Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time has an impressive history.
Messiaen was captured by the German army in June 1940 and incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in Gorlitz, now part of Poland. Fellow prisoners were clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Etienne Pasquier.
He managed to get some paper and a pencil from a sympathetic guard and wrote a trio, which was then expanded into a quartet, with Messiaen playing the piano.
The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, in 1941. The instruments were poor, but Messiaen said his music was never listened to with such “rapt attention”.
Listening to it now one is struck by the suitability of the modern aesthetic to grim subject matter. The harmonic language is perpetually unresolved, which means any sense of balance and resolution must be derived from other musical elements.
In such a straitened wartime environment the aimlessness implicit in non-diatonic harmony – where any distinction between dissonance and consonance is difficult for the ear to detect – is entirely apposite. When major chords are used, they simply hang, as if they have little relation to what came before or after.
But can it be said to be beyond time? Music is a linear art form; it occurs in time. The implicit tension of music written “at the end of time” is that any sense of the atemporal must still unfold – over time. It is perhaps the kind of paradoxical conundrum that keeps one entertained in a prison camp.
There is certainly a great deal of experimenting with time. Messiaen uses space gorgeously, creating a sense that moments are being frozen. He includes a series of dances that seem to have rhythms, tempo, yet these occur only in outline. There is no regular time signature, beat.
Sometimes, the effect is one of repose, even serenity. At other times there is a sense of movement but never a sense of direction. Passages build to climaxes but they do not resolve.
The sonority of the piece is exceptional, hinting at something much greater than a mere quartet. The unusual combination of instruments is here an advantage because it hints at something more orchestral. The textures are delicious and the voice movements purposeful and elegant.
Yet there is always a sense of, if not creeping despair, at least darkness created by the harmonic language. This is of course a dark subject, but if there is no possibility of resolution – darkness can only be perceived if it can be contrasted with light – then it becomes undifferentiated. The language of joy and triumph in Beethoven, Bach or Mozart is unavoidably out of reach.
Messiaen said he based the piece on a phrase in the Book of Revelation: “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand towards heaven, saying: ‘There shall be time no longer.’ ”
It certainly meant that predictable tempos and beats would be avoided, especially when such rhythms were associated with the drums of war. Messiaen devised other ways of dealing with time, expanding, contracting, stopping and reversing passages.
Ending time could also have meant escaping history, an understandable enough sentiment as the civilised world collapsed. But if this is a suggestion in the piece, there is no sense that personal time has ceased. The deeply personal nature of the music suggests a mind that is experiencing passing in a complex, often contradictory and sometimes paradoxical, manner. In the end history is simply an aggregation of those experiences of duration.
One question that is posed by such avant-garde writing, which was explored by composers such as Stockhausen and Boulez, is, in self-consciously being presented as a departure from the past, how much is it dependent on that past for its identity? By being so self-consciously new, to what extent does it look back rather than point forward?
One gets the sense that Messiaen was better than many other composers of the period at pointing forward; that his works are somehow more “timeless”, if there can be such a thing (there can’t). The artistic road he sketched out seemed to go forward rather than reach a cul-de-sac.
What is sure is that this is a piece that is worth listening to – time and time again, as it were. The apocalyptic beauty, which is fired by the intensity of emotion that accompanied such extreme conditions, retains its immediacy and quiet grandeur.
David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.