La Quatour Pour La Fin du Temps, by Olivier Messiaen, 1941Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), scored for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. These happened to be the instruments, broken-down though they were, available when Messiaen, a famished and frozen prisoner of war, wrote the piece in a Silesian internment camp. There the quartet received its first performance, before an audience of 5,000. “Never,” the composer later wrote, “had I been listened to with such attention and understanding.”One can only imagine what that first performance must have been on the broken old instruments and the cold temperature and the condition of the players themselves.This is a work which has never failed to fascinate me, regardless of how many times I have performed it, for it is one of the few works of chamber music which always transcends the moment, the ordinary rehearsals, the repititiousness, everything; and the players are spiritually charged and drawn toward one another in the joy of the moment which is the performance. It is uncanny for this reason, for not only is it a wonderfully and unusually written composition but it reflects the genius and the spirit of a prisoner of war, in solitude.For me, it is the single most beautiful work of our century for the clarinet. Never be put off from working on this piece, for while it may be a bit foreign initially and certainly quite difficult, the joys in the work are really well worth the effort, and it is a wonderful work for the audience as well.These performing notes were written specifically for the clarinetist and encompass my many performances of the work in addition to working with musicians who had performed it with Olivier Messiaen as well. (He was a pianist)I. Liturgie de cristal [Liturgy of Crystal]I remember once a long while ago while in the midst of rehearsals for this work, I awoke in the middle of a warm summers night and walked over to an open window for some fresh air. It was totally silent, the hum of the city diminished as it was just about 4 am. Suddenly, softly and with great beauty, a songbird began singing all alone. I was really shocked to actually hear the enactment of Messiaen’s description of the first movement of the work.Each time I have performed the work, I always think of the song of this bird on that Montreal morning, … so think of yourself as this bird which begins to sing all alone, pianissimo, and is joined momentarily by other birds and insects. It is the entrance of the clarinet which is the beginning of this spiritual work. If performed quite metrically and pianissimo and not speeding up, gently caressing the trills, you lead all of the others into the piece, for they have your part written into their parts, and your accuracy is rather crucial.II. Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temp [Vocalise for the Angel who announces the end of time]This is for the entire ensemble; however the clarinet plays only at the beginning and the very end of the piece, playing a forte trill, a good final preparation for the next, which is the tour de force for the clarinetist, played solo.III. Abime des oiseaux [Abyss of the birds]This is a seven minute solo passage for the clarinet alone with two basic expressive directions:One is rather desolate, played extremely slowly. It should be played both at the beginning of the Abyss and at the end, with extreme legato espressivo, exactly as is marked, not an easy direction to follow. Performing it for the first time at a full rehearsal will give you the parameters of what you are expected to do in terms of extremes of pianissimo and fortissimo, both of which are used frequently in the two slow sections. The other is to be played with brilliance and jubilance for it is the song of the birds. Again, not easy and set apart from the slow sections by the far off entrance of the clarinet which must be played from pianissimo to fortissimo with no loss of sound or of pitch. The F# is a note that one begins without the tongue, but with the breath alone and with tremendous support, the sound coming from nowhere and ending in an almost threatening fortissimo. When looking for the “Messiaen reed”, try these F#s. If you can begin from the next town, that should be the reed to choose. The “birds”, as my wife is so fond of calling them, in this movement should recall the songs of the birds. Jubilant, even ecstatic are the words one uses, however technically perfect. Do not perform any faster than the written metronome marking.As for the three forte-piano low register entrances, I was once told by an electro-acoustic composer that he thought they were being played by an electronic source, which I took as a great compliment. By the time they appear, you are already a bit fatigued, yet you must give your all for these forte-pianos constitute some of the very soul of the Abyss.The ending of the movement is exactly the same as the beginning, save for being an octave lower and is really to be played quite easily, freely, expressivo; HOWEVER, you must save something for the last two high F#s, one forte, the next pianissimo. If you can execute these as written, the final flurry almost allows you enought time to get your breath before the next piece, which comes almost immediately after your solo.IV. Intermede [Intermezzo]This is a completely tonal, harmonic little trio for clarinet, violin and cello. Everyone plays the whole short little piece, and unfortunately the work is filled with extreme difficulty for the clarinetist for he must demonstrate his ability to mix with the others perfectly, whereas in the former movement it was his to execute. The intonation is difficult within this little “intermission” piece.V. Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus [Praise for the Eternity of Jesus]This is written for violincello and piano only. In some ways, it is the most spiritually intense work of the Quartet. The hallmark direction for this piece is the tempo marking, around 42 for the eighth note, quite a slow tempo and very difficult for sostenuto and for bowings.VI. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes [Dance of Fury For the seven trumpets]Here, for the clarinetist and for the rest of the ensemble, is the most difficult piece. There are two things which most always be remembered:The work is all in unison or in displaced octaves. Therefore the blend is always to be considered. Everyone has the same rhythm, all the time. These rhythms are not written out in measures (however they are measured), but within the context of either two sixteenth notes or three sixteenth notes. The tempo for the eighth is crucial: 176,for each eighth note. Once that concept is accepted it is only a matter of playing and tuning together. One must stop whenever any single mistake is made, for it is all unison,so no mistakes in note or rhythm or even intonation can be made. Not the easiest of pieces to prepare but easily accomplished when you have at least one player who either knows the secret or has played the piece. The piece can be put together in only several hours of rehearsal if all of the above criteria are strictly observed.VII. Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps [ …Rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time]Many varying slow tempi which must be strictly observed, intonation difficulties because of the long passage of trills between clarinet and cello, half steps apart. But, somehow, after the Seven Trumpets, a much easier part to put together; requires time in order to learn each other’s parts.VIII. Louange a l’Immortalite de Jesus [Praise for the Immortality of Jesus]For violin and piano alone. Achingly slow and difficult going into fifth position for the violin and sostenuto, with the slow and regular yet changing chord patterns in the piano.A Few Pointers and Lessons to be Learned:Although a work of 48+ minutes in duration, usually taking a whole program, the work has several unique facets: It is a work which seems to encourage the spirit and the spirit quallity of each player and allows each of the players to be a soloist of considerable importance. The responsibilities being well balanced, the quartet has a wonderful attitude toward the work’s rehearsals.It take less time to form the work into a performance because the clarinet works alone on his solo, and the cello and violin work with the pianist on theirs; that may sound banal, however in these days and time and rehearsal times, this is an absolute pleasure to rehearse for those reasons. This work is by perhaps the most important composer of the middle of the 20th century, also a magnificent pianist and teacher of composition. For instance, he was the teacher of Boulez and Stockhausen.While I have peformed the work more than a dozen times, maybe two dozen, it has brought to me the most musical enjoyment of any work I have played. The first time I played the work in Montreal. I was in the Clarinet movement, which was going beautfully when the fire alarm went off. It didn’t stop and the perormance at the last F# in the clarinet part had to be cancelled. Memorable, but the beauty of the work transcends all.Best of luck to all who undertake this wonderful piece.
Messiaen La Quatour Pour La Fin du Temps / The Quartet for the End of Time – Pt. II