Meditation on Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

A meditation on Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time".

— By | February 12, 2010

The prodigious events which surrounded the germination, composition, and performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps are known to us for all time – so long as the time we understand by that term lasts in the normative function– thanks to the testimony of Messiaen himself, and to the books available on the history of the work (by Anthony Pople and Rebecca Rischin, respectively).

Olivier Messiaen, the eminent French composer of the 20th century, conceived the formal structure of the work while a prisoner-of-war at Stalag VIII A in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). The Quartet was the serendipitous product of a meeting, at first, between Messiaen (serving as a medical auxiliary) and the cellist Etienne Pasquier (corporal and Messiaen’s direct superior) at the citadel of Vauban, in Verdun, where Messiaen persuaded Pasquier to attend with him the ritual of passing the wee hours of nightwatch watching the dawn burst in symphony with the conducting cries of the birds. (Messiaen, a favored pupil of Paul Dukas and the Conservatoire, and its most preternaturally gifted student since Debussy, was also a self-trained ornithologist.)

Later, when Messiaen and Pasquier were taken prisoner by the swarming Nazi forces thatOlivier Messiaen swept over Belgium and Luxembourg into northern France, they were transferred to Stalag VIII A, where they chanced to meet the clarinetist Henri Akoka, who had been provident enough to bring with him his instrument. What began as a fortuitous encounter became a trio; and with the subtle encouragement of the camp’s presiding German officer (so strong was the lure of music in the hearts of Rhineland officers who lay on the opposing side), the trio became a quartet after a violinist was introduced to the fold (Jean Le Boulaire) and daily practices were permitted for Messiaen and his impromptu cadre to prepare a performance for the entertainment of the prisoners. In Messiaen’s own words:

Conceived and composed during my captivity, the Quartet for the End of Time was premiered in Stalag VIII A, on 15 January 1941. It took place in Görlitz, in Silesia, in a dreadful cold. Stalag was buried in snow. We were 30,000 prisoners (French for the most part, with a few Poles and Belgians). The four musicians played on broken instruments: Etienne Pasquier’s cello had only 3 strings; the keys of my upright piano remained lowered when depressed… It’s on this piano, with my three fellow musicians, dressed in the oddest way — I myself wearing a bottle-green suit of a Czech soldier — completely tattered, and wooden clogs large enough for the blood to circulate despite the snow underfoot… that I played my Quartet for the End of Time, before an audience of 5,000 people. The most diverse classes of society were mingled: farmers, factory workers, intellectuals, professional servicemen, doctors, priests. Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.

The Quartet had an ultimate, religious purpose for Messiaen — all his life a devout Catholic — since it proposed an end to the tyranny of time over traditional musical composition and over the hearts and minds of the imprisoned for whom he composed. The work is inspired by the biblical verses in the Book of Revelation (10:1-7, King James Version):

And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that are therein, and the earth and the things in it, and the sea and those things therein; 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 consummated, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.

The chamber work  (as tremendous in the frigid open air of a vast prison camp as it is contemplative in the closed warm-lit hall of an auditorium) stands as a profound miracle of resilience and triumph over captivity, a work whose significance arises from the sharp contrast it makes to the horror and hopelessness of war; its origin is momentous, and its nonretrogradable cadence across the stunted slab of traditional metrics is timeless.

Quatuor pour la fin du Temps

Below I’ve listed all 8 movements of the Quartet, along with Messiaen’s own ‘Preface’ to the work, in which he describes the poetics and spirit of each movement.

(1) Liturgy of crystal

Between 3 and 4 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.


(2) Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of time

The 1st and 2nd 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 the cello.

(3) Abyss of birds

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 songs.

Messiaen on birds:



(4) Interlude

Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.

(5) Praise to the eternity of Jesus

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 the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’

(6) Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets

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 nonretrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Hear especially all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.

(7) Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of time

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 the ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout compenetration of  superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the cluster, there are the rainbows!

(8) Praise to the immortality of Jesus

Large violin solo, counterpart to the violincello solo of the 5th 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.



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