Thursday, March 4, 2010

From the heart of Stalag VIIIA - Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

It was not because of any particular design plan that the last few days of this blog have all been concerned with the music of the persecuted – be it the impoverished streets of Edith Piaf’s France (Monday), the celebration of Bob Marley’s struggle for the emancipation of his people (Tuesday), or the rage against depression and oppression in the Manic Street Preacher’s grim picture of modern life (yesterday).

They are all very different pictures of very different experiences of what it is to be held down under the fists and forces of others. It wasn’t a plan to devote almost a week to such bleak stuff but, since we’re on the topic, it would be inexcusably remiss of me not to round things off with a look at one of the most astounding pieces ever to be written from the heart of darkness – Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time).

Messiaen was an extremely innovative French composer who wrote music for much of the twentieth century, until his death in 1991. Even some of his earliest music, like the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps, written in 1941, still sounds incredibly modern with its disregard for conventional tonality and time – rhythms going all over the place, often without a bar-line in sight, melodies that pick notes from left, right and centre, and coalesce into harmonies that crash and clash to create complex vistas of colour and sound that can storm the heavens or shatter the earth or rock a baby to sleep.

Messiaen is an important figure in modern music, and his students included composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, themselves amongst the most important influences upon modern experimental and rock music.

During WWII, Messiaen became a prisoner of war and it was during his time in a German Stalag that he wrote the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps. He wrote it to be performed in the prison camp, which it ultimately was before some 400 freezing prisoners in January 1941, and so made use of whatever musicians and instruments he could get, which resulted in a pretty odd mix for a quartet – a violin, a clarinet, a cello and a piano.

Given its name, and the conditions under which it was written, you’d expect the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps to be pretty gloomy stuff and, while the music certainly comes from somewhere deep in the dark, it looks out into light.

The title actually comes from a passage in the Bible where an apocalyptic angel announces the end of time and, for Messiaen, a passionately devout Catholic, this spiritual imagery was always critical to his music.

His other passion was for birds and he in fact thought of himself to be as much an ornithologist as a composer and always throughout his music you will find the meticulously captured, if stylised, music of birdsong – not the simplified, cheesy, birdcalls that seemed to always pop their heads into nineteenth century music, but complex, chromatic streams of sound, reminding you that most birds don’t sing in the neat and tidy eight note keys of modern Western music.

All of this comes together in the eight movements of the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps. There is the utterly haunting ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ (Abyss of the birds) for solo clarinet, which really does sound like a bird singing to you from a dark, deep place, weary and sad, but singing nonetheless. There is the ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ (Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets) where the four instruments play a wild, frezied dance, in unison, to a jagged, irregular rhythm, feral and furious, yet bold and full of authority, too. There is ‘Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’ (Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel who announces the End of Time), where Messiaen’s other obsession – colour – spreads itself from instrument to instrument in a translucent blaze, sometimes floating thinly in the ether, sometimes pounding, like lightning bolts, onto the ground and up again. And, of course, there is the unfathomably sublime ‘Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus’ (Eulogy to the Eternity of Jesus) for cello and piano, with its companion piece, ‘Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus’ (Eulogy to the Immortality of Jesus) for violin and piano: two pieces, the fifth and eighth in the Quartet, that are still, almost static, even while the piano beats its gentle heartbeat and the strings soar above in the place where peace and sadness and love and hope all come together, and hold each other.

It’s not hard to believe that this music comes from where it did. In a way, it’s like the French modern classical version of Bob Marley’s reggae – music that finds its hope in its despair, music that sees the oppression of people as all the more reason to believe in their value.

Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps is, more than anything, an intensely spiritual piece of music and, while Messiaen always understood that in the Catholic sense, here, like in most really spiritual music, it’s really much broader than that. Here the music speaks to that indefinable bit inside you – that bit that knows how to despair, to rage, to love, to hope; that bit that knows how to live without limits; that bit that knows the blackest blacks and the brightest whites and still has arms big enough to embrace them all.

I know I’ve babbled on quite a bit about this music – but, even so, I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface of its significance, its power and its beauty. Although Messiaen is far from the mainstream of classical music and even though performances of his music still tend to empty concert halls of their more conventional audiences, recordings of the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps are pretty easy to find, often reasonably cheap to buy, and always, always, worth, a thousandfold, the 50ish minutes it will take you to listen to it. It’s music that reaches into whatever heart of darkness you might find yourself in, takes you by the hand, and half gently, half tripping over in its own excitement and passion, leads you to the light.

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