I’ve been listening to Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”) quite a bit lately. I stumbled across a copy at Goodwill — the version with a shattered swastika on the cover. Remembering that Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has cited Messiaen as a major influence, and that Greenwood’s brilliant application of the ever-spooky ondes Marteno owes a great deal to Messiaen, I decided having the record was worth the dollar I’d pay for it and the intense awkwardness I’d experience when handing the cashier something with a large swastika on it. (That same discomfort is why I didn’t include that version’s cover at the top of this post. I love vinyl album art, but it’s a little hard to stomach.)
A little background on the piece: Messiaen was a soldier during World War 2, and in 1940, he was captured by the German army and placed in a POW camp located in what is now Poland. Detained in the same camp were a violinist, a cellist and a clarinetist, and Messiaen set about to write (“finish writing” might be more accurate — I read that some sections were built on existing compositions) a piece suited to the players who were imprisoned with him. A sympathetic guard provided a pencil and paper for composing, and the authorities eventually furnished his quartet (Messiaen on piano) with the instruments they needed to premiere the piece in January of 1941. It’s weighty, as you might imagine, drawing on themes related to the book of Revelation — pillars of fire, heaven, eternity — but there are these wonderful contrasting moments of levity. Whole movements are inspired by bird songs (Messiaen was big into ornithology), making for wonderful light/dark clashes. Thunder and lightning, hand-in-hand. Powerful stuff, especially when you consider the conditions in which it was composed.
I listened to “Quartet for the End of Time” again this morning, looking for something that could measure up to the weight my heart was and still is feeling.