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Quartet for the End of Time: Listen and Learn Online
You can listen to, even watch, and learn about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, possibly the greatest music of the twentieth century, online for free.
During 2020, the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen, the French composer (died, 1992) was celebrated around the world, with music, festivals, and websites as well as an article by me (here) that turned into a birthday card for this "formerly radical-seeming composer who now belongs to the ages" (source). Throughout that year, it was clear that his most performed, most recorded, and best-loved composition is the Quartet for the End of Time, a composition which "was voted by television viewers to be the 'Piece of the Century'" (source)... but... just a minute!
Listen to the Quartet for the End of Time online
You do not have to spend your hard-earned money on a CD or a ticket to a concert in a distant city. Just visit here, and scroll down to "RECORDINGS 2003-2020 (.mp3 format)," where you will find a variety of music to listen to or download, including, among other pieces by Messiaen, the Quartet for the End of Time. Even easier, you can just click here to download or listen to the work. Better still, you can see as well as hear a performance of Quartet for the End of Time in a two-part video. The first is available here and the second is here. (Unlike YouTube videos, these require that you click the arrow to begin).
As much as I want to celebrate Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time in this article, I also hope to illustrate how easy it is to discover new music (even new musical tastes) on the Internet. In fact, as MessienProject on Twitter (here), I maintain not only an ongoing discussion of Messiaen's music but also a blog of links to listen to and learn about his work, and I am developing a website (here) to keep track of Messiaen resources online.
What is the unusual story behind the Quartet for the End of Time?
Incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp (not a concentration camp), Olivier Messiaen, a Frenchman and a devout Roman Catholic, had time on his hands and the slow passage of time in prison on his mind. Drawing on the imagery of the tenth chapter of the biblical Book of Revelation (here), he composed eight movements, meditations, really, on the end of time.
In the camp, he was able to scrape together four instruments, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (which was famously out of tune; the instrumentation is the same as for the quartet composed by John Williams for the inauguration of Barack Obama). With the good graces of a music-loving German guard, he was given music paper, and the quartet that he assembled from the prisoners (he played piano) was allowed to practice in the bathroom.
On January 15, 1941, a freezing day, Messiaen and the three other musicians presented the Quartet for prisoners and guards of Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, which was then in Germany; now it is Zgorzelec, Poland. Messiaen would later say, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."
What do I need to know to appreciate Quartet for the End of Time?
The first time I listened to the Quartet, I literally said, aloud, although no one else was in the room, "Where has this music been all my life?" At the time, I did not know as much about this piece of music as will if you read this article, and yet, I could not have left the room before it was over, if I had wanted to. Unlike many classical composers of the twentieth century, Messiaen did not write music for the brain; he wrote for the heart and for the soul. Often, as in the Quartet, he wrote from his guts.
Messiaen was as eloquent when he wrote words as when he wrote music, and sometimes his extravagant titles and commentaries can - I believe - get in the way of our experience of his music. His Roman Catholic imagery might be a block for those (like me) who are not Catholic. But, if we accept his religious feeling as a joyous, transcendant spirituality, then it does not have to be a problem for anyone.
You may not "get" the image that Messiaen finds in a particular movement, but the Quartet is so rich that you can find your own treasures. One time, as I listened to the music, I tried to associate each movement with other literary works. Again, I assigned each movement a number grade for emotional intensity, and this is very intense music.
Here is Messiaen's own commentary on the Quartet in italics, together with some additional information, as well as links to other videos of each movement. For a general introduction to Messiaen, consult the Wikipedia article here. You can read the Wikipedia article on the Quartet here.
Quartet for the End of Time - First movement, for full quartet
"Liturgie de cristal" (Liturgy of crystal). Listen for bird songs played by the clarinet and the violin. Birds would become increasingly important to Messiaen, who would later travel around the world to hear birds in their native habitats and wrote an opera about St. Francis of Assisi, who is always associated with birds. Watch a video of the first movement, recorded in France, from a wonderful DVD that is no longer in print. (The DVD also included about a half hour of Messiaen improvising at the organ; the video of Messiaen's improvisations, which have nothing to do with the Quartet, is available online here.)
