Messiaen’s Is Performed

Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was written in a prisoner-of-war camp for the musical instruments at hand. Both the piece itself and the story of its composition served to cement Messiaen’s reputation as one of the most important composers of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

The circumstances of the composition of Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941; Quartet for the End of Time) are remarkable; that the work is one of the key musical masterpieces of the twentieth century makes the story even more amazing. Its composer, Olivier Messiaen, was born in Avignon, France, in 1908, and joined the French army at the outbreak of World War II, serving as a hospital attendant. En route to Nancy following the German invasion of Verdun, he was captured and sent to a prison camp Prison camps at Gorlitz in Silesia (now in Germany). While in Stalag 8A Stalag 8A[Stalag 8 A] , Messiaen protected a precious knapsack containing a variety of miniature scores, including Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (c. 1721) and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925-1926). Quartet for the End of Time (Messiaen)
Music;Christian Influences
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Prisoners of War
Chamber Music
[kw]Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time Is Performed (Jan. 15, 1941)
[kw]Quartet for the End of Time Is Performed, Messiaen’s (Jan. 15, 1941)
Quartet for the End of Time (Messiaen)
Music;Christian influences
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war
Chamber music
[g]Europe;Jan. 15, 1941: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time Is Performed[00120]
[g]Germany;Jan. 15, 1941: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time Is Performed[00120]
[c]Music;Jan. 15, 1941: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time Is Performed[00120]
Messiaen, Olivier
Le Boulaire, Jean
Pasquier, Étienne
Akoka, Henri

Messiaen discovered that three of his fellow prisoners were musicians: Jean Le Boulaire was a violinist, Étienne Pasquier was a cellist, and the Jewish prisoner Henri Akoka played the clarinet. Messiaen wrote a short trio for them, which they played in the camp’s washroom. Adding a part for himself to be played on the camp’s beaten-up piano, Messiaen set to work on the Quartet for the End of Time in 1940. The work’s first performance on January 15, 1941, joins with the riotous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (1913; The Rite of Spring) as one of the great stories in modern music. Messiaen and his three colleagues performed the quartet outdoors, in the dead of winter, before five thousand prisoners. Messiaen later admitted that he had never had such an attentive and appreciative audience as this.

The work’s title has been interpreted as a reference to the static conditions of life in a prison camp, where boredom and frustration were increased by the prisoners’ awareness of the frantic activity going on in the rest of Europe, as well as to the composer’s own serene Roman Catholic contemplation of Christian liberty and the illusory nature of time. Were Messiaen not known to be a mystical Catholic, his title might be understood as a despairing comment about the ravages of World War II. Messiaen himself rejected the interpretation that the work was composed as a comment on prison life; instead, he cited the title’s literary source, the Revelation of Saint John Revelations of Saint John , in which the angel of the Apocalypse tells Saint John, “There shall be no more delay; but when the time comes for the seventh angel to sound his trumpet, the hidden purpose of God will have been fulfilled, as he promised to his servants the prophets.”

Messiaen’s artistic development was influenced by a curious combination of elements, including natural sound (especially birdsong), Catholic mystical theology, and the composer’s love of the theater—especially Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902; Pelléas and Mélisande). His parents provided him with a rigorously literary upbringing, as his father was an English translator and a scholar of the works of William Shakespeare, while his mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage Sauvage, Cécile , wrote a book of poems called L’Âme en bourgeon
Âme en bourgeon, L’ (Sauvage) (1908; the flowering soul) during the composer’s gestation. During his musical studies, he developed a fascination with classical Greek rhythms and discovered in a French encyclopedia a complex table of classical Indian rhythms. Messiaen’s music is largely concerned with the revelation of God through Christianity, the action of God as shown in human love for others, or the action of God in nature, as illustrated by the songs of birds.

