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The importance of a composer’s early influences is difficult to overestimate. In 1918, one year before Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire, his teacher Jehan de Gibon gave him a score of Debussy’s opera Pélleas et Mélisande. Messiaen described it as “a thunderbolt” and “probably the most decisive influence on me.” Perhaps this as much as anything would determine his musical roots, which lay in Debussy’s anti-symphonic outlook, rather than the 19th-century symphonic tradition. But even by the time he wrote Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), Messiaen had found his own modal system with a completely individual sound.

The quartet came out of, and was originally performed in, very particular circumstances. Near the beginning of World War II Messiaen was summoned for military service. He was captured in May 1940, and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp at Görlitz in Silesia (now mostly within the borders of Poland). In the dead of winter of 1940-41, he wrote the quartet for the instruments on hand among the camp’s inmates: violin, cello, clarinet, and (himself playing) piano. The first performance took place before a large audience of prisoners. It was his most ambitious work so far – a sequence of eight movements that spoke to this Biblical passage from Revelations:

I saw a mighty angel descend from heaven, clad in mist; and a rainbow was upon his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He set his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the earth, and standing thus on sea and earth he lifted his hand to heaven and swore by Him who liveth for ever and ever, saying: There shall be time no longer; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God shall be finished.

Messiaen’s understanding of this passage speaks not to a vision of the Apocalypse, nor to his own situation as a prisoner, but to the idea of the end of Time as the end of past and future and the beginning of eternity. The music was meant to be an extension of the Angel of the Apocalypse’s words, and one with particular musical meaning, for Messiaen was no longer interested in time as rhythm. He did not want to hear steady rhythms like military drums, and instead aspired to rhythms outside of time. Messiaen wrote the following explanations of each segment of the piece:

I. Liturgy of crystal. Between the morning hours of three and four, the awakening of the birds: a thrush or a nightingale soloist improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose themselves high in the trees. Transpose this to the religious plane: you will have the harmonious silence of heaven.

II. Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time. The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of that mighty angel, his hair a rainbow and his clothing mist, who places one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. Between these sections are the ineffable harmonies of heaven. From the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, encircling with their distant carillon the plainchant-like recitativo of the violin and cello.

III. Abyss of the birds. Clarinet solo. The abyss is Time, with its sadnesses and tediums. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song!

IV. Interlude. Scherzo. Of a more outgoing character than the other movements but related to them, nonetheless, by various melodic references.

V. Praise to the eternity of Jesus. Jesus is here considered as one with the Word. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello expatiates with love and reverence on the everlastingness of the Word, mighty and dulcet, “which the years can in no way exhaust.” Majestically the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

VI. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets. Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse attend various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announces the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of extended note values, augmented or diminished rhythmic patterns, non-retrogradable rhythms – a systematic use of values which, read from left to right or from right to left, remain the same. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury or ice-like frenzy. Listen particularly to the terrifying fortissimo of the theme in augmentation and with change of register of its different notes, toward the end of the piece.

VII. Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Time. Here certain passages from the second movement return. The mighty angel appears, and in particular the rainbow that envelops him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, of wisdom, of every quiver of luminosity and sound). In my dreamings I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms; then, following this transitory stage I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These fiery swords, these rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: Behold the cluster, behold the rainbow!

VIII. Praise to the immortality of Jesus. Expansive violin solo balancing the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second glorification? It addresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus – to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, raised up immortal from the dead so as to communicate His life to us. It is total love. Its slow rising to a supreme point is the ascension of man toward his God, of the Son of God toward his Father, of the mortal newly made divine toward paradise.

And I repeat anew what I said above: All this is mere striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!

Jessie Rothwell writes music, plays oboe, and sings Bulgarian folk music.