Blasts from the Past: Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

by 5:4

World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time).

The subject matter permeating the work, taking inspiration from the Biblical book of Revelation, speaks volumes about Messiaen’s remarkably bold outlook in spite of his surroundings. In the midst of war, particularly in the midst of a prison camp, thoughts of the Apocalypse were perhaps understandable, but Messiaen’s focus was typically upon its more transcendent implications:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire […] and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth […] And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever […] that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…

Messiaen had not composed a significant amount of chamber music prior to 1940, so in this respect the Quatuor was something genuinely new in his output. Formally, however, it continued the approach taken in works such as La Nativité du Seigneur and Les corps glorieux (written immediately prior to the Quatuor, in 1939), a large-scale, multi-movement cycle exploring various aspects of a common theme.

The first of the eight movements, ‘Liturgie de crystal’ (Crystal liturgy), although featuring all the quartet, is essentially for clarinet and piano, the former imitating the song of a blackbird, the latter occupied with isorhythmic material, matching a 17-duration talea with a 29-chord color (the use of prime numbers, ensuring these two elements are not commensurate, extends the permutations as far as possible). The other two instruments, acting somewhat at the sidelines, are behaviourally linked to the clarinet and piano: the violin imitates a nightingale while the cello meanders around a smaller-scale isorhythm, comprising five pitches and 15 durations (one being a factor of the other, and thereby introducing repetitions). Together they create a music that’s essentially an aural paradox, constantly in motion, ostensibly moving forward, yet sounding entirely static, harmonically, melodically and rhythmically rooted in one place. A metaphor, perhaps, for the four performers’ present predicament.

Another tutti follows, ‘Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’ (Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time), its curious three-part structure book-ended with ferocious fortissimo gestures—at a risk of being misunderstood, Messiaen describes them in the score as ‘presque vif, joyeux‘—with a lengthy blissed-out meditation in between. Here the violin and cello express a seemingly endless drawn-out melody in octaves, coated with splashes of shifting colour from the piano, as though light were passing behind stained glass. Third movement ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ (Abyss of birds) for solo clarinet, was the first to have been composed, written for Akoka during their time in the makeshift camp. Messiaen gives the instrument considerable time and space, taking it on a journey that encompasses both very slow, searching lines and capricious runs more directly redolent of birdsong (it’s worth remembering this is before the period when Messiaen would actively seek to imitate specific bird species; at this stage the music is more generally imitative: the score simply states “comme un oiseau”).

The quartet reunites for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fourth movement, ‘Intermède’ (Interlude), an exuberant outburst of octave unison melody, during which the clarinet throws around some of its previous material. After this comes the first of the Quatuor‘s pair of extended slow movements, ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ (Praise to the eternity of Jesus), a duet for cello and piano. Messiaen here adapted material from his withdrawn 1937 work for six ondes martenots, Fête des belles eaux, to fashion a sedate but ecstatic melodic line underpinned by simple repeated chords from the piano. Despite the simplicity, its scale—lasting around nine minutes—gives it an overwhelming quality, transforming the cello into a voice of epic magnitude.

Full-force ferocity returns in sixth movement ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ (Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets; called just ‘Fanfare’ at the first performance), where the quartet engages in what sounds rather like a game. Their dance is once again in octaves, characterised by additive rhythms, filling the music with syncopations that act as melodic hiccups, threatening to stumble the quartet and send them crashing; this is answered with a pensive middle section where the four players seem to get caught in a reverie of a small portion of the tune, going round and round with ever-changing rhythms beneath, a rather weird and wonderful moment. The latter half becomes more and more dramatic, featuring huge scalic runs, tutti trills and eye-wateringly pointed accents, sounding all the more fierce due to all four players moving in exact synchronisation, as though they’d fused into a complex single instrument.

Messiaen draws on both the material and the attitude from the earlier ‘Vocalise’ for seventh movement, ‘Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’ (Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time), alternating sweet lyricism with brusque, even rambunctious passages—Messiaen asks for them to be ‘robuste’!—that develop earlier ideas while at the same time going in haphazardly unpredictable directions; it’s easily some of his most delightfully weird music. The Quatuor closes with a counterpart to the cello’s extended slow movement, ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’ (Praise to the immortality of Jesus), for violin and piano, reworking material from the second half of his 1930 organ work Diptych to create another over-arching melody that’s somehow simultaneously introspective yet caught up in rapture.

Having been rehearsed both in the camp’s washrooms as well as its theatre, the world première took place on 15 January 1941, an event perhaps most accurately recounted by cellist Étienne Pasquier:

[It] took place in the hut that was used as the theatre. […] A piano had been provided for Messiaen, but its keys used to stick. […] Expectations among the prisoners ran high. Everyone wanted to come and hear us, including the camp commanders. They sat in the front row. All the seats were taken, about four hundred in all, and people listened raptly, even those who may have been listening to chamber music for the first time, their thoughts turning inward. It was extraordinary. The performance took place on Wednesday, 15 January 1941, at six in the evening. It was bitterly cold outside the hut, and there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops. Our clothing was bizarre in the extreme. The four of us who were performing – Messiaen included – wore old Czech uniforms covered in patches, with clogs on our feet. They were warmer, and good for walking in the snow, but they also hurt your feet. Messiaen was known as a natty dresser – and now here he was in this shabby get-up! But the performance was a great success, and we often repeated it.
Messiaen repeatedly made the claim [that my cello only had three strings], but in point of fact I played on four strings. […] In telling this story he presumably wanted to highlight the inadequacies surround the first performance.

Messiaen may have exaggerated, but his famous closing recollection remains touchingly sincere:

[The première] was preceded by a speech which I made on the Apocalypse of Saint John, in front of the priests among the prisoners, who approved of what I had to say. An upright piano was brought into the camp, very out of tune, the keys of which seemed to stick at random. […] On this piano I played my Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, in front of […] the most diverse mixture of all classes in society – farmworkers, labourers, intellectuals, career soldiers, doctors and priests. Never have I been listened to with such attention and such understanding.

This performance of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, broadcast in 2014, was given by Zhang Zuo (piano), Elena Urioste (violin), Mark Simpson (clarinet) and Leonard Elschenbroich (cello).

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Chris L

Ah, Quatuor…! Probably the greatest wartime musical document we have, the best efforts of Tippett, Shostakovich, Copland et al. notwithstanding.

It was interesting to compare this with the one other recording I have, the 1991 one with Loriod on piano. Mark Simpson, I think, pips Wolfgang Meyer for intensity in Abîme des Oiseaux…but then I pretty much expected him to! The biggest surprise was how much slower than (albeit just as effective as!) Fischer-Dieskau and Loriod Elschenbroich and Zhang are in the first of the Louanges.

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