Quatuor pour la fin du temps, also known by its English title Quartet for the End of Time, is a piece of chamber music by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. It was premiered in 1941. The piece is scored for clarinet (in B-flat), violin, cello, and piano; a typical performance of the complete work lasts about fifty minutes.
Composition and first performance
Messiaen was captured by the German army during World War II and was being held as a prisoner of war. While in transit to the prisoner of war camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abîme des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians were also among his fellow prisoners (violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier), and Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano. The combination of instruments is unusual, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938.
The quartet was premiered in Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany (currently Zgorzelec, Poland) on January 15, 1941, to an audience of about four hundred fellow prisoners of war and prison guards (Rischin, 2003: 62). Messiaen later recalled of the occasion, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension." (Stevenson 2005: 843)
Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1-2, 5-7, KJV):
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 ....
The work is in eight movements. Quotations are translated from Messiaen's Preface to the score.
Liturgie de cristal
(I. "Liturgy of crystal", for the full quartet.) In his Preface to the score, Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet:
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.
The opening movement begins with the solo clarinet imitating a blackbird's song, and the violin imitates a nightingale’s song. The underlying pulse is provided by the cello and piano: the cello repeats the same fifteen-note melody continuously, using only the notes C, E, D, F-sharp and B-flat. The piano part consists of a seventeen-note rhythm which is permuted strictly through twenty-nine chords, as if to give the listener a glimpse of something eternal.
Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
(II. "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time", for the full quartet.)
The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon 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.
Abîme des oiseaux
(III. "Abyss of birds", for solo clarinet.)
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.
A test for even the most accomplished clarinetist, with an extremely slow tempo marking quaver (eighth note) = 44.
(IV. "Interlude", for violin, cello, and clarinet.)
Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.
Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus
(V. "Praise to the eternity of Jesus", for cello and piano.)
Jesus is considered here as 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 runs out". The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. "In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1 (KJV))
The music is arranged from an earlier, unpublished piece, "Fêtes des belles eaux", as well as "Oraison", a work for 6 Ondes Martenots. The tempo marking is infiniment lent (literally "infinitely slowly").
An excerpt from Movement VI ("Danse de la fureur ..."), which is played by all four instruments in unison
. It shows Messiaen's rhythmic technique, in which the underlying quavers (eighth notes) are alternately diminished
to semiquavers (sixteenth notes
) or augmented
Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes
(VI. "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets", for the full quartet.)
Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. 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) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. 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.
The theme returns fortissimo in augmentation and with wide changes of register towards the end of the movement.
Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
(VII. "Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time", for the full quartet.)
Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. 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 colors 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 colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!
Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus
(VIII. "Praise to the immortality of Jesus", for violin and piano.)
Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. 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.
The music is an arrangement of the second part of his earlier organ piece, "Diptyque", although raised in pitch by a major third from C to E.
References and further reading
- Messiaen, Olivier (c1942). Quatuor pour la fin du temps (score). Paris: Durand.
- Pople, Anthony (2003). Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Cambridge Music Handbooks). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521585385.
- Rischin, Rebecca (2003). For the end of time : the story of the Messiaen quartet. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-801-44136-6.
- Stevenson, Joseph (2005). All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music All Media Guide, LLC. ISBN 0-87930-856-6.
Revelation, Chapter 10