Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”

Todd Palmer at St. Paul’s in 2009 preparing to play
“Abyss of the Birds” by Olivier Messiaen.

Recently I’ve noticed the call of a Very Loud Bird I don’t recall hearing outside my window in the morning. It is entirely likely it’s been there all along, I just never had the space to listen pre-lockdown.  Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1pMq3gziuPEw6SdRiPHXG9GFqLyCjOGyD

It brought to mind Olivier Messiaen’s seminal work “Quatuor pour Fin du Temps” (Quartet for the End of Time), a work suffused with bird song as are many of his compositions. Messiaen was fascinated by birds - the first movement of the Quatuor sees the clarinet and violin imitate a nightingale and blackbird to an off-kilter accompaniment in the cello and piano.

First have a listen to these two short links of a blackbird and nightingale…..

…then listen to the first movement.

Here is an utterly delightful one minute video of Messiaen singing/speaking the bird calls himself and then his wife, Yvonne Loriod, demonstrating on the piano how his music imitates the sounds. I promise you, this might be the most wonderful minute of your entire day.

I used to doze off when I heard this piece. But I had so many friends who worshiped it. The question in my mind, then, was not “what’s the big deal?” but rather “what am I missing?” One summer during an epic drive I was determined to figure it out and I listened over and over to the work. Then, on a stretch of road headed south to New London, the entire piece suddenly just clicked for me; I had finally “got it.” It was worth the wait.

The great Todd Palmer played the third movement, “Abîme des Oiseaux” (Abyss of the Birds) at NCMF in 2009. Here are my program notes from the concert.

OLIVIER MESSIAEN (1908 – 1992)
'ABÎME DES OISEAUX' (ABYSS OF THE BIRDS) for solo clarinet from Quatuor pour Fin du Temps


As musicians, we use the word “color” to express quality of sound: a quiet passage in a minor key might be “dark”; a strong section may be “resolute”; a trumpet fanfare, “bright.” The French composer Olivier Messiaen was known for his idiosynchratic use of musical color due in part to a physical condition called synaesthesia whereby some of the physical senses overlap. In Messiaen’s case it manifested itself with him literally seeing colors associated with different “colors” in music. This, along with his devout religious faith and passion for ornithology provides a basis for the movement called “Abyss of the Birds” from his masterwork “The Quartet for the End of Time.”

The piece itself has a painful past. During World War II, Messiaen was interned in a German prison camp where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinetist, violinist and cellist. The four of them (Messiaen on piano) performed the “Quatuor” for fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941. The title of the piece springs from a passage in the Book of Revelation about the descent of the seventh angel at the sound of whose trumpet the Mystery of God will be consummated and who announces "that there should be time no longer." In a preface to the score, Messiaen wrote:

“Abyss of the Birds” for clarinet alone. The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.
https://www.chambermusicsociety.org/watch-and-listen/video/2013-video-archive/messiaen-abime-des-oiseaux-abyss-of-the-birds-from-quatuor-pour-la-fin-du-temps-quartet-for-the-end-of-time/

My mom passed away a few weeks ago in New York City. She never really recovered from the loss of my father. One solace to her was the birds who were frequent guests to her tree-lined 18th floor terrace on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She died at home with friends and I was incredibly fortunate to have a chance to talk with her on the phone right near the end. I’d like to dedicate this post to my parents, John and Linda.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Linda Gureasko Yang (1937 – 2020) and John Yang (1933 - 2009)

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