The Quartet for the End of Time was premiered at the Stalag VIII prisoner-of-war camp on 15 January 1941 in front of about 400 prisoners and guards. The performers were: Henri Akoka (clarinet), Jean le Boulaire (violin), Étienne Pasquier (cello) and Messiaen himself (piano).
Messiaen wrote in the preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation:
‘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 ...’
And here are his own programme notes:
I. Liturgie de cristal (clarinet, violin, cello and piano)
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.
II. Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du temps (clarinet, violin, cello and piano)
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.
III. Abîme des oiseaux (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 song.
IV. Intermède (clarinet, violin and cello)
Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.
V. Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus (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."
VI. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (clarinet, violin, cello and piano)
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. Listen especially to all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.
VII. Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du temps (clarinet, violin, cello and piano)
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 colours and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout co-penetration of superhuman sounds and colours. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!
VIII. Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus (violin and piano)
Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at the 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.
I am sure that musical analyses of this great work are in plentiful supply, so I will limit myself to just a few observations on the themes of time and transcendence.
In the four movements involving all four instruments, Messiaen subverts the idea of linear time. Rhythms that fold back on themselves (palindrome), additive rhythms which unsettle the sense of the regular and layering of different length ostinato rhythms. For the listener it is the ostinatos that are the most significant, we can easily hear them in process. Perhaps we should mention that the cycles of time, the additive rhythms are hugely influenced by Messiaen’s study of Eastern music and philosophy.
The aspect of ‘timeless’ is also expressed by quoting birdsong, which seems to exist in its own terms, that is without specific location. Put simply, whether Brexit was idiotic or did the ball actually cross the line in the ’66 world cup, the birds still sing, they always have done and always will.
The most personal movement is Abîme des oiseaux for solo clarinet. ‘The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness.’ This surely references the sadness and weariness of time in the camp. Here the birdsong represents liberation from incarceration, liberation from our temporal worlds.
Messiaen said that the the two solo duets for cello and piano and violin and piano, the emotional core of the work, were linked. I didn’t know that the composer had originally called the final (violin and piano) movement Sécond Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus, referencing the cello and piano’s Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus. These movements are big, expansive melodies in the key of E major, gradually unfolding with an exceptionally slow pulse or heartbeat. A metaphor for eternity? Maybe. But they do have a common bond of ‘otherness’, of the transcendental.
For me, The Quartet for the End of Time is the greatest personal testimony of faith. It radiates a spiritual, religious belief. It also gives to this atheist a window into that insight, that profound experience (by proxy), for which I feel truly blessed.
Here’s a recording of the work performed by Sabine Meyer (clarinet), Antje Weithaas (violin), Sol Gabetta (cello) and Bertrand Chamayou (piano).