Quartet for the End of Time

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a work of astonishing power and unique provenance.  It was written after Messiaen’s capture in June 1940 at the POW camp Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz in what is now Poland.  First performed for POWs and guards in 1941 it is, most unusually, scored for piano, clarinet, cello and violin because that’s what the professional musicians among the POWs played.  What always strikes me about this work, familiar since my early teens, is how it combines Messiaen’s transcendent and deeply optimistic faith with a kind of passionate statement about the state of the world rooted in Revelations.  The contrasts are there throughout the work’s eight movements but nowhere more clearly than at the end when the power and even fury of Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes and the Fouillis des arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps dissolve into the lyrical serenity of Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus.  And, of course, there is birdsong in the haunting clarinet movement Abime des oiseaux.

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Yesterday it got a very fine performance in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre from Aaron Schwebel (violin), James Shield (clarinet), Thomas Wiebe (cello) and Peter Longworth (piano).  Seeing it live made me much more aware of just how physical this piece is.  It’s a real work out!  How hard it must have been for half starved POWs to bring this off.  This is not a work where I could dissect the performance in fine detail.  Suffice to say in left me in the state of shock, and awe, that a really good performance of this piece can induce.

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