In 1939, Olivier Messiaen was called to serve in World War II. The following May, he was captured and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz. Here, he completed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, one of his few chamber works and perhaps his most powerful contribution to the repertoire. Although parts of the score predate Messiaen’s imprisonment, Messiaen’s work on the Quartet came to represent his catharsis from “the cruelty and horrors of camp.” The remarkable story of the Quartet’s composition and premiere, too rich to fully detail here, testifies to the power of art and the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of profound tribulation.
The Quartet for the End of Time alludes to a passage from the Book of Revelations:
And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow on his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire... Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land... and, standing on the sea and on the land, he raised his right hand toward Heaven and swore by He who lives forever and ever... saying: ‘There will be no more Time; but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled.’
Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote in his preface to the score of the quartet, “When we are freed from before and after, when we enter into that other dimension of the beyond, thus participating a little in Eternity, then we shall understand the terrible simplicity of the Angel’s words, and then indeed there shall be Time no longer.”
I. Liturgy of crystal. Between the morning hours of three and four, the awakening of birds; a thrush or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose them- selves high in the trees. Transpose this to the religious plane: you will have the harmonious silence of heaven. The piano provides a rhythmic ostinato based on unequal augmentations and diminutions—the clarinet unfolds a birdsong.
II. Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time. The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of that mighty angel, his hair a rainbow and his clothing mist, who places one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. Between these sections are the ineffable harmonies of heaven. From the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, encircling with their distant carillon the plainchant-like recitative of the violin and cello.
III. Abyss of the birds. Clarinet solo. The abyss is Time, with its sadness and tediums. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song! There is a great contrast between the desolation of Time (the abyss) and the joy of the bird-songs (desire of the eternal light).
IV. Interlude. Scherzo. Of a more outgoing character than the other movements, but related to them nonetheless by various melodic references.
V. Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Jesus is here considered as one with the Word. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello, expiates with love and reverence on the everlastingness of the Word. Majestically the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
VI. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets. Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse attend various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announces the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of extended note values [and] augmented or diminished rhythmic patterns. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury or icelike frenzy. Listen particularly to the terrifying fortissimo of the theme in augmentation and with change of register of its different notes, toward the end of the piece.
VII. Cluster of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of time. Here certain passages from the second movement return. The mighty angel appears, and in particular the rainbow that envelopes him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, of wisdom, of every quiver of luminosity and sound). In my dreamings I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms; then, following this transitory stage I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying inter- penetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These fiery swords, these rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: Behold the cluster, behold the rainbows!
VIII. Praise to the Immortality of Jesus. Expansive violin solo balancing the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second glorification? It ad- dresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus–to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, raised up immortal from the dead so as to communicate His life to us. It is total love. Its slow rising to a supreme point is the ascension of man toward his God, of the son of God toward his Father, of the mortal newly made divine toward paradise.
–And I repeat anew: All this is mere striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the over- whelming grandeur of the subject!
Patrick Castillo ©2015