Presenting, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. Written and performed in 1941 for a small group of fellow prisoners in a German prisoner-of-war camp, the quartet has become an iconic symbol of the power of human inspiration and creativity in extreme conditions.
There were many responses to the devastation of the first world war and the seismic cultural and political upheavals taking place across the world. French Dadaist polymath Jean Cocteau’s 1918 pamphlet ‘Le Coq et l’Arlequin’ championed music stripped of romantic and emotional expression in favour of the clarity, simplicity and modernity, a movement echoed in cubism and even in the hedonism of the roaring twenties.
Messiaen’s music, by contrast, delved deeply into the unknown and often untried to realise a world outside that of every day experience. A devout Catholic, who wrote almost exclusively on religious themes and played organ every Sunday in a Paris church until his death in 1992, Messiaen was an unlikely revolutionary. But from the very beginning of his career, he used palindromic rhythms and scales and outrageously slow tempos that reimagined Western perception of time, to something more immediate and sensual.
This piece is perhaps one of Messiaen’s most performed works, in no small part due to its incredible compositional history. But it is also deeply rich and varied work of art, which challenges us to listen with open ears and wonder.