Messiaen's commentary: 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...
Quartet for the End of Time - Second movement, for full quartet
"Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps" (Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of Time). Notice that Messiaen writes about "blue-orange chords." He said that he experienced synesthesia (more), a neurological condition in which a person experiences one sensory stimulus as the stimulus of another sense; Messiaen said that he literally saw musical notes as colors. This video of the second movement was recorded in Spain. You can learn more about Messiaen and synesthesia in this video, with input from an artist who experiences the condition herself, paints responses to Messiaen's work, and speculates on having five ears.
Messiaen's commentary: 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.
Quartet for the End of Time - Third movement, for solo clarinet
"Abîme des oiseaux" (Abyss of the birds). After two movements for all four instruments, this solo is a surprise. This movement is Mount Everest for clarinetists. Young British clarinetist Peter Cigleris scales Olympus here (audio, no video) He also captures the plaintive, vocal quality of the writing. (If you like his performance, you can hear more on his MySpace page.)
Messiaen's commentary: 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.
Quartet for the End of Time - Fourth movement, for violin, cello, and clarinet
"Intermède" (Interlude). This video for the fourth movement is enhanced with sand animation.
Messiaen's commentary: Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.
Quartet for the End of Time - Fifth movement, for cello and piano
"Louange �? l'Éternité de Jésus" (Praise to the Eternity of Jesus). I'm going to commit myself to say that this is the most moving, most beautiful piece of music I have ever heard. Messiaen originally composed it in 1937 it for an ensemble of ondes Martenot (more), an early electronic instrument used by Messiaen in several compositions. You can hear the original composition, "Oraison," played by an ondes Martenot ensemble here. From Grand Valley State University comes this video joining dance to this fifth movement of the Quartet.
Messiaen's commentary: 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."
Quartet for the End of Time - Sixth movement, for full quartet
"Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes" (Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets). If you are not familiar with listening to music on YouTube, here is an example of a video with a single still image so that the music can be presented on YouTube.
Messiaen's commentary: 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).... Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness.
Quartet for the End of Time - Seventh movement, for full quartet
"Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps" (A mingling of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of Time). The video I selected for this movement is from Sweden.
Messiaen's commentary: 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!
Quartet for the End of Time - Eighth movement, for violin and piano
"Louange �? l'Immortalité de Jésus" (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus). The music is an arrangement of the second part of his earlier organ piece, "Diptyque", which you can listen to here (audio only). The video (here) is from the out-of-print DVD from which the video for the first movement is taken.
Messiaen's commentary: 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.
Learn more about the Quartet for the End of Time
You can watch online a documentary about returning to the location and trying to deuplicate the experience of the premiere of the Quartet, called Le Charme des Impossibilités (here) in French. Even for those of us who do not speak French, the imagery of the camp comes through, painfully. Here is a comment from the Boston Globe in an article on the celebration of Messiaen's centenary.
For more information - and this is one of my favorite resources that I've found online for the Quartet - you can listen to a lecture (here) by Professor Cathy Kautsky, Professor of Music and Chair of the Keyboard Department at Lawrence University, which also offers a very rich website devoted to the Quartet here. (Note that the opportunity to listen to the Quartet on this site is disabled unless you are accessing the site from a computer on the Lawrence campus.)
You can read an article by Alex Ross from The New Yorker, "Revelations: The story behind Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time" here or an article by Messiaen scholar Nigel Simeone here. Through Googlebooks, you can access a good bit of a book on Messiaen's Quartet, For the End of Time by Rebecca Rischin (here).
But the most important fact about the pleasure of listening to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour la fin du temps) is that this haunting work is indeed beyond time, beyond all the words that have been written about it -- even the moving words of its creator, yes, even my own words. The music opens up a whole new realm, beyond time, as if Olivier Messiaen, with his four broken-down instruments, turned loose on the world the music of the angel's trumpet that cold day in prison over a half century ago.