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Quatuor pour le fin du temps: the First Recording

by Olivier Messiaen

Intermède 01:51


Notes by Olivier Messiaen:
A tribute to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who raises his hands to Heaven saying: "There will be no more Time."

I saw an angel full of strength, descending from heaven, covered in a cloud, his feet like pillars of fire. He put his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the earth, and, standing on the earth and on the sea, he lifted his hand towards Heaven and swore by Him who speaks in the ages of ages, saying: "There will be no more Time; but on the day of the seventh Angel's Trumpet, the mystery of God will be consummated" (Apocalypse of Saint John, Chapter X).

1) Crystal Liturgy.
Four o'clock in the morning, the awakening of the birds: an improvised solo blackbird, surrounded by sonorous dust, a halo of trills lost high up in the trees. Transpose this on the religious level: you will have the harmonious silence of Heaven.

2) Vocalise for the Angel who announces the end of Time.
The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this strong angel, head-dressed in rainbows and clothed in cloud, who places one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. The middle section, the song the impalpable harmonies of the sky. On the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, surrounding with their distant chime the almost plain-chantesque dirge of the violin and violincello.

3) Abyss of birds.
Clarinet alone. The abyss is Time, with its sadness, its weariness. Birds are the opposite of Time; it is our desire for light, stars, rainbows of jubilant vocalizations.

4) Interlude.
Scherzo, more exterior in character than the other movements, but linked to them, however, by a few melodic reminders.

5) Praise to the Eternity of Jesus.
Jesus is here considered as the Word. A great sentence, infinitely slow, from the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the powerful and gentle Word, "whose years will not be exhausted." "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in God" (Gospel according to Saint John).

6) Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets.
Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. Use of added value, increased or decreased rhythms, non-retrogradable rhythms. Explanation of these three terms: the added value is a brief value, added to any rhythm, either by a note, or by a rest, or by a dot - the increased or decreased rhythms use increases or decreases different from the increases by doubling and decreases by half, known from the classics: these are increases by adding a third, adding a dot, adding double and triple durations; it is about reductions by withdrawal of the quarter, withdrawal of the dot, withdrawal of two-thirds and withdrawal of three-quarters of the durations - for the non-retrogradable rhythms: whether they are read from right to left or from left to right , the order of their values remains the same; this particularity exists in all rhythms divisible into two retrograde groups with respect to each other with a common central value. Listen especially, towards the end of the piece, to the fortissimo of the theme by augmentation, with a change in the register of its different notes.

7) Disorder of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of Time.
Some passages from the second movement return here. The Angel full of strength appears, and especially the rainbow that covers it (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all light and sound vibrations). In his dreams, the author hears and sees chords and classified melodies, known colors and forms; then, after this transitory stage, it passes into the unreal and undergoes with ecstasy a whirling, a gyrating interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These fiery swords, these streams of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: here is the disorder, here are the rainbows.

8) Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.
Large violin solo, matching the cello solo of the fifth movement. This second praise is addressed more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus, to Jesus-Man, to the Word made flesh, risen immortal to communicate his life to us.

The Musicians and Circumstances:
Cellist Etienne Pasquier (b. 1905; d. Dec. 14, 1997) and his brothers Jean (violin, b. 1903; d. 1992) and Pierre (viola, b. 1902; d. 1986) began performing a string trio in 1927. Etienne was imprisoned along with Messiaen at Stalag VIII-A and was among the original performers at its premier in the camp in 1941.

Clarinettist and composer André Vacellier (b. Feb. 14, 1909; d. 1994) began performing in 1927. He played the clarinet part in the "Quatuor pour le fin du temps" in Paris at its second performance shortly after Messiaen's release from prison a few months after its premier. He remained close with Messiaen and performed his "Oiseaux exotiques."

Olivier Messiaen was born Dec. 10, 1908 in Avignon and raised in Grenoble. His mother was a poet; his father,a translator of literature, was, like many men during WWI, largely absent. He began playing piano and composing at the age of eight, was exposed to Gluck, Grieg, Ravel, and Debussy by the age of ten, and adopted Roman Catholicism as a child of his own volition; his faith and art were for the rest of his life essentially unanimous. He entered the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 11, where he won numerous prizes as an organist and composer between 1926 and 1930, during which time his mother died of tuberculosis. Interested in folklore, astronomy, Greek, Indian, Javanese, and medieval musics, he composed for piano, organ and orchestra, and took the post of organist at la Trinite a Paris in the early 30s. In 1936 he was appointed as a professor at l'Ecole Normale de Paris and at la Schola Cantorum while participating in the avante garde "Jeune France" movement.

He joined the armed forces in 1939 and was captured in May 1940 and imprisoned at Stalag VIII-A near Gorlitz in present-day Poland, where, he said, he lived without solid food for a year. Visiting with priests in the camp, he envisioned a composition that would mirror the end of space-and-time, when "we will be agile and glorified." At the age of 32, with the discreet support of a German officer, Karl-Albert Brüll, who provided him with staff paper, pencils, and erasers, Messiaen wrote the piece secretly after his obligatory five hours labor each morning, recycling a few parts from previous compositions. He created it specifically for himself and three other prisoners - violinist Jean Le Boulaire (who survived the war and became an actor under the name Jean Lanier, appearing in films including Last Year in Marienbad), clarinettist Henri Akoka (an Algerian Jew who managed to escape in April 1941), and cellist Étienne Pasquier (heard here). The unfortunate band performed it on January 15, 1941 in an unheated barrack for several hundred of their fellow inmates and their guards - members of all classes and many nationalities - on passable instruments to rapt attention.

Messiaen was released a few months after the performance, due in large part to the campaigning and advocacy of his former teacher Marcel Dupré. He returned to teaching first, and then after two years, to composing. He was about 47 when this recording was made. In 1961 he said that a performance of the piece required fifteen days of rehearsal in advance.

Further reading:
Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Cornell University Press, 2006)


released April 19, 2022

Recorded 1956 at the Schola Cantorum, Paris; first issued in 1957.

Olivier Messiaen - piano
Etienne Pasquier - violoncello
Jean Pasquier - violin
André Vacellier - clarinet

Transfer, restoration, notes, and translations by Ian Nagoski

Regarding this restoration:
The last remastering of this recording was made over 20 years ago, and, likely due to limitations of the tools available at the time, flaws in the available source material largely were obscured by the addition of reverberation. We have chosen to produce as direct and vivid a draft as possible, although this approach has necessarily left some significant noise-artifacts from the original disc.


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