Quartet for the End of Time

January 15, 1941, a light rain descending on Stalag VIII-A: Jean le Boulaire on violin, Henri Akoka on clarinet, Etienne Pasquier on cello. The composer, Oliver Messiaen, plays piano. How to express the mystical truths of Catholicism in the rhythm of musical movement: bird song, Hindu talas, numerical formulas, ancient Greek meters, Gregorian chant. All rhythms that avoid–and thus transcend–the simple repeated pulse, the dance of the body, the beat of this world, the human heart. “In a present eternity,” Messiaen wrote, “I glimpse infinite life unbounded by time or space.” An audience of 400 prisoners and guards. Kant’s categories of time and space belong to their realm: the human, not the divine. Crystal Liturgy, the first movement, is an awakening of birds before dawn. The clarinet is Messiaen’s blackbird, its constant motion as mellow as rain as rapid as machine guns in cities. To be a bird who can improvise songs like that. To be a plane who might drop bombs. (The eternal question: Does God exists in the camps? If God exists while the quartet plays, only God can see how Henri Akoka will later disguise himself as an Arab, escape the camp with his clarinet in tow.) The violin as nightingale sings softly and way up high, mostly repeated notes, a few at a time. Chords appear on the piano suspended out of time. Two guards and three prisoners think: these are the sounds of memory, mystery.

The featured artwork is by David Harland, an architect who attended and sketched this July 2022 performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista, Arkansas. The Symphony of Northwest Arkansas’ (SoNA) performance of this piece was dedicated to the brave citizens of Ukraine, during a dark time in their history. Featured SoNA Musicians include: Anne Watson (clarinet), Cristian Vega Martinez (violin), Michael Puryear (cello), and Kristine Olefsky (piano).

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