Quatuor pour la fin du temps
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 50 minutes.
Composition and first performance
Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered World War II. He was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). While in transit to the camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abîme des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier, were among his fellow prisoners, and after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard, 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 at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on January 15, 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."
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. "Crystal liturgy", 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 imitating a nightingale’s song. The underlying pulse is provided by the cello and piano: the cello cycles through the same five-note melody (using the pitches C, E, D, F-sharp, and B-flat) and a repeating pattern of 15 durations. The piano part consists of a 17-note rhythmic pattern permuted strictly through 29 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.
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 (King James Version))
The music is arranged from an earlier, unpublished piece, "Oraison" from "Fêtes des belles eaux" for 6 Ondes Martenots, performed at the Paris World Fair in 1937. The tempo marking is infiniment lent, extatique ("infinitely slow, ecstatic").
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.
Toward the end of the movement the theme returns, fortissimo, in augmentation and with wide changes of register.
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", transposed up a major third from C to E.
- Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Cornell University Press, 2003), 62
- Joseph Stevenson, All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music (All Media Guide, 2005), 843
- Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (score) (Paris: Durand)
- Anthony Pople, Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Cambridge Music Handbooks (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
- Abyss of Birds – Sheet music for clarinet solo
- Nigel Simeone on Quatuor pour la fin du temps
- "Sur le Quatuor pour la fin du temps" – extensive analysis by François Nicolas (in French).
- Boston University Messiaen Project: performances, studies and information
- Audio samples of each movement
- "Quatuor pour la fin du temps" - Musical and Biblical Analysis from Lawrence University Freshman Studies curriculum
- "Music for the End of Time" – an appreciation by Michael R. Linton