Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps

performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Maryvonne Le Dizes, Pierre Strauch & Alain Damiens or below by Pianist Matthew Schellhorn and Soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra: James Clark (violin), Barnaby Robson (clarinet), David Cohen (cello)

Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.

Olivier Messiaen, of the work’s premiere

Today’s work predates the piano work from earlier in the week, but that’s okay. It’s still very indicative of the vibrance of Messiaen’s voice. There’s his use of very colorful harmonies, lively, intricate often additive rhythms and meter, and today, as we didn’t so much see in the piano works, music that takes its inspiration from religious settings or contexts, but we’ll talk a bit later about that.

If you haven’t noticed by this point, Messiaen’s music is not only vivid and vibrant, but he loves to talk about it, unlike some of the other composers we’ll be discussing later on this month. He has very specific (often literal) imagery in mind, and seems eager to communicate his  vision for the piece to his audience, which gives us the advantage of having some justification or explanation for his aesthetic decisions. While the approach here is different than in the etudes (remember, this predates those solo works), it is as if he has a very specific goal in mind for the work. The Wikipedia article has specific sections for Inspiration (a passage in Revelation) and the Structure, the latter of which we will discuss in greater detail.

I checked out a score from the library and it had pages of preface material about each movement and their notes and it was all very nice, except it was in French, so it was much slower going. The Structure section of the Wiki has (at least large chunks of) it in English.

A Little History

The composer had been captured and imprisoned in 1940, and apparently found himself sitting next to a clarinetist, one Henri Akoka, on their way to the camp, to whom he showed his notes for what would eventually become the long solo clarinet third movement. Eventually a fellow incarcerated violin and cello each joined the ranks and a trio became a (somewhat unconventional, “unusual, but not without precedent”) quartet. Wikipedia says of the imprisoned premiere:

The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on 15 January 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards.

The quote that opens this article is the composer’s comment about this performance. And again, we’ll talk about that momentarily. It’s worthy of mention that the composer and his fellow performers seem to have gotten no small degree of assistance from one Carl-Albert Brüll, who gave them paper, and even managed to forge with a potato important stamps or documents that led to their (or at least Messiaen’s) eventual release. It’s all on the Wiki page.

The work, one might think after reading the above, stems from the clarinet solo as a kind of focal point. Maybe it’s not the central idea or even the focal point, but at least the point from which the rest of the work sprung. I’m sure recording times vary, but it is the longest movement of the work.

The Music

The piece is structured in eight movements, two of them (1 and 4) rather short, the others much longer. One notices that the piece will shift between long, static passages, an almost unmoving shimmer contrasted with an undulating glistening vibrance of motion and changing color that characterizes other passages or entire movements (4 and 6).

Something else Messiaen is now known for is his adoration for (perhaps even obsession with) birds and birdsong. Thus, his description of the first movement, Liturgie de Cristal,  incorporating the entire quartet, says:

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.

This short movement feels very much like an introduction, or a prelude, an overture, a setting up of mood, and while I can’t point anything out specifically, it feels, like the introduction of a Beethoven symphony, like we’re being slowly fed the content that’s going to be developed later. Maybe not.

I promise I won’t keep quoting Wikipedia, but it says of this small movement:

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.

This is kind of indicative, to me, of some of Messiaen’s ideas. Like Bruckner and his triplet figures, it seems Messiaen likes to latch on to an idea and use it methodically, repetitively, repetition with purpose, as if these repetitions of “15 durations” or a 17-note pattern or 29 chords must have an inevitable end. 17 and 29 stick out as prime numbers, against our 5×15 note cello melody. So… things repeat, but they’re different each time. In this first movement, it does seem that clarinet comes to the fore as the ‘voice’ of the movement, which we shall also see again later.

(What I’ll also say about this kind of construction is that I’m sure there is plenty of mathematical or numerical significance to patterns, harmonies, rhythms, and all the rest in this work, while not serial, potentially indicative of the composer’s own ideas [such as the significance of the number 8], whatever they may be. That may be enjoyable for some to discover and will only deepen the appreciation for the work, but I won’t be discussing much of that here.)

If the clarinet is the voice of the first movement, then the second movement, Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps, is led by the piano, if for no other reason than because it starts the movement. Clarinet enters, and then the violin and cello in an exciting unison line. The clarinet line here shouldn’t strike us as new; it’s similar to what was presented in the first movement.

The second movement also has sort of an introduction of its own, 18 bars long. It ends with trills in all instruments but the piano, who thunders out a vibrant rhythm to end this section. Things settle down. The clarinet disappears, and strings put on their mutes and play a rhythm that is somehow important, sticky, memorable, captivating, over crystal, almost eerie sixteenth-note chords in the piano. This section is marked “presque lent, impalpable, lointain” (almost slow, ethereal, distant) (or something like that). This middle section is a good example of the kind of spacious landscapes that the composer is constructing, not featureless, unidentifiable blankness, but truly ethereal, colorful worlds of sound, something that at times may seem like it’s going nowhere, but that you almost oxymoronically still seem to find yourself getting lost in. But don’t get too lulled into the spiritual/emotional bubble bath that’s been created, because the vibrant, presque vif opening with spirited strings returns for seven bars to round out this movement. This is one of the most straightforwardly enjoyable movements, for me.

Third, we have that clarinet solo that was already at least partially written on the train in 1940, Abîme des oiseaux. It’s marked at eighth note = 44 env. (thereabouts). That’s  ridiculously slow. It means the entire nine minutes of music for this movement fits onto one sheet of paper, front and back.

