by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 22, 2004.
The most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century was first heard on a brutally cold January night in 1941, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany. The composer was Olivier Messiaen, the work “Quartet for the End of Time.” Messiaen wrote most of it after being captured as a French soldier during the German invasion of 1940. The première took place in an unheated space in Barrack 27. A fellow-inmate drew up a program in Art Nouveau style, to which an official stamp was affixed: “Stalag VIIIA 49 geprüft [approved].” Sitting in the front row—and shivering along with the prisoners—were the German officers of the camp.
The title does not exaggerate the ambitions of the piece. An inscription in the score supplies a catastrophic image from the Book of Revelation: “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.’” It is, however, the gentlest apocalypse imaginable. The “seven trumpets” and other signs of doom aren’t roaring sound-masses, as in Berlioz’s Requiem or Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, but fiercely elegant dances, whose rhythms swing along in intricate patterns without ever obeying a regular beat. In the midst of these Second Coming jam sessions are episodes of transfixing serenity—in particular, two “Louanges,” or songs of praise. Each has a drawn-out string melody over pulsing piano chords; each builds toward a luminous climax and then vanishes into silence. The first is marked “infinitely slow”; the second, “tender, ecstatic.” Beyond that, words fail.
Last week, the Met Chamber Ensemble, an all-star group from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, played the Quartet at Carnegie’s Weill Hall. I arrived with some mighty spiritual sounds ringing in my head; earlier that afternoon, at Lincoln Center, Philippe Herreweghe and assorted Franco-Belgian forces had presented Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” and the same conductor had led Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” two nights before. Messiaen’s quiet answer to the ultimate questions of fear and faith stayed with me the longest, not because he was a greater composer than Bach or Beethoven but because his reply came out of an all-too-modern landscape of legislated inhumanity. In the face of hate, this honestly Christian man did not ask, “Why, O Lord?” He said, “I love you.”
The clarinettist Rebecca Rischin has written a captivating book entitled “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet.” Her research dispels several long-cherished myths about the 1941 première. As Messiaen told the story, he and three friends performed under the most trying circumstances—using dilapidated instruments, including a three-stringed cello—and won the hearts of five thousand hardened soldiers. In fact, the instruments, while inferior, were adequate to the task, and the crowd was more like three hundred. In Rischin’s telling, the Quartet is less a triumph of individual genius and more a collective creation. Messiaen wrote every note, certainly, but the music would never have existed without the collaboration of the prisoners—and guards—of Stalag VIIIA.
Rischin lovingly brings to life the other musicians—Étienne Pasquier, cellist; Henri Akoka, clarinettist; and Jean Le Boulaire, violinist—who played with Messiaen, the pianist at the première. You can sense something of their personalities in the instrumental parts of the Quartet. Pasquier was a wry, gentle man who might have had a major solo career if he had desired one. Akoka, as vibrant and unpredictable as the Quartet’s long clarinet solo, “Abyss of the Birds,” was an Algerian-born Jew who survived the war through blind luck and mad courage. He tried several times to escape, and, in April, 1941, he succeeded: while being transferred from one camp to another by train, he jumped from the top of a fast-moving cattle car, with his clarinet under his arm. Le Boulaire, moody and withdrawn, later abandoned the violin for acting. He took the name Jean Lanier and appeared in New Wave films such as “The Soft Skin” and “Last Year at Marienbad.” When Rischin interviewed him, she perceived him to be a bitter, unhappy man, but at the mention of Messiaen’s Quartet his eyes brightened. “It’s a jewel that’s mine and that will never belong to anyone else,” he said.
Then, there was the quasi-angelic figure of Karl-Albert Brüll, a music-loving guard at Stalag VIIIA. Excited by the presence of a significant composer, Brüll gave Messiaen pencils, erasers, and music paper, and had the composer stationed in an empty barrack so that he could work undisturbed. A guard stood at the door to turn away intruders. After the première, Brüll arranged for Messiaen’s rapid return to France, conspiring in the forging of documents. A German patriot with anti-Nazi tendencies, he kept a sympathetic watch over Jewish prisoners, repeatedly advising them not to try to escape, because they would be safer in Stalag VIIIA than in Vichy France.
Several decades later, Brüll came to Paris and rang at Messiaen’s door. For reasons that remain obscure, Messiaen declined to see him. Perhaps he didn’t remember who Brüll was; perhaps he was unable to confront this apparition from the past. He eventually tried to correct his mistake, and sent a message to the man who had made his masterpiece possible. But it was too late: Brüll had died, after being run over by a car.
"There shall be time no longer.” How did Messiaen understand this eerie phrase? First, it had for him a precise musical meaning. By 1941, this composer no longer wanted to hear time being beaten out by a drum—one, two, three, four; he had had enough of that in the war. Instead, he devised rhythms that expanded, contracted, stopped in their tracks, and rolled back in symmetrical patterns. Such music is heavenly to analyze but devilishly difficult to play. The Met Chamber Ensemble—Nick Eanet, violinist; Rafael Figueroa, cellist; Ricardo Morales, clarinettist; and, in a guest appearance, the veteran new-music pianist Christopher Oldfather—worked at the highest level. What they lacked was the total unanimity that makes a great performance of the Quartet seem like a mind-reading séance. (The group Tashi achieved this in an as yet unsurpassed recording, on the RCA label.) Still, the Met musicians were a joy to hear, not only in the Messiaen but also in pieces by Mozart, Debussy, Webern, and Berg, with James Levine joining in on piano.
For Messiaen, the end of time also meant an escape from history, a leap into an invisible paradise. Hence the hypnotically simple E-major chords in the two “Louanges.” The postwar avant-garde composers who studied with Messiaen—Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis—wanted to eradicate all traces of the old world, but their teacher was not afraid to look back. In fact, Messiaen based the “Louanges” on two of his prewar compositions—“Oraison,” from a piece titled “Fête des belles eaux,” for six Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments; and “Diptyque,” a 1930 piece for organ. The scholar Nigel Simeone tells us that “Fête” was written for the Paris Exposition of 1937, one of whose attractions was a “festival of sound, water, and light.” Women in white flowing dresses played the Ondes in conjunction with spectacular fireworks and fountain displays. The opening phrase of the first “Louange” originally accompanied a colossal jet of water.
It is disconcerting to associate the Quartet with Moulin Rouge-style production values. But Messiaen always took joy in skating between the mundane and the sublime. He loved God in terms that were sensual, almost sexual. Human love and divine love were not opposites, as they are for so many close readers of the Bible, but stages in an unbroken progression. One undulating phrase in the final “Louange” is marked “avec amour.” Eanet, the Met’s brilliant young concertmaster, played with the lonely ardor of a forgotten Paganini working in an empty café. This is the music of one who expects paradise not only in a single awesome hereafter but also in the happenstance epiphanies of daily life. In the end, Messiaen’s apocalypse has little to do with history and catastrophe; instead, it records the rebirth of an ordinary soul in the grip of extraordinary emotion. Which is why the Quartet is as overpowering now as it was on that frigid night in 1941.
I write more about Messiaen in my book The Rest Is Noise.