Thursday, May 17, 2012

The End of Time

Probably the most surreal moment in all music history was the premiere of Olivier Messiaen's  Quatuor pour la fin du temps which took place on January 15, 1941 in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner of war camp near Görlitz, Germany. Contrary to the Wikipedia article on this piece, the town of Görlitz still exists, though it now ajoins the Polish town of Zgorzelec. I have been to Görlitz, though not to the long-disappeared camp. The premiere was held outdoors, in the rain, attended by an audience of about 400 prisoners and guards.

The jobs of theorist and composer have mostly been divided up--few figures in music history are important in both areas. But Messiaen (1908 - 1992) is one of the exceptions. Messiaen wrote a great deal about his technique, especially in Technique de mon langage musical of 1944. Oddly enough, but fitting with the aesthetic of the time, it deals solely with rhythmic, harmonic and melodic technique, excluding any reference to meaning. I say "oddly" because Messiaen was a very spiritual man and the quartet is a prime example. Messiaen wrote that the work was inspired by a text from the Book of Revelation:
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 titles of the movements bear this out. One particularly lovely movement is the fifth: "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus". Here is the informative Wikipedia article on the quartet. And here is a complete performance with the score:

The work has a very complex structure, mostly hidden away and only revealed through meticulous analysis. Some techniques, such as isorhythmic patterns, come from the Middle Ages, but others are inspired by Indian classical music and birdsong. There are palindromes, modes of limited transposition (Messiaen's own terminology) and possibly other techniques yet to be discovered! These techniques are not meant to be uncovered by the listener, but are a kind of mystical underpinning to the music.

Our professor in 20th Century Theory and Analysis was waxing lyrical about the piece one day when I had possibly my most brilliant inspiration in graduate school. As he paused, I interjected, "yeah, but, captive audience!"


Nathan Shirley said...

I was wondering where this was going!

When I first read about Messiaen and his music as a teenager, I knew I was going to love him. As a Scriabin fan I couldn't wait and checked out all the Messiaen CDs from the library. Sure the music didn't grab me right away, but imagine my disappointment when after so many repetitions I begin to doubt the musical substance of the famous Quartet.

Historically significant? Sure. Musically? Just kind of bland.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan, I think I agree. Even after a number of listenings, I still haven't come to love the Quatuor. Messiaen may be an example of a composer whose gifts were diminished by the Procrustean strictures of the time. Still, of all those working around this time and later, including Boulez and Stockhausen, it may be that Messiaen's music may have the most longevity.