Quartet for the End of Time: be sure to listen to it

The Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen, famously performed first in a prisoner of war camp, is one of the greatest pieces of 20th Century music. It arrests you on first hearing, but you never tire of it. I’ve listened to it many times, including live, but I still haven’t penetrated its full mystery. I never will, and nor perhaps will anybody. I’m paying attention to it today because I listened to the 20 or so recorded versions being discussed on Radio 3’s Building a Libraryhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08jf6s6

The piece is played by a piano, a violin, a cello, and a clarinet–because these instruments were the only ones available in the prisoner of war camp. It is one of those pieces of music where it makes sense to read what the composer said about the piece–because Messiaen, a devout Catholic, is explicit about what inspired him and the “meaning” of each of the eight movements. His inspiration was the Book of Revelations:

“I saw a mighty angel descend from heaven, clad in mist; and a rainbow was upon his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He set his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the earth, and standing thus on sea and earth he lifted his hand to heaven and swore by Him who liveth for ever and ever, saying: There shall be time no longer; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God shall be finished.”

But it’s not about the Apocalypse, his imprisonment, or the war but about the end of time and the replacement of past and future with eternity, a peaceful eternity. The piece fades at the end into eternity. The key phrase in the piece from Revelations is “There shall be time no longer.”

Inevitably this made me think of Carlo Rovelli’s book on quantum gravity, which I read recently and has a chapter entitled “Time does not exist.”

“As we abandon the idea of space as an inert container, similarly we must abandon the idea of time as an inert flow along which reality unfurls…We must think of time as a localised phenomenon: every object in the universe has its own time running, at a pace determined by the local gravitational field.”

In Revelations the Angel has finished time, while in quantum physics man has abandoned time as an age old but ultimately misleading way to think about how the universe works.

Here’s an account of the eight movements, each with a title and words from Messiaen. (I’m listening to the relevant movement as I write about each).

I. Liturgy of Crystal

Played by the full quartet

Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

The solo clarinet is the blackbird, the violin the nightingale.

II. Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time

Played by the full quartet.

Messiaen writes: “The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello.”

III. Abyss of birds

Played by solo clarinet.

Messiean: “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

As a lover of the clarinet (and a former hopeless player) I find this a beautiful movement. It shows all that the clarinet can do.

IV. Interlude

Played by violin, cello, and clarinet.

Messiaen: “Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.”

V. Praise to the eternity of Jesus

Played by cello and piano.

Messiaen: “Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1 (King James Version))”

The marking for this movement is “infinitely  slow, ecstatic.” It’s really a beautiful cello solo with the piano simply marking time.”

VI Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets

Played by the full quartet.

Messiaen: “Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Hear especially all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.”

This is a crazy movement, disturbing after the slow ecstasy of the previous movement.

VII. Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time

Played by the full quartet.

Messiaen: “Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). – In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout compenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!”

VIII. Praise to the immortality of Jesus

Played by violin and piano.

Messiaen: “Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. 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.”

The version selected by Building a Library was played by Huguette Fernandez (violin), Guy Deplus (clarinet), Jacques Neilz (cello), and Marie-Madeleine Petit (piano). It’s a difficult piece to play, and Kate Molleson, who was making the selection, said that she’d like to have made a selection for each of the eight movements. I rather liked the version by Michael Collins (clarinet), Olli Mustonen (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello), but Molleson was very down on what she thought was heavy handed piano playing by Mustonen over the mournful cello solo in the 5th movement. To me it sounded right, like one of Time’s last acts.

But perhaps the greatest performance, sadly unrecorded, was the first performance, outdoors in the rain on 15 January 1941. Four hundred prisoners attended, and the Nazi guards sat in the front row. “Never,” said Messiean, “was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”


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