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Olivier Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps for clarinet, piano, violin and cello
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Each month we’ll be identifying a work or a style of music from one of the programmes and providing informative listening notes that bring out some of the music’s interesting features, focusing on the musical elements of melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, pitch and structure.
These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.
The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.
Work in Focus: Quatuor Pour La Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time)
Written 1940-41 by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
‘Time shall be no more’
(The Angel of the Apocalypse, from Messiaen’s inscription to the Score)
‘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 the angel… lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer’.
The Book of Revelation Chapter 10, Verses 1 and 5 – 6 (King James Bible)
Quartet in 8 movements for violin, clarinet, cello and piano.
Olivier Messiaen is generally acknowledged as being one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His musical language is unique and is independent from all schools of composition, yet at the same time he was a dominant force in the development of music in the twentieth century. His music fuses elements of birdsong, modes of limited transposition (see below), modality and a unique application of rhythm. Indeed, he called himself ‘compositeur et rhythmicien’.
In terms of his output, Messiaen’s works can be divided into four stylistic periods. The first period culminates in his Turangalîla-symphonie of 1946, and the Quartet for the End of Time written in 1940-41 represents the peak of his music from the first period. The second period spans from the late 1940s up to 1951 in Livre d’orgue, the third from this time up to 1962 as typified by Sept haïkaï and the last period takes in works of the 1960s to his death in 1992.
The first period style is rich in textures, exploiting his new found interests in rhythm, harmony and experimental timbres. The harmonic language is quite new and original with use of the modes of limited transposition. These are modes that can be transposed up and down a limited number of times, before the original note patterns recur:
Modes of limited transposition
The second mode, identified in Messiaen’s Technique de mon langage musical (see below).
Modes of limited transposition
The second mode, transposed up a semi-tone (i.e. by one note)
Modes of limited transposition
The second mode transposed up by a further semitone.
Modes of limited transposition
A further transposition of a semi-tone up returns the mode to its original notes.
Addition of rhythmic motifs
(See also below under Harmony). In terms of rhythmic experimentation in this period, Messiaen uses a process of addition of rhythmic motifs to extend and transform rhythms. (See below under Rhythm). As a result, a process of organic growth of melodic lines takes place.
In 1944, just three years after Quatuor, Messiaen published the theoretical basis of his compositional ideas up to this time in ‘Technique de mon langage musical’ '
The Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps is a supreme example of the peak of his first period style. The work was composed during his captivity in a Silesian prison camp, where he discovered among his fellow inmates a clarinettist, a violinist and cellist. The first performance was on January 15th 1941 in Stalag VIII A in front of some 5000 prisoners of war with Messiaen himself as pianist.
This eight movement work is based on words of St. John from the Book of Revelation in the Bible, chapter 10.
In the inscription to the score, Messiaen writes that the work is written ‘in homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand to heaven saying “Time shall be no more.’’’
Notes on the Music
NOTES ON THE MUSIC
The melodies are linked closely to the use of chords taken from the modes of limited transposition (see Harmony below). Many of the melodies imitate bird calls and song. (Music ex. 1 movement 1 bars 1-6) Messiaen spent much of his time out in the field recording and noting down their calls onto manuscript paper. Melodies tend to be quite long and the complexity of the rhythms imparts the feeling of freedom of metre and a sense of the fluid and improvised. Expressive melodies are heard in movements 5 and 8 (Music ex. 2 movement 5 bars 1-12 and Music ex. 3 mov 8 bars 1-12)
At times too, the melodies can be assertive and insistently repetitive such as in movement 6 Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes. Here all four instruments hammer out the trumpet call melody in octaves (Music ex. 4 movement 6 bars 1-12)
The clarinet solo (movement 3 Abîme des oiseaux) is a good example of a solo containing all these diverse styles, i.e. lyrical and expressive, fast and rhythmic over a wide tessitura (range) (Music ex. 5 mov 3 bars 1-24)
The rhythms were inspired by ancient Greek metres, medieval rhythms, Hindu rhythms as well as the complex rhythms found in birdsong. Messiaen was fascinated by odd numbers as well as symmetrical and asymmetrical combinations of different patterns. In his study of Hindu rhythms, he explored ways of altering rhythms by augmentation (lengthening note values), diminution (shortening note values) as well as through addition / subtraction of rhythmic elements. He particularly liked non-retrogradable rhythms, that is to say rhythms that cannot be the same when played in reverse order.
(Music ex. 6 movement 6 letter F bars 26-28)
The Quatuor is full of examples of complex patterns and systems!
Messiaen’s harmony is unique and takes Debussy’s impressionist modal harmonies (based on the whole tone scale) further developing his own systems of chords based on the modes.
