Messiaen and the End of Time

End of the world - end of time? © Charles Thibo
End of the world – end of time? © Charles Thibo

Our musical journey has taken us several centuries back with Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Tchaikovsky and Respighi to the dawn of the 20th century. Old stuff. Good stuff, but old stuff nevertheless. Perhaps I can invite you to jump back to the present to discover contemporary composers of classical music? Daring composers like… Olivier Messiaen.

I must confess, before I was ready for the “Neue Musik”, I had to overcome old listening habits and prejudices stemming from a concert that went horribly wrong. Some 15 years ago, I attended a concert in the German city of Weimar. After the pause, the orchestra played a piece composed by Arnold Schönberg, one of the pioneers of the “Neue Musik”. It’s there that things went wrong, at least in my ears. The orchestra probably did a good job, but I was thunderstruck and horrified: no apparent structure, no melodies, what the…?

I needed a hand to guide me through this strange, new world. I found one and I will try to guide you in a similar way. And Messiaen is a good starting point. He was a French composer, born in 1908. He died in 1992 after a long and successful career as an organist, pianist and composer. He worked as a musical scholar from 1936 on with an interruption during World War II.

I will confront you with one work and one work only at this time:  a piece for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, the “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (Quartet for the End of Time). Did you have a chance to see that wonderful Wim Wenders movie “Until the End of the Time” with that cool soundtrack featuring Lou Reed, R.E.M., Depeche Mode and U2? Remember the Australian desert where our heroes are waiting for the end of the world under the glaring sun? Well, Messiaen’s quartet could have been part of the soundtrack too. It confers an oppressive atmosphere full of anxiety, and still, there is a subtle subtone of consolation, expressing a faint hope that after all there may still be a good outcome.

The quartet reflects in a very palpable way the circumstances under which it was written. Messiaen composed it in 1940/41 while he was in German captivity. He served in the French army as a medical orderly when he was made a prisoner-of-war during the French retreat. The piece was performed first in a POW camp in the town of Görlitz on the Polish-German border on January 15, 1941 in front of prisoners and German soldiers.

Try the recording of the piece performed by Olivier Messiaen, Jean Pasquier, Etienne Pasquier & André Vacellier (on Spotify). Etienne Pasquier, the cellist, was made a POW along with Messiaen in 1940. You will identify at least bits of melodies in some of the eight movements. Other movements will first sound like senseless noise. And the quartet is full of surprises: The 4th movement features parts that sound like traditional Vietnamese music, while the 5th and 8th movements comes closer to traditional classic compositions with its long, sad melody. Take the time to listen to the complete quartet two or three times. You will – hopefully – perceive a difference at some point  and discover logical pattern. The piece will then start to make sense and reveal its inherent message. That’s the moment when you will start to enjoy it.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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