Out of Time
Olivier Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps

The clarinet begins, playing a lilting, light-footed song (marked “like a bird”), full of agile leaps and trills. During one of these, the piano begins to sound a series of soft, ambiguous chords in shifting rhythms. The cello enters, playing a sinuous and sliding melody in harmonics — notes played by lightly touching the string at the nodes that correspond to simple divisions of the string , creating an ethereal sound, like a soft whistle. The violin, whose part is also marked “like a bird,” plays short, isolated phrases characterized by melodic turns and quickly repeated notes. It’s all soft and delicate, like a world coming to life or dawn in the country. After two-and-a-half minutes of teeming serenity, the music doesn’t end — it just stops. It is called “Liturgie de cristal” (Crystal Liturgy), and it is the first movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, the Quartet for the End of Time.

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My intention in these essays is to discuss the concert music of the 20th century in terms of its sound as music, and to show how the 101 essential pieces, in all their diversity, relate to each other and to the everyday lives of people in the 21st century.

The story of the composition and first performance of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps is the stuff of legend. Rebecca Rischin’s For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Cornell University Press, 2003) fleshes out the facts of the story, giving a richer, fuller picture than ever before.

Messiaen was already a famous organist and composer by the time he was captured by the German Army in France in 1940 and sent to Stalag VIII A. Because of his fame, a love of music among the officers of the camp, and probably for propaganda purposes, Messiaen was not only allowed to continue his musical activities, he was encouraged to do so. He was provided a place to compose (some stories say a barracks, others a latrine; it was probably both at various times) and pencils, erasers, and manuscript paper.

The piece is scored for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, the instruments available to the composer in the camp. Available, too, were the players with the necessary skill to play Messiaen’s demanding music.

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The music is very slow. Its phrases are long and angular. The music, for clarinet alone, is marked “désolé” (afflicted, desolated). The rhythms are simple, but the music is so slow and it takes the rhythmic patterns so long to play out, that the effect is one of no rhythm, of timelessness. The extreme of this effect occurs when the clarinet plays single notes, held out for about 12 seconds — a virtual eternity in a piece with only one instrument — the dynamic changing from very soft to very loud over the length of the note. Messiaen referred to these long notes as being in the “abyss of time.”

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Messiaen began composing music that eventually became part of the Quatuor before he was captured by the German army and sent to Stalag VIII A in 1940. This clarinet solo, “Abyss of the Birds,” which eventually became the third movement of the larger work, was written in France, where the composer was stationed along with the clarinetist for whom the piece was written.

The story of the composition and performance of this work is full of pairings of practical considerations and inspiration. The composition was inspired by a passage in the Book of Revelation (10: 1-7) about the nature of eternity. For Messiaen, the idea of eternity involved timelessness rather than everlasting time. This idea is reflected in his music, where his rhythmic practice is built around contrasting eternal (timeless) time with earthly time.

According to Rischin, the varying instrumentation of the Quatuor’s eight movements was a result of the composer’s desire to give all of his fellow players an opportunity for a solo movement. Tellingly, Messiaen did not give a solo movement to the piano, which he would play. In many of the movements, Messiaen’s role would be to keep time, to measure out his timeless rhythms. It is this special combination of practicality and inspiration, of the quotidian and the transcendent that speaks to us so directly today.

There is nothing more everyday, more quotidian than time. Our awareness of its passing, either in the forefront of our consciousness or in the back of our minds, is a constant. The end of time and its dominion over our lives is often a welcome idea, whether or not one accepts the same religious/spiritual ideas on the subject as Messiaen, a lifelong devout Catholic (as he is frequently quoted, “I was born a believer.”)

The composition of the Quatuor and the preparations for its première performance certainly eased the passing of time for Messiaen while he was a prisoner of war. The effort involved was a result of the inspiration discussed above, but it also involved the desire to advance and perfect the musical ideas he had been developing in his career up to that point. Messiaen had written melodies that had sounded like birdsong in his music before, but his use of identifiable birdsong in the Quatuor began a practice that would continue throughout his long career. His interest in rhythm (the time of music) is thoroughly explored in the piece, so much so that a “Brief Theory of My Rhythmic Language” is part of the preface to the score.

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The entire sixth movement, “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (“Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets”) is in rhythmic and melodic unison (or octaves, which function as unisons). The melody (which is all there is) is fast, the rhythms driving. The rhythmic language is based on the eighth note as the “beat,” and includes only simple divisions or multiples of the eighth. There is no meter as such, and when the eighth is reduced to a sixteenth, there usually isn’t a sixteenth note added later to get back “on the beat.” The melody is characterized by small intervals (there are few passages that are like scales) and frequent changes of direction. The frequent cadences (moments of relative repose) are rarely on the same pitch. The overall feeling is one of rapid motion — but motion without direction, without progress. Near the end of the movement, the highly recognizable main theme is augmented to great length. Time is dramatically suspended.

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The Quatuor’s structure is as unusual as its instrumentation; according to Rischin, a 1938 Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano written in 1938 was the only known piece for this particular combination, and Messiaen did not know of it. Only four of the eight movements use all four instruments. Of the others, one is for solo clarinet, one each for violin and cello with piano, and one for violin, clarinet, and cello. As the instrumentation varies between the movements, so does the musical texture, the relationships of the instruments, and the kinds of sounds used even within movements — even, as seen in the first movement, simultaneously.

The sense of timelessness communicated through and embodied by the Quatuor pour la fin temps is disconcerting. As the end approaches, audience members and even players (for example, this post by pianist Jeremy Denk) find themselves disoriented and removed from time. This effect is achieved in part from the many techniques and ideas mentioned above. It is also achieved by the final quality that the fifth movement, “Louange à Éternité de Jésus,”(“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”, for cello and piano) conveys. When the cello reaches the climax of its melody in this E Major song, and plays a melody in harmonics reminiscent of the melody it plays in the first movement, we feel as though we are in the coda of the entire work. We are at rest. Then the intensely rhythmic “Danse,” discussed above, begins. There’s time left.

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The last movement, “Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus,” (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus,” for violin and piano; if one remembers that, for Messiaen, “eternity” is timelessness, then the difference between the titles of this movement and the fifth are clear) is also a song. In fact, it is in the same key as the “ Éternité” song, and even in the same tempo, which is very slow. In “Éternité” the piano plays a series of chords in even note values — a steady pulse. In “l’Immortalité” a chord is struck on each beat — though it’s hard to hear 11 per minute as a beat — then immediately followed by a softer repetition of the chord, like an echo. When well done, and it isn’t easy, it has the effect of pushing forward and holding back at the same time. Against this background, the violin melody slowly moves upwards, with recurring shapes but no recurring themes. After reaching a high point in both pitch and intensity it subsides and returns to a lower register. Then it starts over with the same melody and the same chords, but this time, when the violin reaches its upper register, it stays there. The last note, marked very soft, is a high E, played as a harmonic while the piano chords continue, fading to silence.

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Most visual artists sign their drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other works on the front or surface of the piece. Anyone looking at the art can see the signature in the work itself. Composers can’t readily put their names in their music. Their names appear in the concert program, which is analogous to the information card next to a painting in a museum:

terminé au Stalag VIII A. Görlitz, Silesie, en janvier 1941 (completed at Stalag VIII A. Görlitz, Silesia, in January 1941)

These words appear at the end of the score of the Quatuor, underneath the final measures of the piece’s ecstatically still final measures. The matter of fact statement of the time and place of the composition of the Quatuor is Messiaen’s signature, his attestation of the value of life and work in the midst of war’s horror and deprivation.