suicide by long string
substantial flutist and brooding
[composition] of a soul
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 [approved].” 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.