Some years ago I was told that the french composer Oliver Messiaen was an ornithologist, and that he often worked his own transcriptions of bird songs into the chamber music he composed. Inspired by this I walked over to Hymie’s – I was not yet in any way employed there – and bought this album, based on its trippy artwork on compelling title.
I listened to his Quartet for the End of Time one time but didn’t read the liner notes. The unusual clarinet part satisfied my curiosity, and The recurring “Louange a l’eternite de Jesus (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus)” caught my ear, but I only played the record once, as it quickly became buried in my disorganized collection.
Fast forward to last week, when this recording of the same piece on Angel’s “Music of Today” imprint came into the shop. Again, the jacket caught my eye, but this time for different reasons. Somebody’s making a pretty bold choice when there’s a swastika on an album cover, after all. It depends somewhat on the context — Thelonious Monk’s Underground, for instance, portrays the pianist as a freedom fighter of the French resistance, and so the Nazi flag draped over a radiator represents the opposite of an association.
Old albums on Angel do not credit an art director or cover artist, but they often have very interesting covers (this is one of the things I have always enjoyed about the classical section of any record shop). The fractured swastika may represent the broken world created by Nazism, or maybe it’s ultimate failure to unite the people. I can’t say, being an even less qualified as an art critic than I am a music critic.
Here is the story behind Messiaen’s Quartuor pour la fin du temps: Messiaen was thirty-one years old when Germany invaded France, but his poor eyesight kept him from the front line. Instead he served in the medical auxiliary, but was nonetheless captured by Nazi troops in Verdun. While held at Stalag 8-A in lower Silesia (in what is today Poland), Messiaen met several musicians, including a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist. He composed a trio for them which was eventually expanded to include a piano. That work, his Quartet for the End of Time, was debuted on January 15th, 1941 before an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners.
Messiaen later recalled his impromptu audience with great fondness. “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” he wrote. Hollywood (or the writers of Hogan’s Heroes) could never dream up a story so extraordinary and inspirational. Even if the Quartet were never again performed, it’s debut in a POW camp was a powerful condemnation of Nazism.
Messiaen’s manuscript was accompanied by a preface by the composer, and a paragraph explaining each of the eight movements. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, explains that the work was “directly inspired” by this passage, the opening verses of the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelations:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….
Apocalypticism aside, the title may also refer to the compositions unique approach to musical time. “Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities,” he writes in his original score. Many passages expand and contract conventional time, and the unique piano arrangement in the first movement, “Liturgie de cristal (Crystal Liturgy)” has an ethereal and unbound quality. It’s methodical repetition of a simple seventeen tone phrase through nearly two dozen chords is hypnotic.
The debut performance at Stalag 8-A relied on any instruments that could be found. The Quartet has since been recorded a number of times under much more comfortable circumstances. The album I first bought was by the Tashi Quartet – Ida Kavafian, Peter Serkin, Fred Sherry and Richard Stoltzman – a group originally formed for the purpose of recording Messiaen’s piece. Over the next several years they recorded other chamber works ranging from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet to new pieces by Toru Takemitsu. They re-formed years later to celebrate what would have been Messiaen’s 100th birthday with a tour. Their 1977 recording for RCA/Victor’s Red Seal imprint is the one you’ll hear below.
Messiaen was released from the camp not long after the performance, and he returned to France where he took a prominent position at the Paris Conservatory. I have always found it hard to imagine a place like the Paris Conservatory going about its day-to-day business during the war, but indeed that’s what they did. Messiaen’s students in the coming years would include Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and he continued to compose as well. It was in the sixties that he more actively began to incorporate bird songs into his work, as I had been told years ago by a friend. A 1953 piece Réveil des oiseaux consists almost entirely of bird songs heard in the dawning of a day in a region of the western Alps called the Jura Mountains.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Messiaen’s compositions is his consistent use of palindromic rhythms. These, combined with extended harmonic sequences, would theoretically (if played indefinitely) exhaust all potential variations, and return to their relative starting points. The interaction between the cello and the piano in “Liturgie de cristal” is one example of this concept. In presenting only a portion of this elaborate and epic interaction, Messiaen is providing the listener only a glimpse of something beyond the scale of a human lifetime. What we hear performed is a tiny snapshot of something eternal.
We live again in times of great apocalyptic fervor, yet we seem to be turning away from the natural world in circumstances which drove artists like Messiaen into its refuge. Ironically, the most extreme example of this, and the most famous quartet of recent decades, was composed by a former student of Messiaen. Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet) calls for the performers to be in walk outside after their introduction and ride in four separate helicopters above the hall for the duration of their performance. The entire spectacle is presented to the audience on a series of video monitors.
If you’re thinking that sounds absurd, I submit it is no more so than the way we separate ourselves at every chance by listening to our own private music on earbuds. We buy our groceries at self-checkout counters and nearly everything else online. For many of us in the only thing more actively avoided than human contact is interaction with the natural environment. There are many artists like Messiaen, to be sure, whose work draws upon faith and deeper relationships (His Quartet for the End of Time) was written to be performed by friends he had made of fellow POWs, for instance). When I think of how musicians like this must fit into an increasingly commercial and alienating industry, I recall the ending of Heinrich Böll’s novel about post-war Germany, The Clown. Hans (a clown “who collects moments”) finds himself with nowhere to turn. In the end he takes a guitar to the train station and plays as people drop change into his case.
Liturgie de cristal
(Liturgy of crystal)
Vocalise, pour l’ange qui announce la fin de Temps
(Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time)
Abime des oiseaux
(Abyss of the birds)
Louange a l’eternite de Jesus
(Praise to the eternity of Jesus)
Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes
(Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets)
Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
(Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Times)
Louange a l’immortalite de Jesus
(Praise to the immortality of Jesus)