Olivier Messiaen’s (1908 – 1992) reputation as one of the greatest composers of the century is secure, and 1941 Quatuor pour fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) is one of its most important works. All his work was inspired by his deep Roman Catholic mysticism, and the Quartet is no exception, being inspired by The Book of Revelation – there shall be no more time. That said, its immediate seed was something more Earthly: The Second World War. The work was conceived whilst he was a Prisoner of War of the Germans in Silesia, and undoubtedly his confinement was to play a part in turning his mind towards contemplation of eternity.
The cellist in the first performance thought the number was nearer 400 and remembered having a fully working instrument however. Whatever the truth, Messiaen was to report that he felt he had never been ‘listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension’.
Messiaen’s distinctive features are apparent across the work, such that almost nothing could be by anyone else: the ecstatic and glowing harmony; the jagged, almost jazz–like rhythms; the extended unison writing; and the timeless adagios. Birdsong (which was to become a core element of his later work) is present, although here it is in a more impressionistic form than the precisely notated calls of the later works; the opening clarinet line provides a good example. Interestingly, four of the movements were pre–existing pieces; the beautifully transcendent finale is a transcription of the organ Diptyque.
There is a deeper level to the title as well: complex rhythmic procedures are a work in a number of movements. For example, the first movement has a set number of melodic notes across a different number of rhythmic notes in each instrument; these patterns are played simultaneously and so are constantly appearing in different combinations. It would take around two hours for the various parts to arrive back at the opening combination. The effect of this movement is therefore something akin to cutting a segment of a tape – the music is felt to continue either side, unheard, and we have only caught a snippet of it.
Such techniques are of interest, but ultimately this is music of exceptional beauty and emotional power; the two adagios in particular contemplate a timeless, ecstatic peace, one which surely seemed unobtainable in the depths of WWII, and seems now to be scarcely obtainable in this world.
Don't miss the opportunity to hear this extraordinary work live at the Clifton International Festival of Music on 23rd June.
Dr David Bednall
University of Bristol