Messiaen by the ACO

This past Thursday, my wife and I attended the Australian Chamber Orchestra's performance of Olivier Messiaen's (1908-1992) Quatour pour le fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) at Newcastle's Civic Hall theatre. It was written during the winter of 1941 near Görlitz, Silesia in the easternmost part of Germany while Messiaen was a prisoner of war there. As the performance program notes, "Messiaen found himself having to work with the instruments and musicians available to him in camp: violinist Jean le Boulaire, Henri Akoka, clarinetist, and Etienne Pasquier, a cellist." A guard knew of Messiaen's genius and provided materials and space for him to compose. 

"In the confines of a prisoner of war camp in the depths of the winter of 1941, Messiaen might well have believed that the end of time - and indeed his own end - were imminent. He signals his grander intentions by heading the score with a lengthy quotation from the Book of Revelation of St John the Divine: 'And I saw another mighty angel descend from heaven clothed with a could: 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 said... there should be time no longer' (Rev 10.1-7, KJV)"

So often I find that my life is haunted by limits and a lack of time, space, and resources. This Quartet for the End of Time, reminded me that the heart of creative genius is to make something out of nothing. Malnourished musicians, damaged instruments and imminent death were the context for Messiaen to create one of the most acclaimed (and derided) quartets ever written.

I have to admit, I often find modernist composers to be something akin to a man caught in a sensory deprivation tank. Near insanity, he bites his own tongue just to feel something and taste the salt from his own blood. The dissonance, discordant in-temporality, disharmonies, and counterintuitive melodies were trying. It was as if Messiaen forced his audience, and indeed his captors who were as obligated to guard him, to feel what he felt. Despair and utter hopelessness dominate in most of the eight movements. Indeed, a few souls walked out of the hall last Thursday night, and those that stayed shifted uncomfortably in their seats towards the end of the sixth and seventh movements. The pain of the clarinet and piano jarring against the violin and cello was near unbearable at times. It seemed to me, however, that this pain was the profound contrast to a modern world of soul numbing complacency. Messiaen seemed intent on raising to the surface, feelings we usually bury deep within us.

However, Messiaen's attempt to disorient his audience's temporality in this Quartet for the End of Time, was not without its contrasts in some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments. I can only agree that when this "Quartet was premiered in Barracks 27 of Stalag VIII on the frozen night of 15 January 1941 with meters of snow piled outside... [that] the 400 or so inmates and guards shivered as they listened, enraptured, to the end of time in Messiaen's vision of an eternity of hope and love." The entire quartet seemed to hang upon a cross between the fifth and final eighth movement. The fifth, Paean to the Eternity of Jesus, was a duet between the cello and piano. It was echoed by the eighth, Paean to the Immortality of Jesus, where the violinist stood for her own duet. Both movements held the possibility of harmony ever in front of them, never quite resolving themselves, nonetheless refusing any other hope but that such full harmony would emerge. 

What does eternity feel like? Is it a permanently sustained harmony? Or is it, as Messiaen suggests, the ability to include the dissonance and disjunctions in time together with what faith teaches is already a unity. I suppose I heard a Hegelian note here, a sublation which takes up all things into a higher relational whole. Or, maybe, given Messian's overtly theological themes, St. Paul is more appropriate: "He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (NRSV, Ephesians 1.9-10).

Although winter nights in Newcastle are not nearly so cold, many a novocastrian spine nonetheless felt a shiver this past Thursday night.