The story behind Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Wednesday, 20 July 2016
Messiaen Quartet for the end of time

Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992). He was a French composer, organist, and ornithologist, one of the major composers of the 20th century. He travelled widely and wrote works inspired by diverse influences such as Japanese music, the landscape of Bryce Canyon in Utah and the life of St. Francis of Assisi.He said he perceived colours when he heard certain musical chord(a phenomenon known as synaesthesia).

Virtuoso clarinettist Julian Bliss and adventurous NZTrio are embarking on a national tour that will bring them from Invercargill to Auckland. At the heart of this collaboration is Messiaen’s seminal Quartet for the End of Time, whose wit and beauty belie the fact that it was composed in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

The French composer was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, while he was serving as a nurse. During this tragic times, he turned to music as his anchor and source of hope. He succeeded in obtaining paper and pencil from a guard, and befriended other musicians in the camp. In Nancy, he had met clarinetist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier, who would later premiere his Quartet for the End of Time, with Messiaen himself playing piano. With the musicians available, he created a quartet featuring a typical instrumentation for a 20th–century chamber work: clarinet, cello, violin and piano.

In Messiaen’s words: “An upright piano was brought into the camp, very out of tune, the keys of which seemed to stick at random. On this piano I played my Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, in front of an audience of 5,000 — the most diverse mixture of all classes in society — farmworkers, laborers, intellectuals, career soldiers, doctors and priests. Never have I been listened to with such attention and such understanding.”

Cellist Étienne Pasquier remembers “People listened raptly, their thoughts turning inward, even those who may have been listening to chamber music for the first time. The concert took place on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 1941, at 6 in the evening. It was bitterly cold outside the hut, and there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops.”

Messiaen was a man of faith, he dedicated the composition In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who raises his hand towards Heaven saying “There shall be no more time”.

One of Messiaen's most known quotes present us with the composer's main themes all in one group: “My faith is the grand drama of my life. I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none.”

Julian Bliss and NZ Trio are touring NZ from 22 July-7 August. For details click here.