On first listen, Quartet for the End of Time doesn’t sound like much. It’s long and slow, with moments of sudden excitement in-between long periods of calm, single-instrument themes. It sounds pretty, but you’ve heard this kind of stuff before. Nothing new here. Move along now.
But let’s give the music a little backstory: French composer Olivier Messiaen composed this stark piece for a clarinet, violin, cello, and piano quartet while he was a German POW during WWII. Messiaen played piano while the other performers – clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire, and cellist Étienne Pasquier – were fellow prison mates. The prison quartet premiered this piece in their own camp and played to about 400 prisoners and guards. Performance night was freezing and the performers played under the watch of armed guards.
And yet music played on.
Imagine trying to write music while you’re a prisoner of war, and then try to imagine performing your music for the men who are keeping you locked up. When you add the back story to Messiaen’s work – and when you try to picture yourself at the prison camp hearing his quartet perform the piece for the first time – the music now sounds violent. It’s the sound of dread juxtaposed with a calm, almost serene soundscape. It’s a blue sky seen above a death camp. It’s a seemingly desperate attempt by a man of strong Catholic faith using images from the Book of revelations to come to terms with the madness of the modern world and of this war that has literally imprisoned him.
Taking all this into account, it’s a miracle that Messiaen could write something like this. This piece was, in a sense, written for the end of time.
It’s WWII classical. It’s Messiaen’s masterwork. It’s a work of genuine art.