Our January edition of the Listening Club explores Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, a work which we will be performing on Friday 21 February at Kings Place.
Want to know more about the piece? Get in touch by posting a comment (on the left hand side of this article) and we’ll answer any questions you may have!
Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
by Philip Cashian
Messiaen‘s Quartet for the End of Time is an extraordinary work; written in a German prison camp for fellow prisoners and first performed there in January 1941 to an audience of 5,000, it is one of the great pieces of chamber music from the twentieth century (and most performed). The title refers to the vision of the Angel in the Apocalypse who ‘swore that there should be no more Time’. It also refers to Messiaen’s desire to get away from the common practice in classical music of dividing the beat into equal durations.
Clarinet, piano, violin and cello is not a combination Messiaen is likely to have chosen in more conventional circumstances. The quartet is too large to allow the piano to become a soloist and too small to obtain the rich timbral world more commonly associated with Messiaen’s music. However, by using different combinations of instruments through the eight movements he achieves a huge variety of colours from the entire ensemble.
For me, the appeal of the piece is it’s directness – both of musical organisation and emotional delivery (which I think is unquestionable). There is no counterpoint, (for example, throughout movement 1 (00:10), even though all the instruments are playing), a lot of unison writing in movement 4 (16:10), many repetitive, almost trance-like, repetitions of chords in movement 5 (17:58) and the use of extremes of instrumental register in movement 3 (7:49) for maximum dramatic effect.
The opening movement, Liturgie de cristal, presents independent imitations of bird song in the clarinet and violin over repeating patterns in the piano and cello. If you listen (and count!) carefully you can hear the cello repeating the same five notes (C, E, D, F sharp, B flat) but through a repeating pattern cycle of fifteen durations (opening – 00:37). The piano part combines a repeating 29 chord cycle with the repetition of a cycle of 17 durations (opening – 00:40). All four instruments combine to beautifully create the feeling of four layers of music floating along and co-existing.
Listen out for the opening of the second movement reappearing and being developed in the seventh movement (33:11 – 33:33).
The 3rd (07:49) and 6th movements (25:24) are both monodies. Messiaen employs the augmentation and diminution of rhythms in which a simple pattern or a single note’s duration may be halved or doubled, creating tension, forward momentum, stasis and an unpredictability to harmony or melody. (25:24 – 26:26)
The 5th (17:58) and 8th movements (38:54) are both slow movements for each of the string instruments. Rich, plaintive melodies underpinned by simple piano chords pushing the instruments to their extremes. (44:30 – 45:56)
Q. Karl Lutchmayer (@KarlLutchmayer) tweeted us asking why the phrasing differs according to instrument in some of the unison sections of ‘7 trumpets’ (6th movement).
A. Messiaen opts to write separate bows for the violin and cello parts at times when the clarinet part is slurred. At these points, Messiaen is looking to create more volume and power from the strings, varying the instrumental balance at different points throughout the movement.
Messiaen‘s influence is wide ranging. Here are a few examples of other composers influenced by him:
George Benjamin was a student of Messiaen. In this example from Palimpsest I you can hear rich harmonic writing reminiscent of his teacher. (01:55 – 02:35)
Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s guitarist, claims Messiaen as a huge influence. This is evident in the unpredictable repetition of the piano’s repeated chords in the opening of Pyramid Song. (Opening – 02:00)
The detailed blending of rich harmonies and instrumental colour in Jonathan Harvey‘s Sringara Chaconne shows the influence of Messiaen (01:01 – 03:13)