8 Facts about Quartet for the End of Time

Posted on: April 11, 2014 in: ProgrammesConcert Focus, Natural/Supernatural

In advance of our next CLoSer concert featuring Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, we thought we’d give our lovely blog-readers a preview of this fascinating piece. Here are 8 facts you may or may not know about the piece, from the conditions of its first performance to the impact Messiaen’s synaesthesia had on its composition….


  1. It was composed at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp in Gorlitz, Silesia

 Composer Oliver Messiaen at PianoAs a member of the French army during the German invasion of 1941 in the Second World War, Messiaen was tragically taken as a prisoner-of-war at Stalag VIII-A in Gorlitz, Silesia (now Poland). It was the extreme hardship of the experience that inspired him to write this extraordinary piece of music, having made acquaintances with several fellow musicians there: Jean Le Boulaire (violin); Henri Akoka (clarinet) & Étienne Pasquier (cello). Together with Messiaen himself (a pianist), the musicians joined together to form a musical quartet for which Messiaen composed this work specially.


  1. The work was premiered by Messiaen and his fellow musician-prisoners in Barrack 27 with the German officers of the camp in company

Held in the ‘excruciatingly cold’ surroundings of Barrack 27 in the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp, the oft-quoted story of the Quartet’s first performance is one of the most fascinating in all of twentieth-century classical music. While music concerts were not unusual in Stalag VIII-A, this was the first performance of a work written by one of the prisoners inside the camp. It was also unique because the German officers of the camp were sitting on the front row during the performance! Messiaen later wrote of the experience: ‘The cold was excruciating, the Stalag was buried under snow. The four performers played on broken-down instruments. Etienne’s cello had only 3 strings [a claim Pasquier later denied), the key on the piano went down but did not come up again… but never have I had an audience who listened with such rapt attention and comprehension’.


  1. Messiaen incorporated the personalities of each of the performer’s playing at the premiere into their individual parts

Each instrumental part in Quartet for the End of Time takes on the personalities of each performer of the premiere, and in this sense the work’s composition was very much a combined creative process. The cello-part, for example, mirrors the wry and gentle manner of Pasquier, the original cellist, whereas the clarinet part is vibrant and unpredictable like Akoka, the original clarinetist, an Algerian-born Jew who ‘survived the war through blind luck and mad courage’. Read more here.


  1. The work’s premiere was such a success that it convinced his guard patron to smuggle Messiaen back to Paris to continue his career as a composer

Karl-Albert Brüll, a music-loving guard at Stalag VIIIA who was star-struck at the presence of such a significant composer, helped Messiaen significantly during his time in the prisoner-of-war camp, providing the French composer with materials to write with and making sure that he was in quiet, empty spaces so he could concentrate. Such was the success of the work’s première that Brüll arranged for Messiaen’s return to France by forging the appropriate documents.


  1. The concept behind the piece is based on a catastrophic image of the world ending from the Book of Revelation10136286-old-fashioned-round-reading-glasses-laying-on-a-page-from-the-bible-on-the-revelation

Messiaen chose the Book of Revelation – the final book in the
New Testament where the end of the world is predicted – as inspiration for this work, ‘not as a play on words about the time of captivity, but for the ending of concepts of past and future – that is, for the beginning of eternity’, making the piece very poignant in the circumstances of its composition and premiere.


  1. Messiaen performed the piece alongside our Principal Conductor, Michael Collins

Michael Collins, our Principal Conductor and esteemed clarinettist performed Quartet for the End of Time alongside Messiaen himself early in his career.


  1. The work showcases one of the composer’s very first use of birdsong which later became a defining feature of his style

Messiaen frequently used musical representations of birdsong in his compositions, most famously in Réveil des Oiseaux and Oiseaux Exotiques which derive exclusively from birdsong and calls.  Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet, for example, as ‘between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird [clarinet] or nightingale [violin] improvises…’


  1. The work highlights Messiaen’s gift of synaesthesia (the multi-sensual ability which allowed him to hear colours in music)

 Messiaen was gifted with synaesthesia, whereby he perceived colours when he heard particular combinations of sounds and musical chords. Many of his compositions are directly based on his synaesthetic ability, where he tried to “paint pictures” with a particular blend of sound. During his time in Stalag-VIIIA while he was composing the Quartet, Messiaen recalled how everybody in the camp was so starving and miserable that his “coloured dreams” were heightened. He also recalled how his experience of seeing the Northern Lights was highly influential in the work’s composition.


Want to know more? Come and see our next CLoSer event devised in partnership with Village Underground and Spitalfields Music!


CLoSer: Quartet for the End of Time

Wednesday 23 April, 7.30pm
Village Underground

Devised in partnership with Spitalfields Music, our CLoSer concert series is based around bite-sized, informal concert experiences, designed to appeal to those who like their live music to be intimate and relaxed (and who enjoy a glass of wine while listening!). While short in length, the concerts still present audiences with challenging and interesting repertoire with ‘talking’ programme notes throughout the performance. For those who wish to linger post concert, the bar remains open, and there is the chance to mingle with CLS musicians too! 

This concert will also be live-streamed on our YouTube Channel and on our website!

Read our CLoSer FAQs for more information on the series


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Further reading / listening:

BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music: Stephen Johnson explores Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

Alex Ross’s intriguing article on the piece in his blog The Rest is Noise.