Messiaen’s music has been admired for its rhythmic vitality. In a 1958 lecture, the composer said, “Let us not forget that the first, essential element in music is rhythm, and that rhythm is first and foremost the change of number and duration.” Messiaen had been a pupil of the French composer Paul Dukas Dukas, Paul , who reportedly urged his students to “rhythmicize your harmonies,” which can be interpreted in several ways. In a work that predicts the end of time, Messiaen uses such familiar means as linking the music of eternity with high pitch and slow tempo, as in the “In Paradisum” section of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem
Requiem (Fauré) (1888), which Messiaen is known to have admired. By means of the complicated rhythmic schemes of the various movements, the composer calls attention to rhythmic energy but also to what happens before, after, and between beats in a piece of music.

For Messiaen, rhythm is the key to the depiction of the predicted end of time. The composer uses such techniques as “modes of limited transposition,” harmony as a form of timbre (rather than as distinct from it), and extremely slow tempi. The final movement of the Quartet for the End of Time is marked “Extremely slow and tender, ecstatic,” in the composer’s effort to depict the victory of Jesus over time and mortality. It is unusual to find a composer with such a rich and complicated sense of rhythm be so consistently engaged in the overcoming and denial of time.

Rather contradictorily, Messiaen elsewhere spoke of melody as the supreme element in music. In his book Technique de mon langage musical
Technique of My Musical Language (Messiaen) (1944; Technique of My Musical Language, 1944-1956), the composer asserts, “Melody is the point of departure. May it remain supreme!” For many listeners, Messiaen’s soaring melodies, often underscored by the otherworldly sound of the ondes martenot Ondes martenot
Electronic music (an electronic keyboard instrument), represent the most captivating element in his music. The fifth and eighth movements of the Quartet for the End of Time are distinguished by their slow, regular tempi and their rich melodic lines, played soaringly by the cello over the insistent rhythmic underpinning provided by the piano.

The eight movements of the piece are interrelated in a variety of ways. Movements 2 and 7 have thematic links, while 3 and 6 are monodies, unharmonized or unaccompanied. Movement 3, “Abîme des oiseaux” (“Abyss of Birds”), is a famous solo for clarinet, while the sixth movement, “Dance de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (“Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets”), is played largely in unison by violin, cello, and clarinet. Movements 2, 6, and 7 are the most vigorous movements, while 5 and 8 are the most deliberate and contemplative. The latter two movements also share Messiaen’s preferred key of spiritual insight, E major.


Quartet for the End of Time became one of the most admired and frequently performed pieces of chamber music in the twentieth century. The circumstances of its composition undoubtedly contributed to its appeal, yet the work remains immensely appealing on its own musical terms. Although Messiaen is usually thought of as a composer for the organ and large-scale orchestral forces, the quartet demonstrates his ability to write successfully for small combinations of instruments. Even a chamber group can have the distinctive “Messiaen sound.”

One wonders what the captive audience of five thousand at the piece’s premiere really made of the quartet, although it is not difficult to imagine the mixed feelings of anxiety, hope, and fear that the composer, his fellow captives, and their guards must have felt in the dark days of 1941. Like Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (1942; Leningrad), Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time became one of the most widely admired compositions to emerge from World War II. Like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (1962; Babiy Yar) and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), it is frequently performed as a disturbing commentary on that war.

When Messiaen was repatriated in 1942, he was appointed professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, indicating how widely his reputation had extended. Although his name was long linked with the Paris Conservatoire, Messiaen was not officially appointed professor of composition there until 1966. His other major works from the war period are Visions de l’Amen (1943; Visions of the Amen), for two pianos; Trois Petites Liturgies de la présence divine (1944; Three Small Liturgies to the Divine Presence), a controversial work for female choir and orchestra; and Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1945; Twenty Views of the Infant Jesus), for solo piano. The religious works were often greeted with incomprehension, often being viewed as shockingly modern by the pious and as sentimental by the modernists. Modernism;music

At the time of his death on April 28, 1992, Messiaen was arguably the most famous living composer, although he was perhaps more widely admired by musical audiences for his serene faith and personality than for his actual musical output. After World War II, Messiaen’s reputation gradually grew throughout the world. Eventually, he enjoyed a popularity unusual for a living composer in the twentieth century.

