" 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.” 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."
This is the beginning of a quite extraordinary piece by the quite extraordinary critic, Alex Ross, this one on the composer Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. It's now one of the most famous works, if not the most famous, of the 20th century, the kind often lazily described as 'music everyone should have heard of'. Yet a great many, given the cock-sure avoidance of difficult, modern work by the sort of education offered to state pupils, will never hear or discuss it, even if they haunt the music department of their local shool. It's the kind of work arrogance sometimes brands as 'elitist' because it is music with a rigorous structure, music that takes time and deliberate effort to grasp, music that requires tenacity to on the part of musicians to make it work smoothly and sound, almost, simple despite the technical difficulty it presents to the players. The listener, too must focus, concentrate, grasp with confidence.
The Quartet is 'difficult' in the way plotting a course through life is difficult ie necessarily difficult, given its subject matter. Complexity that is important in itself as a means of tackling huge, even unspeakable, subjects because they matter and because we all, irrespective of background, must.
A clarinet, a cello, a violin and a piano - the only instruments of the musicians available to Messiaen in the camp - play what sound like the same lines in pairs sometimes; at other times they 'argue' a rhythm or a fragment between them; at others, are demanded to cover the entire spectrum of their instrument's range, from highest to lowest, in open and exposed passages where mistakes, even small ones, would be hideously obvious. It can't be busked of simplified: it must be exactly what it is or it is not. Which is, in small part, what the piece is about. What is, is. It is fleeting and beautiful to us, but something of it has meaning that goes beyond our small understanding.
I'm writing this acutely aware that the act of writing doesn’t cover what I am stuggling to say about the importance of work like this: if the the redoutable Mr Ross find his "words fail" in trying to describe the experience, flow and impact of this piece, most will. The importance is in the trying, in encouraging others to experience it and let their words fail too.
I'm writing it instead for a number of reasons which are too tangled to go into here. They involve my reading too much dross lately; the rise of Internet conversations as merely bullying and advertising rather than exchange of opinion (which I believed the might be for a short time); the spite that poses as political comment and newspaper headllines; the decline of real books with a material substance to add to the metaphor of their meaning; history not being handed on or being handed on only as exam-question fodder; the Reblican Race coverage from the US; the 'trickle-down effect'; the fucking flooding; the fearless creativity of David Bowie that has come to a halt. . . . well lots of stuff.
But I also went to hear Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messien played with faultless intensity by McOpera Ensemble. Everything I have heard them play thus far has been very fine, but this was remarkable - Anthony Moffat, Scott Mitchell, Sarah Harrington and Nicholas Ross making music of the highest standard I have heard anywhere, and it rang in the hall like silence after a storm well after it finished. I am, despite the continuing rain, in recovery.
It's 2016 and we're still here. What were the odds?