgently invoke not only the music of the past, but the ‘here’ and ‘now’ of our current culture. The various popular music idioms explored in the music of Wormwood stem from this desire to come to grips with this ‘here’ and ‘now’. 

The predominance of Gospel music in this work reflects another preoccupation of mine during the past few years that has to do with how Christian fundamentalism is shaping current American politics. It has been difficult for me to reconcile how communities of decent people living according to Christian principles can identify with, and become the power base of, politics of greed, exploitation and blatant disregard for human life and welfare; how we can consider ourselves to be pious and not demand of ourselves and of our elected representatives to be “our brother’s keeper”. Unless one is ready to admit widespread hypocrisy at a frightening scale, something that my belief in humanity’s potential for good will never allow me to accept, some other ‘decoding’ of this picture is necessary. Perhaps at fault is the literal interpretation of scripture, particularly apocalyptic scripture. It feels that the fundamentalist view of Middle-Eastern politics has more to do with the desire to turn the Book of Revelation into a self-fulfilling prophesy than with any real concern about the welfare of millions of people who suffer daily to no small extend because of (our and their) wrongly conceived religious devotion. The exuberant and militant tenor of The Seventh Seal, the second movement of Wormwood, reflects this attitude. It is the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality mistaken for religious sentiment, exhilarating as the music may be otherwise. Yet, in spite the militant fervour of this movement, the text also reveals an opening up to the internal process of “wearing on the Christ”; it represents a ‘station of the Cross’ in our own spiritual unfolding. 

This internal progress of spiritual emancipation, which is also the deepest structure of this work, does not follow a continuous ascending trajectory. It rises and falls and, consistent with a number of spiritual disciplines including Buddhism, it falls to its lowest just before the moment of enlightenment. Thus, after The Golden Censer, the third movement of the work, which represents a timeless moment of spiritual repose followed by the brief apocalyptic moment of The Beginning of the End, the fifth movement returns to the musical heritage of The Seventh Seal, but this time it deconstructs the spirit of this earlier movement and examines its makeup, unconvinced by its exuberance and idealistic fervor. The First Four Trumpets, the fifth movement, is a central turning point in the work. It starts with the exuberance of the earlier music, at a point reminiscent of the 1960’s ‘apocalyptic’ pop song The Age of Aquarius, but it also contains a twelve-tone row, initially introduced in the first movement which appears with increasing frequency throughout this movement, leading the music into a descending motion towards darkness. This descending motion continues over the next three movements: In The Fifth Angel, the baritone soloist is replaced by a rap singer in a mechanical, rhythmically unsettling rendering of the Biblical texts, while the music of The Sixth Angel reflects on the music of the third movement (its ‘Byzantine’ chanting for the baritone and the more spacious choral writing). This stylistic and thematic mirroring in the structure, however, does not impede on the constant, forward moving, deeper structure of the work as a whole. In this sense, The Sixth Angel, has a sense of dramatic and tragic tension that is absent from The Golden Censer, to which it is stylistically indebted. It is part of the consciousness of having fallen spiritually, which is more fully realized in the following movement, The Final Plagues. Here, in this penultimate movement where the twelve-tone row and its timbral-textural extensions reach a dark culminating point and, additionally, imply an unholy association with the Gospel music of The Seventh Seal, the baritone soloist is simply narrating the text, having no longer any energy or inclination to sing. 

The use of the piano trio in this work is multifold: sometimes it is comfortably cast in its traditional role, like in the first and fourth movements); sometimes it is cast as a pop band accompanying the lead singer (the baritone) and the background vocalists (the choir), like in the second, fifth, sixth and ninth movements. Yet at other times an entire movement profiles only one of the three instruments, the cello in The Golden Censer, or the piano in The Sixth Angel. Even though the music of Welcome to the New Jerusalem, the last movement of Wormwood, does not share any thematic or stylistic material with the rest of the work (as, I suspect, Enlightenment does not share any understandings with the processes that lead up to it), all the tensions, hidden symmetries and deeper structure of the work converge towards it. Welcome to the New Jerusalem is sung by a child soprano, a metaphorical last-minute addition to the cast of characters in the work, and for quite a while it is accompanied by a solo violin, the only instrument of the piano trio not individually profiled so far in the work. The child soprano represents the spiritual rebirth of the central character in the work, the baritone, consistent with Jesus’ admonition “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3) or Isaiah’s prophesy “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). The music and the text of this song came to me almost at once one morning during a walk with my wife in the Durham forest close to our home, outside of Uxbridge, Ontario. I am grateful to God for these moments, for they happen when least expected and with no effort or labour on my part. In some ways, and in a manner consistent with the deeper structure of Wormood, the entire work can be seen as a creative anticipation of this particular moment. It was only then that everything that precedes Welcome to the New Jerusalem made complete sense to me. Over the years of composing music, I have grown to trust that the spiritual journey which composition is should not be rationally premeditated but should instead be based on spiritual trust and on the belief that, when a composer sets up him/herself as a spiritual channel, something will ultimately happen that will redeem this trust and faith and will make this enterprise worthwhile for others who, like the composer, have embarked on a similar spiritual journey of self-discovery. For Wormwood, the flowering of this trust, the moment of enlightenment, was this vision of a child leading the procession of nine movements (the numerological number of the Christ) to its luminous conclusion in the form of a simple song.

