This work has been on the periphery of my consciousness for ever. Last night I heard (and saw, as it was accompanied by a video installation) the piece performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Purcell Room, Southbank.

Inevitably, one thinks of the premiere of this work over 70 years ago, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, Barrack 27, Germany, January 1941. Messiaen had been captured while working as a hospital orderly (his poor eyesight precluded joining the army) during the German invasion of France in 1940. Fortunately, a music loving German guard supplied Messiaen with pencils and music paper and facilitated the composer creating his work undisturbed.

There was a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist among Messiaen’s fellow prisoners, and he initially composed a trio for them. He later added a further 7 movements and piano, and this now constitutes Quartet for the End of Time as we know it.

The premiere was probably one of the most unusual and unique of its kind, performed in a Barrack on a freezing January night, to fellow prisoners as well as prison guards.

Of the event, Messiaen said:

‘Never have I been listened to with such attention and with such understanding.’

The story of the premiere inevitably lingers in any listening. Yet, the music itself is so hauntingly beautiful that any performance can stand alone as a sublime experience in itself. Thus it was last night. I was seduced, enthralled, and utterly moved by the music.

Messiaen was deeply religious, a devout Roman Catholic. The title of the quartet reflects its connection to the Book of Revelation:

“In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.'”

The end of time, or as Messiaen later clarified, the end of all time, appears to have a double significance here (http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/04/quartet_for_the_2.html). Firstly, it had a specific musical meaning for Messiaen. He no longer wanted time as dictated by the 1, 2, 3 of a drumbeat, but rhythms that ‘expanded, contracted, stopped in their tracks’. Secondly, the end of time means the end of life and the world as we know it, presumably triggered by the experience of living during WWII, as well as Messiaen’s deeply rooted religious beliefs. The work is divided into 8 movements, the 7 days of creation followed by the final day of eternity and timelessness.

The work is not apocalyptic in the sense that we usually use this word descriptively. Rather, it is ethereal, emotional and emotive, it surprises rather than disturbs, although it entices you into a world that is almost distressingly beautiful.

CQ

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