I haven't heard much of Olivier Messiaen's music. I have a recording of his massive Turangalila Symphony that I haven't played in well over a decade, and I'm not sure I've ever owned a recording of the work on tap for today, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, or in English, Quartet for the End of Time. But I have heard this piece before, so it's not entirely new to me.
But it sounds entirely new, because this is one of those pieces that you probably have to study closely to really tease out what's going on. It's not an easy work, by any means. As a Quartet, it's obvious that the work is scored for four musicians, but it's not a string quartet. Instead, it's scored for a clarinet, a violin, a cello, and a piano. That's a very odd grouping, to be sure, and it's partly that which creates this work's very unusual sound.
Messiaen, as did many of the greatest 20th century composers, tended to engage in a lot of experimentation, going well beyond traditional thought on melody, harmony, and form. He was an incredibly academic composer, in the best sense of the word; he was influenced by travels and studies that took him all over the world. Thus Messiaen's music is almost truly world music. You can't pin Messiaen into any simple nationalistic compositional school.
The Quartet for the End of Time has one of the most amazing stories behind its genesis that I've ever heard, and I'll just go ahead and quote Wikipedia here:
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."
It's a difficult, modern work – but it's also an unmistakably human one, an elegiac meditation on the nature of the Apocalypse. Here is the Quartet for the End of Time.
Tomorrow: to Denmark we go!