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.
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.