Quartet for the End of Time, Olivier Messiaen

Kline Mahoning 1956 [cropped]

The story of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941)’s genesis is widely known, oft repeated, but what is often ignored in the telling is the remarkable nature of what was produced, given what one would have expected in the circumstances. Born in the midst of war, death, frost and famine, the Quartet, though explicitly apocalyptic, is not a fiery Requiem, striving to translate divine wrath, but rather an intensely devotional, transcendent composition, that reaches a realm in which such worldly troubles matter little, or not at all.

Imprisoned in the Stalag VIIIA German prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz in the winter of 1941, the young and brilliant French composer Olivier Messiaen, then in his thirties but already of considerable reputation, had the good fortune to encounter a guard who lent him paper and pencils and a secluded place to work. Three other musicians – a cellist, a clarinetist, and a violinist, were also imprisoned, and Messiaen thus composed a quartet for those instruments and a piano for him: an unusual combination, but not unheard of. It was the Quartet for the End of Time, where ‘Time’ playfully referred both to the world’s end, but also the end of time as meter: indeed the Quartet does away with strict rhythmic meter almost entirely, drifting as it does in a cosmic stillness.

Messiaen was inspired by a dream of his, drawn from the King James version’s Book of Revelation, which he transcribed in the score’s preface: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire… and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth… And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever… that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished.”

Played in the chilly night for the prisoners and the German guards, Messiaen’s meditative chamber suite was received with rapt silence: “Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding,” he later recalled. So impressed was his guard patron that Messiaen was smuggled back to Paris to continue his work. It is little surprise, for the Quartet is one of the most remarkable compositions of the twentieth century. A deeply committed Catholic, Messiaen composed not a lament of war or death, or a bitter strike at oppression, but instead a paean to the world beyond (and above) of transcendence, redemption, and even, of joy.

Messiaen composed eight movements for the Quartet, seven for the days of creation, with an eighth for the eternity after. The eternal is a leitmotif of the piece: we catch glimpses of its gentle stillness in the first movement (the ‘Liturgy of Crystal’), and the cello and violin solos of movements five and eighth strive for it as a soul might in its ascension. The Quartet cannot but be understood in religious terms, nor would Messiaen have wished it to be interpreted otherwise. And indeed, I doubt even the most worldly of us can endure the haunting sublimity of the final movement (‘Praise to the immortality of Jesus’) without feeling momentarily detached from all that is concrete.

Below is a recording of the Quartet for the End of Time, followed by a brief listening guide.

I. Liturgie de cristal: The ‘liturgy of crystal’, which introduces the full quartet, is intended to evoke both the early morning strains of birdsong (the blackbird of the clarinet at 0:00, and nightingale of the violin at 0:10), as well as a brief glimpse into the sounds of paradise. Notice immediately the rhythm-less suspension of the movement’s sinewy melodies. The cello, meanwhile, plays circular, five-note melody, eternally repeating.

II. Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps: The second movement introduces the angel who announces the end of Time. Here, the cascading piano chords of the angel’s presence (at 0:00 and 5:20), brackets the eternal stillness of heaven (0:47).

III. Abîme des oiseaux: At a funereal pace, the clarinet alone here depicts the melancholy abyss of time (0:00), until (at 2:21) the birds are announced, whose playful, jubilant warbles entirely negate the previous mood. Extremely minimalist for its time, much of the beauty here is in the texture of the clarinet’s voicing.

IV. Intermède: For violin, cello and clarinet, the short scherzo interlude is recalls some melodies of the second movement before (0:35) shifting into a rather playful, melodic chamber tune (though not for long). Again, the birdsong in the clarinet part is evident.

V. Louange à l’éternité de Jésus: The first of the two haunting louanges (‘prayers’), the sixth movement reflects on the eternal Word of Jesus, played by the duet cello and piano. The cello’s reverent melodic phrase (0:00) – whose tempo is literally marked as ‘infinitely slow’ – is answered by gentle, reassuring piano chords (0:22). Messiaen wrote that the melody “stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance.” The cello’s final, fading notes ends with a sense of infinite yearning (7:11).

VI. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes: Sidestepping harmony entirely, and with jagging rhythms, the full quartet here plays a ‘dance of fury’ in striking unison, recalling the seven trumpets that announce the apocalypse. Messiaen wrote of a “Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness.” Note the growing wrath, culminating in the explosive restatement (at 5:09 and again briefly at 6:03).

VII. Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps: A ‘tangle of rainbows’ announces the reappearance of the Angel, cloaked in clouds, in the seventh movement, recalling the second. The early leading melody is the cello’s, with the swirling cloud wisps of the piano (both at 0:00), though this is interrupted by cascading piano chords and violent string/clarinet interjections at 1:40. The thud of the piano (7:06) ends the movement (and Time?) abruptly.

VIII. Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus: The second louange, this one to Jesus as man and flesh, replaces the cello’s line in the fifth movement with the more delicate violin. Of the melody, Messiaen wrote that its “slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.” Words fail in describing its power, though it might well be the most arresting lines ever composed. The yearning height of the fifth movement is reached in the violin’s ascent at 6:56… and then, at 7:41, transcended into the eternal.

The recording above is superb, arguably peerless RCA edition, recorded in 1989 – another end to another time – by the Tashi Quartet’s Peter Serkin (Piano), Ida Kavafian (Violin), Fred Sherry (Cello), and Richard Stoltzman (Clarinet), which is still widely available. There are some twenty recordings available, another highlight of which is the EMI Classics edition presided by none other than Messiaen’s wife and creative partner Yvonne Loriod.

Messiaen was immensely prolific composer, and any recommended selections cannot be possibly be taken to be representative, but most and justifiably celebrated alongside the quartet is Theme and Variations (1931) for violin and piano. The decidedly more bombastic Turangalîla Symphony (1946-8) provides another side of his work altogether. For a sense of history, another vibrant and near-contemporaneous take on the chamber quartet, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet (1944), is of interest.

Artwork: Mahoning, Franz Kline

by Simon Torracinta