Saturday, 27 January 2024

CHF 150 | 110 | 50 | 30.-

O. Messiaen
Quatuor pour la fin du Temps

Under the patronage of

Concert presentation

Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time)
Listening to this work, audiences might imagine instinctively that it was composed during a war; during the most terrible of all wars, indeed. To be even more exact: by a composer in captivity. Be that as it may, let us begin at the beginning: in the summer of 1940, as a French soldier, Messiaen was captured by the German army and transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in modern-day Poland. He was 32. Amid this confusion, a ray of light: his encounter with clarinettist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean Le Boulaire and cellist Étiennde Pasquier. He decided to write a trio for them – and the Trio became a quartet when Messiaen had the idea of joining the ensemble on the piano. Messiaen was adamant that his inspiration was religious. His score is prefaced by an excerpt from chapter 10 of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament: ‘[he swore] 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.’

There should be time no longer: such seems to have been the intention – artistically speaking, at least, of the devout Messiaen, who would go on explain of his work: ‘Its musical language is essentially immaterial, spiritual, Catholic … Special rhythms, beyond any regular metre, contribute greatly to the transcendence of the temporal.’ Even so, it is impossible to ignore the conflict tearing Europe apart at the time when this Quartet was being sketched. Its first movement (Liturgie de cristal – ‘Crystal liturgy’) turns our ears into eyes, in order to project them into the sights of a sniper rifle: the enemy is prowling, the finger hesitates to pull the trigger – even if Messiaen preferred to see in it ‘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’. The ‘Vocalise for the angel who announces the end of time’ is then propelled by a sense of violent chaos. We hear screaming, desperate running from the bombs, one ceases to breathe, prays, expires. A way of outlining, through the intervention of ‘sweet cascades of blue-orange chords on the piano’, what the composer called ‘the intangible harmonies of heaven’.

The third movement, Abîme des oiseaux (‘Abyss of birds’) sees us reeling between ‘Time – with its sadnesses, its tediums’ – and once again the birds, which are intended to represent ‘the opposite of Time’, that is to say, ‘our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song’. Performed by solo clarinet and renowned for its difficulty, it is perhaps this movement that renders tangible ‘the elimination of equal tempi, the difficulty of irrational values’ and ‘rhythms augmented then diminished, that cannot be downgraded’ that the composer envisaged. More academic in nature, the Intermède (Interlude) that follows leads us into a decadent cabaret, almost reminiscent of a haunted house. For a moment, the battle comes to a halt. But its glacial, ugly echo reverberates even at a distance.

Embellished by violin and piano, the Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) emerges as a long, atonal song of love, sustained by gestures that seem almost romantic. In Messiaen’s own enigmatic words, ‘Jesus is here considered as one with the Word’. All this is in complete contrast to the Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (‘Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets’) that follows – the most illustrative of all the movements that make up this promised ‘end of time’. For, in unison, the four instruments appear to portray ‘[this] great trembling of the earth, [this] black sun like a sackcloth of hair, [this] entire moon filled with blood’ and ‘[these] stars falling to earth’ which symbolize Revelation.

Next we have the Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps (‘Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time’), born in wisdom and a kind of exquisite pleasure (here after all is the Angel, and the rainbow), suddenly contradicted by dissonance and disagreement (the stated ‘tangle’), or, in the words of the composer, ‘a gyratory interlocking of superhuman sounds and colours’. [The concluding string section may remind cinema-lovers of the soundtrack of a certain famous Hitchcock scene.] The Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus (‘Praise to the immortality of Jesus’). Jesus as Word, purely theoretical until now, finally makes himself ‘flesh, resurrected in immortality to communicate life to us’. As for the ‘slow ascent to the extreme high register’ of the violin, it sees itself as an illustration of ‘the ascent of man to God, of the creature deified towards Paradise’.

Fuelled by rhythms of ancient Greece and even ones from Hindu tradition, this unique work received its premiere in the rain, on 15 January 1941 in Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, in the presence of 400 prisoners of war. Messiaen would later recall ‘Étienne Pasquier’s cello had only three strings, the keys on my piano kept sticking. I had been got up in a green jacket that was falling apart, and I was wearing wooden clogs.’ However, as he went on to say, ‘I had never been listened to with such attentiveness and appreciation.’ After the concert, the Oberkommando of the Wehrmacht liberated Messiaen together with his colleagues, as ‘non-combatant soldier musicians’. In spite of this good fortune, once the war was over the composer still refused to receive the German soldier who had secretly provided him with paper and a pencil to write his quartet. And yet the position of professor of harmony at the Conservatoire national de Paris, to which Messiaen was assigned in 1942, would be the role previously occupied by André Bloch, removed because of anti-Semitic laws. War is truly a nasty business.

Same day