(originally written in August of 2014)
Olivier Messiaen is my favorite 20th century composer. I say that yet I had no idea who he was while it was still the 20th century. Aside from a Mark Eitzel lyric, I did not even know the name Messiaen until I was about 30 years old when I accidentally crashed a memorial service at a church in downtown Philadelphia. Friends of mine asked my wife and I if we would like to go see a performance by their friend, a pianist. My wife and I agreed and, I guess, decided on our own that this was a casual event. An hour later, I walked into a church dressed in jeans with a patch on one knee and a worn out flannel shirt, holding my worn out, puffy winter coat, to find myself staring down the aisle at a memorial service. Needless to say, we sat about 10 rows behind everyone else and tried not to draw attention to ourselves.
The quartet was already on the stage. A clarinet, a violin, a piano and a cello. If you know Messiaen’s work, you know what is getting ready to happen. Soon after our arrival, the clarinetist stood to explain that they would be performing “Quartet for the End of Time” in dedication to the passing of his father.
I am going to give anyone that reads this a few links. One link is somewhat irresponsible but I will make up for it with two other, responsible links:
There is a mythology that surrounds the creation and debut performance of the Quartet for the End of Time. You can read about it on this Wikipedia entry. There are factual errors about this performance, promoted by Messiaen, allowed to grow over the years and are now part of this Wikipedia entry. “Print the legend” as is said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. However, when finally interviewed, surviving performers gave a different version of the story that really is no less compelling. The story as promoted is the same but some details have been exaggerated for effect. I prefer the contradictory account. Rebecca Rischin documented the alternate version in her book, For The End of Time.
My favorite recording of this piece is this one . I do not know why it is my favorite. Why is the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” the one I prefer over Bobby Fuller? I guess I find more soul in The Clash. Bobby Fuller had a strange life and death surrounded by rumors of the mob and Manson but he sings “I Fought the Law” like he had never even received a traffic ticket. The drums on the Crickets’ original version have more passion to them.
Some might see the phrase “end of time” and be drawn into an apocalyptic vision of destruction that Hollywood has been churning out for a generation. Mayhem, violence, explosions, etc. Messiaen was not composing from that place. Messiaen was a mystic. He was beyond his current circumstances. He did not have time for your movie. He was surrounded by the worst human evil of the 20th century and yet his eyes were on the redemption and grace of the Lord. The end of time and the beginning of joyous eternity. Time is a restriction; a gift but still a restriction. When time truly ends, the glory of heaven will be upon us. This is what Messiaen is celebrating. The music is unwavering faith. All Christians should aspire to this dedication. Messiaen seems to have lived fully aware that he was constantly inside of eternity even when temporarily bound by the dimension of time.
The composition’s third movement, “Abyss of the Birds” is a solo clarinet performance. It is a slow, sad piece even if Messiaen uses birds to revolt against the limitation of time and to set us heavenward.
Abyss of the Birds was the first part of the Quartet to be composed. It was started before Messiaen was captured and imprisoned during World War II. When Salinger hit the beach at Normandy, a few chapters of Catcher In the Rye were in his bag. When Messiaen was taken prisoner, Abyss of the Birds was in his possession and, even almost naked, he clung to it and defied his Nazi guards to keep it.
He and his fellow prisoners were marched for dozens of miles to their “prison camp”. Upon arrival they were placed in a field and told to wait…until they could build the prison camp. It was there, in an empty field, completely exhausted, that he asked a prisoner and friend, who somehow was in possession of a clarinet, to practice the Abyss. That was the debut of part of a landmark 20th century composition. A movement, inspired by birdsong, played in a field by a prisoner of war, while held captive by one of the most destructive evil forces in recorded human history. Time will lose. Evil will lose. God will win.
Can you fully appreciate the intended purpose of this music without some version of the faith that inspired it? I don’t know. I have heard historians, composers and musicians interviewed about this composition. I have met a great composer that professes a love for Messiaen even though he doesn’t “believe in all of that mystical crap.” That “if you are into that sort of thing” expression pops up a lot in secularists that appreciate Messiaen but do not want to be mistaken for Christian. The art history/theory equivalent of that is acted out daily, jettisoning the inspiration of an artist and reducing it to formal analysis. A critic can read a few verses of Revelation, know the backstory of the piece’s creation and talk about it in a competent manner, but does it hit their gut? It can. It will not hit all of the time, but it can. Maybe that is what common grace is all about. Nonbelievers can play it. People can listen. All of us can partake of the gifts of God. Some of us will worship the Lord. Some of us will worship His gifts.