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Name of Work

Messiaen, Olivier (1908-1992)
Quartet for the End of Time for clarinet, violin, cello, piano (2000)

Liturgy of crystal
Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time
Abyss of the birds
Praise to the Eternity of Jesus
Dance of fury, for seven trumpets
Cluster of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of time
Praise to the immortality of Jesus


May 26, 2000

Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Christopher Costanza, Cello
Larry Combs, Clarinet
Deborah Sobol, Piano

MESSIAEN - Quartet for the end of time

Composed in 1940

Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) joined the French army at the outbreak of World War II; because of his poor eyesight he was found unfit for active service. He was stationed at a medical auxiliary in Verdun when the German invasion took place in May 1940; he then traveled on foot to Nancy. In June he was captured by the Germans, while trying to escape on an old bicycle with no tires. He was taken to Stalag VIIIA, a prison camp at Gorlitz in Silesia (now in Poland), carrying a haversack filled with his "treasures"—Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and scores by Beethoven, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Berg.

Among his fellow inmates at Gorlitz Messiaen discovered three musicians—a violinist and clarinetist who had both managed to bring their instruments with them into the camp, and a cellist who found within the prison walls an old, damaged cello with a broken string. That winter, in the cold isolation of Stalag VIIIA and with no certainly of his own future, Messiaen composed the Quartet for the End of Time for himself and his three fellow prisoner-musicians to play.

The first performance—what would, under normal circumstances, be called the "world premiere"—was given in January 1941 inside the prison walls, in the freezing cold, with Messiaen playing a piano that was "badly out of tune, with some keys sticking, periodically," for an audience of 5,000 prisoners. Years later, when Messiaen had become one of the most influential and acclaimed composers of the twentieth century, he would remember that night: "Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding."

The Quartet for the End of Time was Messiaen's most ambitious work to date. This music could only have been written by someone for whom the passage of time itself had taken on a new and deeper meaning. Messiaen's treatment of meter and rhythm—the way a musician traditionally marks time—is extraordinary, moving from obstinately repetitive passages to hypnotic trance-like solos in which the sense of an underlying pulse disappears altogether. In these moments— the accompanied solos for the string instruments and the third movement for clarinet alone—Messiaen conjures images of eternity quite unlike anything else in music. Messiaen dedicated the score to the Angel "who lifts his hand towards the heaven saying 'There shall be no more time.'" (He took his title from a pas¬sage in the Apocalypse.)

It is surely also no coincidence that in this score, for the first time in his career, Messiaen imitates the sounds of birds singing; writing music behind prison walls, birdsong must have seemed to him like the sound of freedom itself. In the opening measures of the first movement, the clarinet (the voice of a blackbird) and the violin (the high trilling of the nightingale) announce dawn, against the earthbound chords of the piano. Both the piano and cello parts in this movement are rigorously organized: the piano, for example, plays a cycle of twenty-nine chords over a rhythmic ostinato of seventeen values (the cycles keep repeating and overlapping, but never coincide). Here, in this encounter of rhapsodic birdsong and rhythmic organization, we sense the dichotomy of Messiaen's world at the time—the conflict of pure freedom against the reality of rigid control. In 1940, Messiaen could find their common ground only in music.

The instrumentation of the Quartet, dictated by fate, is for an unusual combination of instruments, and pre¬sented a particular challenge to Messiaen, who had written virtually no chamber music before. The Quartet's luxuriousness and richness of sound stand in remarkable contrast to the conditions within the camp, with its tasteless food and "wooden drawers" that served for beds.

The number of movements, too, carries great meaning: Messiaen explains that seven is the perfect number, but here seven "extends into eternity and becomes the eight of indefectible light, of unalterable peace." They range greatly in color, impact, and scoring. The third movement, for clarinet alone, is a magnificent monologue, juxtaposing expansive views of the abyss with joyous birdsong. The fifth movement, for cello over mysteriously shifting piano chords, is marked "infinitely slow, ecstatic," but the subsequent dance, for all four instruments in unison (an extraordinary effect) suggests the "irresistible movement of steel, of huge blocks of purple fury, of abandonment frozen." With the last movement, an expansive duo for violin and piano, time simply seems to slip away.

Messiaen was released from Stalag VIIIA in the spring of 1941. He took a job teaching harmony at the Conservatory in Paris (then an occupied city), began a landmark composition treatise, and started to build a circle of gifted students (including Pierre Boulez). But for two years after his release he wrote virtually no music.

Program Notes by Phillip Huscher

Performed May 26, 2000

Performance Audio

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