Reading the programme from concerts is normally worth it. I like learning about the composer, the inspiration for the piece of music and what I am supposed to look out for in the various passages, as well as usually being a little bit curious about where the soloist comes from and how old they are.
Annoyingly, I seem to forget almost everything I have read. The ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ by Olivier Messiaen is however an exception to this, because the story behind it, as the title suggests, is simply exceptional. Messiaen was taken as a prisoner of war from France to Görlitz, Germany in 1940. A sympathetic camp guard gave him manuscript paper and means to write when he found out that he was a composer. Three other musicians were also in the camp, which is why Messiaen composed this piece of work for a rather unusual quartet of piano, clarinet, cello and violin. A fellow prisoner-of-war drew the program above for the concert which premiered in one of the prison barracks, with a reported audience of 4000 – prisoners and their camp officers alike.
Messiaen was deeply religious and the work is about the apocalypse – so the biblical end of time – and is composed in 8 movements. This summer, I heard a stunning performance of one of the movements written for cello and piano in the romanesque church at Neuss, which blew me away with its eery beauty and brought me to the verge of tears. The music is minimalist, ethereal and full of light. The complete opposite of how the circumstances must have been in the camp, with every prisoner there wondering whether they were nearing the end of their time in this world.
It worked out well for Messiaen, who was repatriated to France in the spring of 1941 and continued to compose until his death in 1992.
I’m still on the look out to hear the entire piece in concert somewhere. Until then, the message is to keep reading programmes. There are lots of interesting stories out there.