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Five Things to Know About Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

In a prisoner-of-war camp during the early days of World War II, French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) created his chamber music masterpiece Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Rooted in his deeply Christian faith, it is inspired by the New Testament Book of Revelation. Let’s take a closer look at how Messiaen rose above his horrendous surroundings to make beautiful music.

Composing the Quartet

Messiaen was called to active duty by the French Army in 1939, serving as a hospital nurse. Soon after, he was captured by German troops and sent to Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany. According to violinist Jean Le Boulaire, who performed in the quartet’s premiere, conditions in the camp were harsh: Nearly 50,000 French and Belgian prisoners were huddled in 30 barracks built to hold 500 prisoners each. Prisoners were underfed and unprotected from the brutally cold weather.

“When I arrived at the camp, I was stripped of all my clothes, like all the prisoners,” Messiaen said. “But naked as I was, I clung fiercely to a little bag of miniature scores that served as consolation when I suffered. The Germans considered me to be completely harmless, and since they still loved music, not only did they allow me to keep my scores, but an officer also gave me pencils, erasers, and some music paper.” And so he began to compose.

Messiaen started with movements that referenced passages from his earlier works. The serene “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”) for cello and piano was roughly based on a part of Fête des belles eaux (Celebration of the Beautiful Waters), a piece for six ondes martenots, while the roots of “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus” (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”) were also in the 1930 organ piece Diptyque. The otherworldly “Abîme des oiseaux” (“Abyss of the Birds”) was composed for clarinetist Henri Akoka before the two were transported to Görlitz. Once Messiaen was given access to a piano, he began composing the remaining five movements. The Intermède (Interlude) was the first movement completely written in the camp, and it was rehearsed in the camp’s bathroom.

Listen to “Les fusses” from Fête des belles eaux

The First Performance

Through the years, Messiaen himself contributed to some of the lore surrounding the premiere—including the story of cellist Êtienne Pasquier playing an instrument with only three strings and thousands attending the premiere. In an interview done shortly before his death, Pasquier said his cello actually had all four strings, and an audience of approximately 400 prisoners and German officers attended the first performance. There is no contemporary record of the premiere. As for other stories, Messiaen’s piano did have keys that would randomly stick when played, and conditions in the hut that also served as the camp’s theater were freezing. A prisoner designed a program book, and it was stamped with an official “approved” in German. The performance was on the evening of January 15, 1941, and for many in attendance it was the first time they heard chamber music of any kind. “Never had I been listened to with so much attention and understanding,” Messiaen recalled.

Listen to “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus”

The Music

Messiaen wrote the piece for the instruments and players available to him: clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. This unconventional combination presented some challenges in tonal blend. He brilliantly overcame them by grouping them in more conventional chamber-music settings: clarinet, cello, and piano; violin and piano; violin, cello, and piano. Each movement relates to the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, vividly depicted in The Cloisters Apocalypse, an illuminated manuscript from around 1330. The quartet’s fury unfolds in whirling rhythms, but alongside them a vision of eternity sings beautifully in passages of ethereal calm.

Listen to “Liturgie de cristal”

Messiaen and Synesthesia

“I see colors when I hear sounds,” Messiaen said in an interview, “but I don’t see colors with my eyes. I see colors intellectually in my head.” This condition is called synesthesia; it’s when a perception in one sense triggers another. In the piano part of the “Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps” (“Vocalise for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”), Messiaen refers to cascades of “blue-orange” chords—the first time he mentions specific colors in one of his scores. He may have been inspired by the phantasmagoric color imagery of the Book of Revelation, but also by seeing the Northern Lights—which he first thought to be hallucinations brought on by hunger and cold during the winter of 1940–1941.

Listen to “Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps”

Messiaen and Bird Song

Messiaen had a lifelong fascination with bird song, notating and including bird melodies in his music. He once wrote, “I doubt that one can find in any human music, however inspired, melodies and rhythms that have the sovereign freedom of bird song.” He mentions blackbirds and nightingales in his preface to the Quartet for the End of Time, and while he doesn’t specifically assign an instrument to a particular bird, the violin does sing like the nightingale and the clarinet the blackbird. The nearly eight-minute-long clarinet solo movement “Abîme des oiseaux” (“Abyss of the Birds”) is a tour-de-force in which nature and spirituality are joined.

Listen to “Abîme des oiseaux”

Watch the Quartet for the End of Time

Tune in Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 7 PM (Eastern) for the digital premiere of a performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, featuring New York Philharmonic’s principal players Carter Brey and Anthony McGill with pianist Inon Barnatan and former New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert. This performance is presented by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Live Arts, as part of Carnegie Hall’s Voices of Hope festival.

 

Images from The Cloisters Apocalypse courtesy of The Cloisters Collection, 1968; photo of Messiaen’s bird-song notation courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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