Escaping Time: Messiaen’s Musical Language, Religious Symbolism, and Undermining Time in Quatour Pour La Fin Du Temps
Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)
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Scholars, including Robert Fallon and Wilfred Mellers, understand Olivier Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du Temps through the lens of war and captivity. Written during Messiaen’s imprisonment in the German prisoner of war camp Stalag VIII A during World War II, Quatour portrays the biblical “end of time” described in the book of Revelations. Messiaen drew connections between Quatour and the apocalypse with references to the angel of the apocalypse, the abyss, and the end of time. Messiaen, along with Étienne Pasquier, Jean Le Boulaire, and Henri Akoka premiered Quatour on January, 15th 1941, for their fellow prisoners and guards in Stalag VIII A. In the brutal cold of winter, they played on broken instruments, with little light, and in ragged clothes. Given the conditions in which Messiaen completed the work, one can easily draw a connection between Messiaen’s imprisonment and Quatour. As a result, scholars like Fallon and Mellers claim that Messiaen wrote this work in response to the atrocities of war and as a commentary on his own confinement. When asked in an interview with Antoine Goléa about the inspiration for the piece, Messiaen denied any association with the war. Instead, he responded,
I would say that I composed the quartet in order to escape from the snow, the war, captivity, and myself. The greatest benefit I gained from it was that, in the midst of three-hundred thousand prisoners, I was probably the only one who was free.
In the same interview with Goléa, Messiaen went on to clarify the references to the end of time in the title of the work. Instead of a comparison to World War II as the “end of times”, Messiaen meant to illustrate the end of musical time, as well as the end of time as the beginning of eternity in heaven. In her book The Musical Legacy of Wartime France, Leslie Sprout clarifies this statement with a reference to Messiaen’s interview with Goléa. She states,
When Goléa asked him about the talk he gave to his fellow prisoners, Messiaen responded that he made sure to clarify that the reference to the end of time in the title was not to be understood as the passing of time in captivity, but the abolition of the time that the Apocalypse would bring. If there was any play on words, he continued, it was a purely symbolic evocation of musical construction, that is, a reference to his abolition of a regular pulse and experimentation with irregular rhythmic durations in the Quartet.
Sprout strengthens her argument with references to the wartime works of Jovilét, Goué, and Damaise that actively and intentionally “conveyed the pain and tedium of exile. ” She asserts that, compared to the works of these other captured composers, the message of Messiaen’s Quatour seems detached from the war. Furthermore, Sprout provides commentary on the poor reception of Quatour to the Paris audiences compared to that of Damais’ O Nuit and Jolivet’s Trois complaints. She states that the audience at the Paris premiere failed to make a connection between Quatour and Messiaen’s captivity. Instead, Messiaen’s preconcert discussion about the religious symbolism of eternity turned the work into a discussion on the “relationship between the religious sentiments expressed in the texts and their musical “illustrations” in the Quartet.” Thus, Quatour lacks the incorporation of Messiaen’s personal experiences and, in turn, cannot express his experiences in Stalag VIII A.
In opposition to Leslie Sprout, Robert Fallon describes Messiaen’s works as intentionally responsive to the world around him. His article “Birds, Beasts, and Bombs in Messiaen’s Cold War Mass”, discusses the Messe de la Pentecôte as a politically charged work in response to the Cold War. In his opening Statements, Fallon briefly mentions Quatour, stating “The Quatour pour la fin du Temps more clearly responds to war, its birdsong and religious solace embracing freedom and eternal life I the face of captivity and death.” Fallon acknowledges Messiaen’s infamous detachment from the world around him, but dismisses it. He claims that, though Messiaen may seem disengaged, his oeuvre does not. He states,
Many of his (Messiaen’s) works relate to contemporary events, including Chant de déportés, Et expect, Ressurection mortuorum, La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, and Des canyons aux étoiles…each of which either responded to a political event or fulfilled a politically charged commission.
In other words, Messiaen’s works speak on his behalf, providing a glimpse into his political views and acting as a form of “silent protest”. Fallon goes on to discuss Messe as a protest piece against the Cold War and Messiaen as a quiet, but enthusiastic political player. He references Messiaen’s staunch support of Charles de Gaulle as evidence of his interest in politics and of the “special interest he placed on freedom”. Fallon’s argument discusses Messiaen’s style and technique as a means of his expressing his political ideals. He notes that Messiaen’s desire to end musical time with birdsong, non-retrogradable rhythms, cyclical harmonic and melodic structures, and the limited modes of transposition functions as a means to depict both personal and political freedom.
Like Leslie Sprout, I believe Quatour offered Messiaen, his fellow musicians, and the other prisoners in Stalag VIII A respite from camp life, at most. In Messiaen’s own words, Quatour does not encapsulate his experiences in the camp, nor does it offer commentary on his political beliefs. Not until the early 1990’s did Messiaen begin to speak about Quatour in association with the Holocaust. By this time, he saw the impact that an association with World War II had on the popularity of the piece. He took advantage of this, and used this association to bolster the popularity and number of performances of Quatour. Thus, the piece became forever associated with the themes of war, death, and the apocalypse. Robert Fallon’s analysis of Messiaen’s musical language as symbolic of freedom and eternity resonates with the theory that Quatour evokes a sense of timelessness and the beyond. Though I do not support his idea that the piece was influenced by the war, I do agree that the elements of the piece (rhythm, harmony, melody, etc.…) depict the many layers of the eternal in Quatour. Each element works independently to create a sense of timelessness, and as a cosmic whole, they create a connection between musical time and divine eternity.
In this paper, I aim to depict Quatour pour la fin du temps as a commentary, not on war, but on the infiniteness of time. I posit that the escapism of the work comes from its ability to transcend the confines of musical time. Messiaen attempts to convey the eternity, indivisibility, and infiniteness of God in his “divine time” through the manipulation of musical devices like rhythm, harmony, and melody. Thus, Messiaen’s musical techniques denote “timelessness” as a way to depict the divine.
I plan to discuss Messiaen’s musical language, including rhythm, harmony, and melodic contour, and its role in undermining musical time. I will demonstrate the importance of these elements as individual units, as well as part of the cosmic ‘whole’ of the piece in conveying the eternal. Next, I will discuss the religious symbolism inherent in Messiaen’s music, including a discussion of Thomistic doctrine and their association with time and God in Messiaen’s music. I will describe the connection between Messiaen’s religiosity and his musical language. Finally, I will apply these concepts to Quatour, providing both a musical analysis of some of the movements and a description of the religious symbolism in the work.
Olivier Messiaen; Quartet for the End of Time; Quatour pour la fin du Temps; Religion; Thomas Aquinas; Time
Music | Music Theory | Other Music
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Hey-Folick, Sarra Elizabeth, "Escaping Time: Messiaen’s Musical Language, Religious Symbolism, and Undermining Time in Quatour Pour La Fin Du Temps" (2020). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 3900.
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