He combines the modal elements with several different harmonic styles including tonality, atonality and serialism. However, central to his harmonic language are the use of the modes of limited transposition (mentioned above). These modes determine both the vertical and horizontal lines (melody and chords). Therefore the melodies will be harmonised solely by the notes of the mode and so there is a strong link here to melody.
This procedure of thinking of melody and harmony together (the horizontal with the vertical) has strong parallels with principles of The Second Viennese School of serialist composers (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), and was a style that Messiaen adopted in some of his later works. Other features of the harmony include adding the interval of the augmented 4th or 6th to a triad. This blurs the traditional minor/ major sounding of the chord!
There are many types of subtle musical textures in the work These constantly vary and change, but include examples of:
Dialoguing – e.g. movement 1 ‘Liturgie de cristal’ (see music ex. 1)
Monophonic - e.g. movement 3 ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ for clarinet solo (see music ex.5)
Octaves – e.g. movement 4 ‘Intermède’ and movement 6 ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ opening bars (see music ex. 4)
Homophonic – e.g. movement 5 ‘Louange à l’éternité de Jésus’ mixture of cello solo (monophonic) with piano accompanying chords (see music ex. 2) (homophonic) and movement 7 ‘Foullis d’arcs-en-ciel’ opening bars feature the cello accompanied by piano semiquaver chord figuration and movement 8 ‘Louange a l’immortalité de Jésus’ is homophonic throughout (piano accompanying the violin) (see music ex. 3)
The music is full of colours as the music depicts a wide range of programmatic ideas. In movements 1 and 3 we have instruments (violin and clarinet – clarinet solo in movement 3) imitating bird song in dialogue with each other. Messiaen himself saw sounds and timbres in terms of colours and would describe chord patterns in this way, e.g. ‘blue-orange lava’ (movement 7).
Timbres are used to demarcate sections of the music and therefore timbre is an important part of the structure of the music. There are numerous timbral effects in this music. Messiaen has often said that he saw music in terms of colours when composing and can be compared to the artist mixing his colours on the palette. The colours in this case are the instrumental sounds and effects as well as the harmony.
Messiaen explores extreme ranges of pitch in this work, particularly in the high registers where he is imitating some of the bird song ideas.
In the Preface to the music score, Messiaen comments:
‘This ‘Quartet’ has 8 movements. Why? Seven is the perfect number, the creation of the world in six days sanctified by the divine Sabbath. The 7th day of rest extends into eternity and becomes the 8th day of indestructible light and unchangeable peace’.
In the Preface to the score, Messiaen also commented on the programmatic nature of each of the movements:
MESSIAEN’S PREFACE TO THE SCORE
Commentary on each movement
1. Between three and four o'clock in the morning, the birds awake: a blackbird or a solo nightingale improvises, surrounded by glittering sounds, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. If you transpose that onto a religious plane: you will hear the silent harmony of the heavens.
2. The first and third parts (very short) evoke the strength of that mighty angel, his head surrounded by a rainbow and his body arrayed in a dense cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the land. In the ‘central’ section there are intangible harmonies of the heavens. On the piano, gentle cascades of blue-orange, surrounded by the distant chimes of the violin and cello with their monotonous chant almost like plainsong.
3. Solo clarinet. The abyss is Time with its melancholy, its weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our longing for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for joyful songs.
4. Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them however by certain melodic resonances.
5. Jesus is contemplated here as the Word. An intense phrase, immensely slow, on the cello, glorifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle “whose time will never run out” Majestically, the melody expands into a kind of tender and supreme distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” [John 1:1-3 (King James Bible)].
6. Rhythmically, the most characteristic passage in the series. The four instruments in unison adopt the style of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse were followed by various catastrophes; the trumpet of the seventh angel announces the consummation of the mystery of God). Some added rhythmic values, rhythms augmented or diminished and non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stones, of tremendous resonant granite: irresistible movement of steel, of enormous blocks of crimson fury, of icy drunkenness. Above all you will hear the terrible fortissimo of the theme augmented and changed in register with different notes until the end of the passage.
7. Certain passages from the second movement return here. The angel appears, full of power, and most of all the rainbow that cloaks him (the rainbow, the symbol of peace, of wisdom and all luminous and sonorous vibration). In my dreams I hear and see organised chords and melodies, known colours and forms; then after this transitional stage I move into the unreal, I suffer spinning in ecstasy, a gyrating perception of superhuman sounds and colours. And with these swords of fire, these blue-orange lava-flows, these abrupt stars, we have the intertwining rainbows!
8. Extensive violin solo, counterpart to the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second eulogy? It directs itself specifically to the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh risen to immortality to show us his life. It is all love. Its slow ascent toward the very highest notes, is the ascension of Man toward his God, of God’s child toward his Father, of the deified creature to Paradise.
- And I will repeat once more what I said above. All this remains a faltering attempt, if one reflects on the overwhelming immensity of the subject-matter!
Translation Copyright BBC 2008