an account of the technical and interpretative challenges presented to performers in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) played a significant part in the evolution of twentieth-century music, influencing a number of other composers with his innovative compositional techniques. The Quartet for the End of Time, is not one of Messiaen’s typical works due to the circumstances in which it was composed (his main outputs were organ, orchestral and choral works), but it marks the start of the significant use of some of these techniques.
In 1940, Messiaen was called up to serve in the army as a hospital orderly, but was soon captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp. Here, suffering from food deprivation and extreme cold, he had the idea of composing a piece for the End of Time. There were four musicians on the camp – himself (a pianist), a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist – and so he wrote a quartet. Performers of the work need to consider the circumstances under which the piece was composed and also the reaction it created at the first performance of it. This was in front of the entire prison camp in January 1941 where, says Messiaen, ‘never have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.’
Messiaen had no choice on what instruments the piece was written for, ‘the group of instruments…to large to allow the piano to express itself freely, yet too small to obtain…variety of timbre,’ and his way around this was to obtain ‘maximum variety of which they are capable.’ By exploiting each instrument in so many different ways to create different timbres, the technical challenges faced by the performers are endless. Musicians need to be of an excellent standard to achieve, for example:
a) String harmonics, see Quote 1
b) Long, sustained pp passages in the string parts, see Quote 2
c) Piano: quiet passages must still be projected as chords are creating a...