This weekend Rice's Shepherd School held its annual Chamber Music Festival, which is a great, free, all-day series of six concerts put on by students. This year the festival focused on Eastern European music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is really the sweet spot of the classical music I like. But what really excited me was the program for the fourth concert, which included Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.
As I've written before, the Quartet is one of my favorite pieces of music, but this is the first time I've heard it live. I am no good at writing about music, but I can say it's a long quartet - eight movements - and the music alternates between furious clashing noise and long, beautiful, pure tones. This performance received a long standing ovation, which is especially impressive considering it ends on a very slow, haunting note, and not the loud, designed-for-applause climax that so many classical pieces end with.
This festival came at a particularly good time for me as I work my way through Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Not only did his blog introduce me to the Quartet a couple of years ago, but the part of his book I'm reading right now corresponds almost exactly to what was played at the festival. I felt much more informed and smug than my usual self.
Here's Ross on how the Quartet was written:
A composer of advanced ideas and strong religious feeling, Messiaen had been serving as a medical orderly when the Germans invaded France in 1940. He was captured near Nancy with two other musician-soldiers, the cellist Etienne Pasquier and the clarinetist Henri Akoka. While the three were being held with other French captives in an open field, Akoka played through a newly composed Messiaen piece titled "Abyss of the Birds" - a clarinet solo that took the form of precise yet disconnected gestures, slow, trancelike changing lines intertwining with rapid runs and squawks and trills. When Messiaen was sent with his musician friends to Stalag VIII A, near Gorlitz, Germany, he set about composing seven other movements for the unusual combination of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, those being the instruments that he and his fellow inmates played...
Stalag VIII A was staffed by several officers who lacked true devotion to the Hitler regime. As Rebecca Rischin reveals in a book about the Quartet, one of the guards, Karl-Albert Brull, advised French-Jewish prisoners not to try to escape, on the grounds that they were safer in camp than they would be in Vichy France. Brull also took up the cause of Messiaen's music, giving the composer pencils, erasers, and music paper with which to work. The prisoner was relieved of his duties and placed in an empty barracks so that he could compose in peace, with a guard posted at the door to turn away intruders.
The premiere of the Quartet took place on January 15, 1941. Several hundred prisoners of many nations crowded into the camp's makeshift theater, with the German officers sitting up front. The work bewildered much of the audience, but a respectful silence prevailed.