Messiaen’s most famous work was first performed to some hundreds of Allied prisoners of war and their German captors at Stalag VIIIA, in Görlitz, Germany, in the depths of winter in 1941. Messiaen had begun by writing the Interlude movement for three of his fellow prisoners, notwithstanding the parlous state of their instruments, but when a battered upright piano was found, he completed the work’s seven other movements. The eight movements reflect the Biblical seven days of creation and God’s eternal Sabbath thereafter.
Pierre Boulez once remarked that the older composer’s ‘big contribution’ was in his ‘reflections on time...on time-spans and on the utilisation of time generally’. Messiaen departs from the post-Renaissance traditions of western music by writing a music that avoids the usual patterns of tension and release. His music is about being, rather than becoming. It reflects those ‘eternal truths’ through long time spans, rhythmic organisation which is often repetitive, though supple, and a harmonic language where chords are considered as sensual entities, rather than stepping stones in the development of a musical argument. His music is thus closer to certain Eastern music, not because of his interest in gamelans or Indian rāgas or Greek metres or bird song, but because of this fundamental view of time.
In 1941, of course, he was also writing in the face of death, so much of the Quartet’s musical ‘imagery’ refers explicitly to that of the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The composer’s notes on the individual movements include the following:
Liturgy of crystal: Between three and four o’clock in the morning, the awakening of the birds: a blackbird or a solo nightingale improvises, surrounded by efflorescent sound, by a halo of trills lost high in the trees...
Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of Time: The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue- orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and violoncello.
Abyss of the birds: Clarinet alone. The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.
Interlude: Scherzo, of a more individual character than theother movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.
Praise to the Eternity of Jesus: Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, infinitely slow, on the violoncello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, ... “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets: Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece in the series. The four instruments in unison take on the aspect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse were followed by various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announced the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of added [rhythmic] values, rhythms augmented or diminished... Music of stone, of formidable, sonorous granite...
A cluster of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of Time:
Certain passages from the second movement recur here. The powerful angel appears, above all the rainbow that covers him... In my dreams I hear and see a catalogue of chords and melodies, familiar colours and forms... The swords of fire, these outpourings of blue-orange lava, these turbulent stars...
Praise to the Immortality of Jesus: Expansive solo violin, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second encomium? It addresses more specifically the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh... Its slow ascent toward the most extreme point of tension is the ascension of man toward his God, of the child of God toward his Father, of the being made divine toward Paradise.
Program notes © Gordon Kerry 2018