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Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)

Olivier Messiaen

Tashi Quartet

RCA Victor Gold Seal

1976

Hearing the all-star cast of the Tashi quartet (Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, and Richard Stoltzman) record Messiaen’s quartet in 1976 feels much like looking at pictures of your parents before they had any children. Each of these musicians has gone on to an illustrious musical careers of his own, and this particular recording was made before much of their serious careers as musicians. Although younger at the time of this recording, the quartet realizes Messiaen’s work with a mature exuberance and an intense attention to motive and detail that vaulted Messiaen’s music to the fame it currently enjoys: the vast litany of recordings of the work all seem to begin with this one in mind. Though this is an older recording, there is still no surprise that it was recommended by Alex Ross in his recent work, “The Rest is Noise”.

It was, of course, a pity that the quartet should have disbanded after this recording, yet fitting that these four musicians should have come together to present this quartet last year for Messiaen’s centennial celebration. It has been nearly forty years after Barthes killed the author and Foucault wrote the epitaph, but now is as good a time as any to reflect on Messiaen’s experience and intentions in writing “Quartet for the End of Time”.

Olivier Messiaen was captured as a prisoner of war in the fall of 1940 while he was fighting in World War II. While interned in Germany at Stalag VIII-a, Messiaen met three other professional musicians: clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. The combination isn’t necessarily traditional (but not without precedent) and it seems that necessity was a catalyst for Messiaen’s talents: a little more than a year later, Messiaen and the three other musicians premiered the quartet to an audience of four hundred inmates and prison guards.

The piece is conceived and developed from Revelation 10:1-2, 5-7, a majestic description of the coming of the angel that brings in the apocalypse. Each of the movements reconciles an aspect of this vision in Messiaen’s very personal sense of Catholic mysticism, in his own description: I. Liturgy of Crystal, II. Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time, III. Abyss of birds, IV. Interlude, V. Praise to the eternity of Jesus, VI. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets, VII. Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Time, VIII. Praise to the immortality of Jesus.

The music itself is hauntingly detached and imperial, yet personal. Certainly, Messiaen’s God is somehow majestically draconian, his Christ is marmoreal. Birds flit in and out of Messiaen’s world not as worldly creatures but spectral missives of the sort Noah or Mary beheld. As detached and dispassionate as this may seem, there are uniquely personal elements throughout the entire piece: the birdsong of the third movement, or the religious reverie that pulses through the obsessive driving unison of the sixth movement.

Certainly, there are many reasons that Messiaen thought fit to compose a piece for the end of time. Personal reasons aside, Messiaen’s musical narrative takes place at the end of a social and political era — World War II was ushering in a world of economic hardship for the national leaders of the free world; Nazi persecution, torture, and mass murders were re-defining the image of humanity and the regard for human life in terrifying new ways; scientific developments magnified human power over nature to previously unthinkable levels and revolutionized its perception of reality. The ways in which the old regimes were changing were not necessarily exciting or hopeful. In fact, many of the recent developments seemed the opposite. However, written in a German war camp, about the end of the world, the end of time, Messiaen’s piece, steely in its portrayal of God and the Apocalypse still manages optimism. Messiaen’s end is not one of fire, inhumanity and mass destruction. His world saw the end in praise of eternal comfort and glory.