For much of the audience for serious music, Messiaen’s reputation rests on the charm of his apparently eccentric titles, which seem to combine overblown Baroque Catholic excess with a surrealistic sensuality. Successive movements in the Turangalîla-symphonie (1949) are entitled “Joie du sang des étoiles” (“Joy of the Blood of the Stars”) and “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” (“Garden of Love’s Sleep”). A trip to Bryce Canyon in Utah inspired Des Canyons des étoiles (1971-1974; Canyons of the Stars). Messiaen’s final large orchestral work, premiered by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic in the fall of 1992, was entitled Éclairs sur l’au-delà . . . (Illuminations of the Beyond). Not since Aleksandr Scriabin at the beginning of the twentieth century had a composer chosen such bizarre titles for his music.

Messiaen has been accused by his detractors (who are numerous) of mistaking sentimentality for piety and of simply continuing the treacly tradition of sentimental nineteenth century vocal music. To these critics, the contemplative movements of the Quartet for the End of Time or the Turangalîla-symphonie are uncomfortably close to the sentimental religiosity of the more turgid moments in the operas of Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet. Messiaen himself insisted that movements such as No. 8 in the quartet, “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus” (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”), “are not at all luscious nor sweet; they are simply noble, bare, austere.” Detractors, however, insist on finding traces of Massenet and Glenn Miller, and many of these find more saccharin than spirituality. Even an admiring eulogy in The New York Times could not resist a patronizing view of the composer’s spirituality: “Messiaen’s music and the woozy ardor of his Christian devotions are indivisible.” This attitude is unfortunately typical of a certain class of academic rationalists who cannot forgive Messiaen for linking a modern, sophisticated musical technique to an unfashionable religious perspective.

Enthusiasts for Messiaen’s artistry, however, are more than happy to hear the music of eternity in the composer’s mystical contemplations, and they revere Messiaen for his melodic and rhythmic innovations. As the teacher of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Messiaen has been called the “father of recent European avant-garde Music;avant-garde[avant garde] music,” although his own music has never been as chillingly inaccessible as that of many of the composers whose work he inspired or that was written in reaction against him. Messiaen’s achievement is distinctive and unlikely to be replicated; no other composer is likely to share Messiaen’s unusual combination of Catholic spirituality, passion for birdsong, and fascination with classical Indian rhythms. Even his detractors cannot deny the warmth, integrity, and passionate commitment of his music. Not only for the conditions of its composition but also for its glowing affirmation of the persistence of the human spirit, Quartet for the End of Time has survived as a great musical testament of the twentieth century. Quartet for the End of Time (Messiaen)
Music;Christian influences
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war
Chamber music

Further Reading

  • Griffiths, Paul. Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Provides a sensitive musical analysis of Messiaen’s major works. As the title suggests, it is especially concerned with Messiaen’s distinctive attitudes toward rhythm and time.
  • Hill, Peter, and Nigel Simeone. Messiaen. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Comprehensive biography of the composer of Quartet for the End of Time. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Holland, Bernard. “An Island of Innocence and Taste.” The New York Times, May 10, 1992, p. H25(N). Typical of a certain kind of academic attitude toward Messiaen—respectful of his music but condescending toward the deep spirituality that inspired it.
  • Pople, Anthony. Messiaen: “Quatuor pour la fin du temps.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Detailed study of the quartet in the context of Messiaen’s complete oeuvre. Includes separate chapters on each movement. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Rischin, Rebecca. For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. Book-length retelling of the story of the quartet’s composition, based on eyewitness accounts, including interviews with the musicians conducted in the 1990’s. Includes a discussion of what happened to the three original musicians in the decades after the war.
  • Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Identifies the Messiaen of the late 1960’s as “the father of recent European avant-garde music” and notes his influence on figures such as Boulez and Stockhausen.

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