Review Summary: Music for eternity.
One the most delicate and influential pieces of music during the mid twentieth century was not first heard in a bright and colourful French auditorium, with frocks, tuxedos and gowns. Instead, it was performed on a viciously cold evening in barrack number 27 of the now infamous Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp deep within Germany’s darkened borders of 1941. Of all places music has been premiered, and possibly will ever be premiered, the dank surroundings of snow-covered wood, stiff wire and towering watch-posts, seems like one of the most unlikely for a lively French composer to derive any kind of musical influence. The piece was Olivier Messiaen
’s “Quartet for the End of Time” (Quatour pour la Fin du Temps)
. A fitting title under the dire circumstances perhaps, but its true ideology stems from a much more thought provoking subject.
A religious man at heart, Messiaen was indeed never brought up strongly devout, and always claimed his religious state was due to simply being “born a believer”. Whether we can believe him or not, Messiaen forever maintained that the true meaning of the work was entirely independent of its apparent initial source: war and the end of the time and the world. But the idea of time in his eyes was not that of its purest ending, but rather its opposite. A copy of the score itself will entail what exactly this is to mean. Firstly during the quartet’s written preface, Messiaen quotes directly from chapter ten of John’s Book of Revelation whereby a soaring angel draped in cloud and rainbow, signals “that there will be no more Time
.” Note that ‘time’ is capitalised to emphasise its meaning. Subsequently, the ending of time, refers solely to when eternity is not predetermined by the material prominence of how time itself is measured. Literally, the quartet is for eternity; the period which “God’s mystery is answered and all evil is thrown down upon the Earth.”
“Liturgy of Crystal”
validates the above analysis, while also preserving Messiaen’s dedicated interest in birdsong in the higher registers. In this instance, the clarinet imitates a chummy blackbird, while the violin does so for a shrilling nightingale. Careful listening will embody this clever use of instrumentation even more so. The two are wholly independent in both melody and rhythm, but share a common direction compared to that of the more stagnate piano part, which recycles irregular permutations of dense chords, some with nine tones or more. Similarly the cello slides between its harmonic notes gracefully, but doesn’t deviate outside of its same fifteen note melody. The contrast in motion here is essentially to signify that Messiaen sought out to differentiate himself from his predecessors and contemporaries with respect to how time is illustrated in music via its particular harmony and rhythm; the birds move freely in their instance, while the cello and piano remain endless and eternal. It’s a frequently occurring theme throughout the work.
“Abyss of birds”
also shares commonality with Liturgy, but does so through just the solo clarinet, who again is imitating some form of birdsong, albeit slower and more sorrowful. Clarinettist, Henri Akoka, was the first to see the music for this particular movement en route to Stalag. Messiaen has his poor eyesight to thank for not being on the cowering front-line prior to this journey – he rather served as a humble medical auxiliary. Being captured at Verdun in the July of 1940 with little more than a rucksack filled by some of the influential musical works of Beethoven
, sketches of the quartet came to life primarily through memory. Despite the conditions, he managed to (rather quickly) score much of the music he intended to complete before his military service. In a turn of fortune, the commander of Stalag actually allowed Messiaen to continue his composition on a dusty corner piano without much interruption. Here he came into contact with violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Etienne Pasquier, two renowned professional musicians in their homeland. Messiaen made good use of the available expertise for such an unusual grouping of instruments, but also naturally desired to include himself in the performance, thus a piano line was fittingly added. It’s hard to image how the music could have worked otherwise.
Much of the quartet’s musical elements merely derive their content from Messiaen’s adoration for the music of others. Indeed, Bach and Beethoven’s boldness fit in here, as does Debussy’s turn-of-the-century experimentations with the octatonic and whole tone scales; Messiaen uses both extensively throughout to maintain sections of stability. The folk-like spaciousness of Bartok makes an entrance, as does the clamouring primitivism of Stavinsky
. Such contrast in mood gives rise to some of the work’s most profound moments. The tidal change between “Eulogy to the eternity of Jesus”
and “Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets”
is startlingly powerful. The former plods resonant piano chords (see Radiohead
’s Pyramid Song for similarity) between the cellos weeping tones, while the latter has each musician play a rhythmically colourful melody over separate octaves in a chaotic manner. Again the religious entitlements here are prevalent to what the music is playing. The eulogy itself is marked as ‘infinitely slow’ – eternity once again in the piano and cello. The dance is reminiscent of the apocalypse, with its immediate successor “Tangle of rainbows”
compounding the end of Time itself.
The profound religious association here may throw off those not accustom to such devotedness. However, aside what works so efficiently is the musical representation of a man’s passion -- his birds, his religion, but most of all his deeply introspective mindset. A true synesthete, who turned six months of dark peril into six months of colour, while at the same time regulating the life of his fellow prisoners to be more pleasant. In turn, his music ironically gave way to his freedom; he was released not long after the premiere of the quartet with the camp commanders deciding him as little a threat as he was apparently a meek bands-person rather than a true soldier. They may have found it in their hearts to release him, along with others, but “Quartet for the End of Time”
is piece truly that once again proved the power music has on opposing sides of humanity. In the same make-shift theatre bearing sub-zero temperatures, the enemies still managed to share a common interest towards a performance of timeless music. Messiaen later recollected, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”