The Texts:
(Texts in italics: from The Book of Revelation
All other texts by the composer)

1. Apsinthos/Chornobyl

Apsinthos, Chornobyl.
Breaking the seventh seal.

2. The seventh seal

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal,
There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal,
There was silence in my heart from all want and desire.

Then I saw:
The seven angels that stand before God,
And seven trumpets were given to them.

And I felt:
The seven candles alight in my flesh,
My seven altars ablaze with His fire.

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal,
There was silence in heaven for about half an hour


When the Lamb broke the seventh seal,
There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal,
There was judgment and trampling of all worldly power.

Then I heard:
A call for war by the princes of night;
Who trade their birthright for nefarious might
But their schemes are all in vain:
The End of Time is the end of their time,
The seven angels are standing, the trumpets are raised and
The Lamb’s on the throne (and my altars ablaze)
This is the Time!

3. The Golden Censer

And another angel came and stood at the altar,
holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him,
so that he might add to the prayers of all the saints
on the golden altar which was before the throne.
And the smoke of the incense with the prayers of the saints
went up before God out of the angel’s hand.

4. The Beginning of the end

Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire
of the altar and threw it to the earth;
and there followed peals of thunder
and sounds and flashes of lightning
and an earthquake.
And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets
prepared themselves to sound them.

5. The First Four Trumpets

The first trumpet sounded,
And there came hail and fire mixed with blood
And they all were thrown to the earth;
And a third of the earth was burned up,
And a third of the trees were burned up,
And all the green grass was burned up
Burned up.

The first sign was given,
And there was doubt and anger mixed with fear
And they were tearing at my heart;
And a third of my body was burning,
And my head and my eyes were burning,
And my skin and my flesh were burning
All day and all night.

The second angel sounded,
And a great mountain burning with fire
Was thrown into the sea;
And a third of all the ships were destroyed.

The second sign was given,
And a surge of selfishness and mistrust
Was eating at my soul
And a third of all my flesh was destroyed

Now, the third angel sounded,
And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch
And it fell on a third of the rivers,
And on the springs of waters.

Now the third sign was given,
And a great force overcame me, fearsome in its wake
And it conquered a third of my Gonads,
And all the springs of Thymus.

And the name of the star is called Wormwood
And a third of the waters became wormwood
And many men died from the waters,
‘Cause they were made bitter.

The fourth angel sounded,
and a third of the sun
and a third of the moon
and a third of the stars
were struck.

The fourth sign was given,
And a part of my mind
And a part of my heart
And my hope and my faith
Were gone.

6. The Fifth Angel

Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying up in mid-heaven, crying with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to all those that dwell on Earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpets by the three angels who are about to sound!”

Then the fifth angel sounded,
And I saw a star from heaven
Which had fallen to the earth;

And the key of the bottomless pit was given to him. And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke went up out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke of the pit.

Then out of the smoke came locusts upon the earth. And power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man. And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they long to die and death flees from them.

7. The Sixth Angel

Then the sixth angel sounded,
and I heard a voice from the four horns
of the golden altar which stands before God.

A voice saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who’re bound at the great river Euphrates.”

And the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and the day and month and year, were released, so that they would kill a third of mankind.

8. The Final Plagues

And this is how I saw in the vision the horses and those who sate on them: the riders had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone and the heads of the horses are like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brimstone.

