ON Palm Sunday, at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, Pastor Julie Pennington-Russell mentioned the composition “Quartet for the End of Time” (or “Quatour pour la fin du temps”) by Oliver Messiaen, for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano.
The composer began work on the piece (as a short trio) while imprisoned in a German concentration camp in 1940, at age 31. There was a violinist and cellist in the camp, and a clarinet player in transit. The 45-50 minute work would be performed outdoors in rain on Jan. 15, 1941.
The work comprises eight movements. Only four of the movements are for full quartet. The concluding movement (“The Immortality of Jesus”) is a rather impressionistic meditation for violin and piano in E Major, that ends quietly; many of the other movements end loudly after extreme dynamic contrasts between pppp and ffff (even in the solo clarinet). But much of the music has quasi-unison passages with 16th notes in slow tempo and melodic lines built around “modes of limited transposition”, that often sound serial and nearly atonal, even if they have impressionistic harmonies. There could be some similarities to some of late Scriabin. The title of some movements refer to the acts and substance of angels.
There is a little theme in my “Third Sonata” (1962) that one of the passages reminds me of.