Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Quatuor pour la fin du temps



Olivier Messiaen was captured by the German army during World War II and was being held as a prisoner of war. While in transit to the prisoner of war camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abime des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians were also among his fellow prisoners (violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Etienne Pasquier), and Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano. The combination of instruments is unusual, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938.

The quartet was premiered in Stalag VIII-A in Gorlitz, Germany (currently Zgorzelec, Poland) on January 15, 1941, to an audience of about four hundred fellow prisoners of war and prison guards. Messiaen later recalled of the occasion, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."

Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1-2, 5-7, KJV):

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth .... And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ....
 

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