For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet

By Sprout, Leslie | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview

For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet


Sprout, Leslie, Notes


For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. By Rebecca Rischin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. [xi, 167 p. ISBN 0-8014-4136-6. $29.95.] Illustrations, discography, bibliography, index.

Upon learning of Rebecca Rischin's background as a professional clarinetist, one might be forgiven for assuming that her new book on Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, based on her 1997 D.M.A. essay, (Music for Eternity: a New History of Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, D.M.A. diss., Florida State University, 1997) is yet another study of the technical innovations for which the piece is now famous. Nearly all such commentaries (Anthony Pople's Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998] is among the most recent) tell the story of the work's genesis and premiere in a prison camp where Messiaen and three other musicians were interned after the French Army capitulated to Nazi Germany in June 1940. Rischin, however, refuses to be satisfied with the tale as it is generally told. Rather than treat the work's history as preface to theoretical analysis, she takes other scholars to task not only for privileging analysis over compositional and performance history, but for relying too heavily on Messiaen as sole witness to that history. Rischin's innovation is to have tracked down as many witnesses as possible: Etienne Pasquier and Jean Le Boulaire, two of Messiaen's fellow musicians in the camp; family members of the pthird, Henri Akoka (who died in 1975); and a handful of other prisoners, including one who maintained a friendship with a helpful German guard after the war. Rischin interweaves all these voices to address more fully the details and impact of the Quarters history. Moreover, Rischin is motivated by the piece's message as much as by its story; in her words, the Quartet may be taken to represent captivity, yet it "refutes the cliches of captivity, and in its audacious affirmations demands that the silence surrounding its creation be shattered." (p. 7) The witnesses Rischin contacted-most of whom had never before been asked to speak about their experiences-were more than happy to participate.

Bits and pieces of Rischin's interviews appear throughout her book, which is organized chronologically into eight chapters, from Messiaen's early years, to the genesis and famous premiere of the Quartet in captivity, the musicians' liberation (or escape) from the prison camp, their wartime experiences, and their subsequent postwar careers. The interviews provide Rischin with ample material to question received wisdom about the Quartet. Chapter 1, "The Quartet Begins," for instance, tells of Messiaen's months as a soldier before captivity, when he was posted to a military fort in Verdun with Pasquier and Akoka. Rischin argues that this time in Verdun deserves more attention than Mcssiaen and later scholars have paid to it. Pasquier's stories about listening to the birds at dawn with Messiaen during early-morning watches, and Messiaen's decision to imitate the birds in a short piece for Akoka to play on his clarinet, support her contention: this sketch was to become "Abîme des oiseaux," the third movement of the Quartet. The stories shed new light on the genesis of the work, for scholars usually point to the fourth movement, the "Interlude" for violin, clarinet, and cello, as having been composed first, since it provides musical material for the seven other movements.

Rischin began her interviews in November 1993 with Messiaen's widow, Yvonne Loriod, who reiterated Messiaen's own published testimony, stressing, above all, the suffering the composer endured as a prisoner of war. Seven months later Rischin heard a slightly different account from Pasquier, who used humor and sympathy to correct Messiaen's hyperboles, such as the battered three-stringed cello Pasquier played, the five thousand prisoners in the audience at the premiere, and the hostility of the German guards towards the French. …

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