Remember how some of Messiaen’s piano music from earlier in the week (especially the etudes) seemed to change meters and markings like every bar or two (I guess you don’t if you weren’t looking at the score)? That happens in this movement. There’s a long stretch of music at eighth note = 44, and then a sudden coming to life with quarter note = 126, and even then, a front-and-back sheet of paper takes nine minutes. It’s easy to dismiss this movement maybe as a long, relatively static thing, but it has its integral place in the progression of the work, birdlike passages that call the opening movement to mind.

Then, at IV. Intermède, things get fantastically exciting. The extreme challenges for the clarinet in the third movement are now gone, with something fast and lively, but that point is important for later. For now, the piano takes a break and our trio plays a largely unison rhythm. This intermezzo is the shortest movement of the work, at under two minutes. You’ll hear echoes in clarinet of the first movement, and then beautiful, lyrical conversation between the two strings, alternating a lyrical melody with pizzicato backing. This movement is quite chromatic, but really gorgeous and stays in in 2/4 the entire time, even though there’s lots of syncopation and playing across bar lines. This movement is celebratory, bright, carefree, and calls to mind the trills and glissandi from the second movement, but ends with a humorous pizzicato from the cello. A short, friendly breath of fresh air.

V. Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus is the second overt reference to Messiaen’s claimed inspiration for this work, and what immediately comes to mind when listening to the long, drawn-out lines of the cello (sixteenth-note = 44!) is that a cellist doesn’t have to breath to make sound. With good bow technique, these long lines could go on for ages, and they do; not so with the clarinet, and while the piano isn’t a sustaining instrument, it also doesn’t require breath, and keys can be repeatedly struck, etc. This eight minutes of music fits on three pages of score. It’s almost shockingly slow, but it feels like a meditative, pensive, spacious, shimmeringly gorgeous, majestic, tender expression. It’s marked ‘infinitely slow, ecstatic,’ and if you think of playing something as slow as this and still being ‘ecstatic,’ you get some idea of what the emotion of this movement should be.

After that, we get another move to a fiery, expressive, fun, but this time a little darker, almost ominous movement, VI. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes. The bars seem to be lengths of 17, 18 or 19 sixteenth notes, and maybe there’s some pattern there, but there’s lots of syncopation and seemingly random rhythms here, maybe additive stuff (where one figure gets either lengthened or contracted and becomes easily identifiable in whatever form, like in the etudes; this is especially identifiable in a later passage where clarinet takes the fore), but it’s no less than thrilling to read the score with the music. All semblance of expected typical (constrictive) clean 4/4 meter or whatever is gone, and the rhythms in this ‘dance’ are fiery, punchy and vibrant. It quiets down here and there, but also rises to powerful, moving, almost ominous heights at times. It’s likely my favorite movement of the whole work, so thoroughly engaging. It’s less than seven minutes long, but seems to take up by far the greatest amount of score space. It’s intricate and engaging and expressive, and at a critical point in the piece.

VII. Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps opens as a sort of callback to the fifth movement, but it’s not long before the other instruments join the cello/piano duo. Oh wait… the ‘danse’ wasn’t really as ominous as what comes now. It’s crunchy and colorful, quite wild, and there’s almost a piano cadenza of sorts, accompanied by a few thunderous cracks of tremolo and glissandi. This might be one of the most all-encompassing movements of the work. It has just about everything in it: crunch and liveliness, quiet, broad, static-ish passages, lots of variation in scoring and expression and color, but I think that only works once everything else has been presented, and in light of the final movement being what it is, I consider this seventh movement to be the real climax of the work.

VIII. Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus is the final movement, and this is the more honest answer to the fifth movement, but we have violin and piano here. “Extremely slow and tender, ecstatic,” it is in a largely similar nature to that movement in its expression. Figures and rhythms and everything are obviously different, but to the listener, without analyzing the score, the effect is much the same. It’s comforting, embracing, warm, touching, delicate. The piano plays a 32nd note/triple-dotted-eighth figure throughout the entire piece, with some supporting chords here and there. The harmonies are characteristically colorful, but nothing steps out of place here. Even when we get into the deep, thundery bass voice of the piano, or reach mf, the biggest dynamic marking we have in the work, the result is never aggressive or violent, always warm and passionate and glowing. It’s a spectacularly soft, redemptive way to end the work, but does not to me constitute a climax of its own. It’s the winding down of what came before. If the first movement was, as the composer said, “between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds”, then this is perhaps sunset, or stargazing on a cool evening, and no matter what the day brought, good or bad, it has ended well.


As to Messiaen’s religious intent with the work, aside from the titles of each movement, there’s nothing really that communicates any kind of religious program, for me. What I visualize more than anything is the circumstances under which this work was produced. It’s at times an incredibly languid, pained, depressing work, as some of those broad, spacious musical landscapes could be interpreted as a sort of depressive ennui, staring at concrete walls all day in the pitiful existence of a POW camp, or whatever, but there are moments of beauty and signs of life and tenderness, even if you have to make them yourself. The image of four imprisoned musicians wearing whatever political prisoners wore (I envision gray coveralls) playing on decrepit instruments on a cold, rainy day in front of a crowd of miserable, tired, pitiful fellow prisoners who are, despite their conditions, paying rapt attention and being moved, understanding the expression, is a very powerful image for me, and makes this music more than just a composer’s interpretation of a religious text.

Whatever he said it was, the people in the audience that day were likely thinking many different things, as have everyone else who’s ever heard it, live or otherwise, and that ultimately is what this piece, and art in general, do: make you think. As I discussed in the introductory article for this series, art (and music especially) is a reflection of the human experience, and while most of us (hopefully) will never be in the situation Messiaen found himself in, this is a glimpse of what might go through someone’s mind and how it was expressed. Very deep stuff.

That marks the end of our prequel of sorts to the Darmstadt school. After having discussed Messiaen and Leibowitz this week, we take off next week with the first real Darmstadt composer, so stay tuned.


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