– By James Wilson, CMSCVA Artistic Director
The “Quartet for the End of Time” is one of the most famous chamber music compositions of all time, and the musical work that inspired tonight’s program. In their own way, each piece on the program seems to reach out beyond our own world and into the infinite, whether through religious fervor, technical mastery, or both.
A devote Catholic, ornithologist, musical genius and brilliant keyboard players, Olivier Messiaen weaved all of these passions into this unusual piece. The circumstances under which it was written are legendary. Messiaen was 31 years old when he enlisted in the French army to fight the Germans in World War II. In 1940, he was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-was camp in Görlitz, Germany. Using paper and a pencil stub, Messiaen produced the piece slowly over the course of a year with help from fellow musicians also imprisoned in teh camp. It was premiered with terrible instruments, outdoors and in the cold rain of January in 1941 for a crowd of 400 inmates and officers. Messiaen wrote of the event, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”
The “End of Time” takes two meaning in this piece. The more literal meaning is the depiction of the “end times” in 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 ….
The other meaning is that Messiaen literally destroyed the sense of time (beat, pulse, rhythm) in the composition of this music. This is ironically done through precise notation and mathematical manipulation of the phrase lengths and rhythms.
Messiaen’s own program notes for the individual movements are as follows:
1. Crystal Liturgy
Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.[the violin and clarinet play accurately recreated bird calls while the cello and piano cycle through repeated patterns of notes]
2. 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 cello.
3. Abyss of birds
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.
Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.
5. Praise to the eternity of Jesus
Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
6. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets
Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Hear especially all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.
7. Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time
Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). – In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout compenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!
8. Praise to the immortality of Jesus
Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.
Towards the end of his life, legendary Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt also turned to writing music inspired by his faith. “Sposalizio” comes from a set of piano pieces written in the 1850’s during a pilgrimage trip to Italy. The title refers to a painting of the same name by Raphael (also known as “Marriage of the Virgin”) that inspired the musical composition. Starting and ending simply and quietly, the piece becomes increasingly complex and harmoniously adventurous, alternating between melodic passages and virtuoso fireworks that create a sense of majesty and ecstasy.
The idea of programming a quartet by iconic American composer Philip Glass on tonight’s concert, was inspired by the “Quartet for the End of Time” and it’s connection to Nazi war camps. Glass had written a quartet to score the 1997 Sean Matthias film “Bent,” that depicted the plight of two homosexual inmates interned in a prison camp. The theme and inspiration of this film so closely resembled the circumstances under which the Messiaen quartet was written that a programmatic relationship was obvious. Unfortunately, the score for the “Bent” quartet is not yet in public domain. But the music of Glass still seemed like such a wonderful foil for the complexities of Messiaen that I had to find a similar piece to include in this program.
Classical trained in Paris by the famous composition pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, and influence by music from cultures around the world, Glass is one of the most important music makers of the 20th century. He is a pioneer in the style that became popularly known as “minimalism,” although Glass himself does not like to use that term, describing himself instead as a composer that uses “repetitive structures,” and “a constant vocabulary.” This technique of creating music from extended repetition of motives and material was revolutionary in its simplicity, tonal harmony, and use of repetition to create musical mass: quite the opposite of the more avant-garde, intellectual and atonal music that typified classical music of the second half of the 20th century. Glass’ music is still controversial – it is indeed repetitious, and it drives some listeners crazy, but there’s no denying that it’s hypnotic energy and romantic feel are very powerful.
The String Quartet no. 5, written in 1991, is a more “classical” composition than the earlier string quartet that were written as film scores. It is larger scale, loosely made up of five movements. Thematic repetition and development serves to united the whole composition with the lovely opening material returning again throughout the piece. Yet the quartet retains that special qualities of immediacy, yearning, energy and optimism that characterize Glass’ film music.