And this is how I feel while the forces of the abyss are waging war within me: Anger towards everyone and everything; hopelessness; a feeling that nothing matters any more; a sense of lurking danger and fear, impenetrable like the thickest fog—like walking in a dark alley during a moonless night; like the battle is being lost and the outcome of the war uncertain at best. Where is God when we most need Him? Where are His promises when everything around us is falling apart?

A third of mankind was killed by these three plagues,
By the fire and the smoke and the brimstone
Which proceeded out of their mouths.
For the power of the horses is in their mouths and their tails;
For their tails are like serpents and have heads,
And with them they do harm.

But where are those moments of connection, of belonging, of feeling like being looked after? Now I feel like a target, with everyone aiming at me and with nowhere to run. Everyone projects the worse in them and I am unable to resist the desire to identify with the worse in me. Where has that child gone that I once was; the child I can barely remember? Who is this person that nowadays I habitually refer to as “I”?

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues,
Did not repent of the works of their hands
 so as not to worship demons,
And the idols of gold and of silver and of brass
and of stone and of wood,
Which can neither see nor hear nor walk;
And they did not repent of their murders
Nor of their sorceries
Nor of their immorality
Nor of their thefts

I know that there is another way; I know that there is a way out of this hell that I have created and in which I indulge for its perverted pleasure. But I feel paralyzed in my indulgence, in my unwillingness to stand up and face life bravely and acceptingly. I am more and more trapped in a spider’s web of my own doing, surrendering to the inevitable demise that looms ahead; a demise that I am helping to bring about by my own unwillingness to act. Bleakness and darkness surround me. They are sweet, pleasurable and numbing at the same time: they require no action on my part. They come about naturally and inevitably when I do nothing at all.

And yet at these moments when I feel lost, there’s that glimmer of light. Why is it that I can only sense it at moments like this? Will I find the strength to open the door and let the light in? Will I find the strength to encounter myself face to face and forgive? The gate is slowly opening. The light is pouring in. [pause] Ah!...the Light!...The Light! The painful Light! The painful, blissful Light! The Light of God!...He’s standing at the Gate!

Welcome to my abode! Welcome to the New Jerusalem!

9. Welcome to the New Jerusalem
[“and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)]

Listen to the Morning Star
A new world has begun
No pain here, where no darkness abides
No hopelessness and no fear.

Listen to the prophets of old
Who have foretold this day
A new world, like no other before
Of spirit and light.

Welcome to the New Jerusalem
Where the Light has shone
Welcome to the New Jerusalem
Let the New Earth be born.

Fear not, for these dark days shall pass
And in their place there’ll be peace
The promise given so long ago
Shall be fulfilled in our days.

Doubt not, for in doubt there is fear
And fear’s the death of the soul.
Wisdom shall pour out of the mouth of a child
And it shall heal our world.

Welcome to the New Jerusalem
Where the Light has shone
Welcome to the New Jerusalem
Let the New Earth be born.

Hush! Hear the sound of the dawn
Awakening the soul;
The life-affirming harmony
The music of the spheres.
Love all, for within Love resides
A universe of law and grace;
The mystery of creation;
The memory of All.
Welcome to the New Jerusalem
Where the Light has shone
Welcome to the New Jerusalem
Let the New Earth be born.
Welcome to the New Jerusalem. Now!

Premiere performance: April 9, 2006, 7:00 PM. Pavlo Hunka, bass baritone, Lauren Saunders, child soprano, The Elmer Iseler Singers, the Amadeus Choir,  The Orpheus Choir, The Vesnivka Choir, The Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir and The Gryphon Trio under the direction of Lydia Adams. Chornobyl 20: Memorial Celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster sponsored by the Children of Chornobyl. Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto, Canada.

Reviews and Comments:

I am writing this having just returned from the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival closing gala concert. As a frequent concert goer and young composer myself, I was in absolute awe at "Wormwood," which was easily the best contemporary work I've heard at the Festival in many years. Thank you so much for that gem! A. G. Ottawa, Ontario.

At the reception, L. was approached by so many people who were touched by the song, "Welcome to the New Jerusalem"....many of the people had personal stories of why this song hit a special chord with them. We heard many stories of pain, loss and death, and how the message in this song was an inspiration to them. D.C. Toronto, Ontario.

One of the Elmer Iseler Singers lost her father yesterday morning and  decided to come and sing him into his next life with Roman's beautiful Requiem and Christos'  "Welcome To the New Jerusalem." It is a reminder that the words have a constant and personal meaning to those with loss. L. A. Toronto, Ontario.


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