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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Messiaen and the End of Time

It's the night of 15 January 1941, and at Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz in Silesia, a group of a few hundred prisoners and a small number of guards are gathering in Barrack 27. It's freezing cold. There is no heating.

Among the prisoners is a famous composer. He was a French soldier who had been captured when the Germans invaded France the year before. One of the German guards at the camp, Karl-Albert Brüll, loved music and knew who this man was. Brüll was a German patriot with anti-Nazi sympathies and he provided music paper, pencils and solitude for the composer to work at the camp. Now on this freezing night they were going to hear what he'd written.

The composer, the 31-year old Olivier Messiaen, prefaced his score with an image from the New Testament book of Revelation: "In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, 'There shall be time no longer'."

This haunting expression gives to Messiaen's work its haunting title: Quatuor pour la fin du temps - Quartet for the End of Time.

Olivier Messiaen (1937)

Scored for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, Messiaen's quartet is in eight movements, each with apocalyptic, timeless messages for both players and audience. For men hearing a work reflecting on eternity beyond time, men who didn't know what time they had or what their life would be like in whatever time they had left, this music spoke volumes. As Messiaen himself later reflected, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension".

Handbill advertising the first performance of the Quartet for the End of Time (15 January,1941)

The first movement is called "Crystal Liturgy" and Messiaen describes it thus: "Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of heaven." [listen]

A number of myths have arisen about the premiere of the Quartet for the End of Time in the prisoner-of-war camp, some of which originated from Messiaen himself. You will often read that the original audience was made up of some 5,000 prisoners. Subsequent research has shown that it was more like three or four hundred. It was also claimed that the instruments used included a beaten up piano and a cello with only three strings, but these were perhaps not as bad as Messiaen claimed.

What is undeniable is Messiaen's determination to help his audience look beyond the present, and even the future, to some sort of eternal realm. The opening movement contained, for example, a strict seventeen-note rhythm in the piano which is passed through twenty-nine chords. This is Messiaen's way of expressing the inexpressible, which the birds (in the other three instruments) share in their own, non-verbal way.

The second movement is called "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time". Messiaen describes it thus: "The first and third parts (which are very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow on his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello."

The "blue-orange" chords of the tranquil middle section are impossible to separate from those colours once one hears Messiaen's description of them in those terms. Messiaen played the piano part at the first performance. [listen]

The clarinettist at the first performance was Henri Akoka, an Algerian-born Jew. An article by Alex Ross used in preparing this summary describes him as "vibrant and unpredictable". He tried to escape from the camp several times, and succeeded in April 1941. While being transferred from one camp to another by train, he jumped from the top of a fast-moving cattle car, his clarinet under his arm.

Henri Akoka

The third movement of the Quartet, "Abyss of Birds", is for the clarinet alone. Messiaen described this timeless solo as: "The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs." [listen]

From the apparent freedom of that clarinet solo (which is in fact tightly and precisely notated) we are thrust dramatically into the short fourth movement, called an "Interlude". This uses three of the instruments: the violin the clarinet and the cello.

This has certain melodic connections with the other movements but provides something a little more conventional, a little more earth-bound, in the midst of Messiaen's other-worldly visions. [listen]

The cellist in the prisoner-of-war camp who played in the premiere of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was Étienne Pasquier. Pasquier is described as a gentle character who, had he sought it, could have had a major international career as a solo cellist. Messiaen provided for him the glorious solo (accompanied only by the piano) of the quartet's fifth movement. It's one of two movements which use the French word "louange" in their titles. Meaning "praise", this word sets up the idea of a timeless realm once more, with the cello solo movement called "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus".

Étienne Pasquier

The two "louange" movements use musical ideas from some of Messiaen's earlier works. This movement takes its ideas from a piece for six ondes martenots written for the 1937 Paris Wold Fair. In this context though Messiaen describes the music in typical mystical terms: "Jesus is here considered the Word. A broad phrase, infinitely slow, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, 'whose time never expires'. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'." [listen]

Contrast again here takes us from that timeless vision of the eternity of Jesus into the sixth movement, called "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets". For the first time since the second movement Messiaen calls for all four members of the quartet in a powerful, virtuoso ensemble.

