clarinet, piano, violin and cello

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, a 31-yr old Messiaen was called for military service, only to be captured and made prisoner of war in May 1940, at Görlitz in Silesia (part of modern-day Poland.) Having completed his studies at the Paris Conservatory some nine years prior, Messiaen had already composed 40 works, ranging in scope from solo and chamber works to the grand orchestral L’Ascension. It is not surprising, then, that he sought to compose during his captivity; however, the work he produced during this time, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, speaks to his remarkable spirit and determination in the face of the most adverse conditions. He found, amongst his fellow inmates, a clarinettist, a cellist and a violinist. Adding himself to the ensemble on piano, he set out to compose his most ambitious work to date: a sequence of eight movements for this unconventional quartet depicting events in the Book of Revelations, in which the Angel of the Appocalypse “raises his hand heavenwards saying: ‘There shall be Time no longer.’”

As well as reflecting Messiaen’s fervent Christian faith, the work reveals compositional interests that would remain central over his lifetime, including isorhythmic structures, ancient modes, Indian music and birdsong. Always keenly attuned to timbre, Messiaen scored only four of the eight movements /tutti/. The other four unfold in various combinations, including the one solo movement: “Abîme des oiseaux,” scored for lone clarinet.

The work received its premiere in 1941 with Messiaen at the piano. The keys of the battered instrument did not always sound, and the cellist played an instrument with only three strings. Nevertheless, an audience of 5000 Polish, French and Belgian prisoners of war listened intently in the frigid January cold. Much later in life, the composer said “Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding.”