Bamberg Apocalypse: Seven Angels with Seven Trumpets (c. 1000)

Messiaen's description tells us that "the four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God)...Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness..."

Messiaen's heading for this wild dance also makes mention of the technical devices he uses in the music: "...added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms". Finally he asks us to "hear especially all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece." [listen]

The penultimate movement sees Messiaen return us to the sweet, celestial mode of the earlier movements, and he even quotes ideas here from the second movement.

This seventh movement is called "Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time" and again the whole quartet is used.

It's fascinating to me that Messiaen could not only write such music in a prisoner-of-war camp but that he went to such lengths to describe for his audience the beauty he wanted them to experience through it. His language becomes visionary here, almost psychedelic: "The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colours and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout compenetration of superhuman sounds and colours. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!"

The strongest melodic reference made here to the second movement is the sequence of "blue-orange" chords. The near-violent expression of angelic power and rainbow-like joy, though, is shattering. [listen]

The violinist in the camp who played in Messiaen's quartet was Jean Le Boulaire. He is described as being moody and withdrawn, and perhaps it is his character which, in part, informs the mood of the music given to him in the final movement. He later abandoned the violin entirely, and made a successful career as an actor. He appeared in many films under the name of Jean Lanier.

When she wrote her book on Messiaen's quartet, the clarinettist Rebecca Rischin managed to interview the elderly Jean Le Boulaire. She sensed him to be a bitter and unhappy man, but when Messiaen's quartet was mentioned his eyes lit up. Of this he said: "It's a jewel that's mine and that will never belong to anyone else".

Jean Lanier (Le Boulaire)

In the eighth and final movement of the Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen dispenses with the clarinet and cello, leaving the violin and piano to play the second "louange" movement. Like the earlier one, which was a timeless solo for cello with the piano providing a dreamy, ecstatic accompaniment, this second "louange" sees the violin sing its own hymn of praise, this time in a movement called "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus". Messiaen's commentary tells us that this second eulogy to Jesus "is especially aimed at a second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortality risen for our communication of his life. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his God, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise."

Messiaen arranged part of an earlier work for this second hymn of praise to Jesus, his Diptyque for organ. But here the effect is still radiant and timeless, an evocation of a world beyond time. But it's more than that.

In emphasising the humanity of Jesus in this music, I think Messiaen is seeking to make his deep, personal faith of some practical use to his fellow prisoners-of-war. Angels and the divinity and rainbows and eternal trumpets are all well and good, but in Görlitz on this freezing January night in 1941 Messiaen's audience consisted of a few hundred men for whom time and life were, for the moment, on hold. Human suffering is real and Messiaen's Jesus had been a man and had suffered. There's something of that humanity and need for hope which reaches out to us in this music. I suspect it reached out to Messiaen's audience in 1941, as well. [listen]

In the spring of 1941, Messiaen was released from Stalag VIII-A. He returned to Paris, now occupied by the Nazis of course, and was appointed to teach harmony at the Conservatoire. He didn't compose anything for another two years, a silence which was broken in 1943 by the first of a series of works expressing his love for Yvonne Loriod, the Visions of Amen.

Olivier Messiaen (1986)

Decades after the war, the man who made the composition of the Quartet for the End of Time possible attempted to see Messiaen. The music-loving prison guard, Karl-Albert Brüll, went to Paris and rang Messiaen's doorbell. For reasons which are now obscure, Messiaen refused to see him. Did he not remember the name? Or did he not want to revisit a painful chapter in his past?

Whatever the reason, Messiaen later regretted his actions and tried to contact Brüll. He sent him a message, but it was too late. Brüll had been killed after being hit by a car.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2012.

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