This Friday, students will have the opportunity to hear Oliver Messiaen?s ?Quartet for the End of Time? ? one of the most important and little-known pieces of twentieth century music.

The work, although titled a quartet, is not a traditional quartet by any stretch of the imagination.

It is scored for clarinet, piano, cello and violin. The instruments were chosen not because of Messiaen?s radical rethinking of a quartet, but rather because they were the only instruments available at the time.

The work was composed in 1940 while Messiaen was being held in a Nazi prison camp.

Although a pacifist and a married man, Messiaen volunteered for a hospital corps when war broke out. While en route to Nancy, France, the invading Nazis overtook the corps and shipped him and the rest of his corps to a prison camp in Silesia, Germany.

Messiaen somehow managed to smuggle with him the scores for Bach?s Brandenburg concertos and works by Ravel and Stravinsky.

When the leaders of the camp discovered Messiaen?s extraordinary talent, he was given staff and a private room in which to compose. He was also told about three musicians who had also been captured.

Messiaen?s work combined new elements with older ideas that he reworked from memory.

The ?Quartet for the End of Time? was first performed in 1941 to an audience of prisoners and guards.

?Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding,? Messiaen said after the tense premiere.

The work was revolutionary not only in its sheer existence and cloistered origin, but also in its musical content.

In the first movement, the piano part is complex, with some of the chords containing as many as nine notes. These chords are set with odd rhythms. Messiaen didn?t use traditional time signatures.

What he created with this is what he called ?non-retrogradable rhythm.? Essentially, he had reinvented a medieval device known as ?isorhythm.?

Isorhythm had been entirely forgotten by the twentieth century and Messiaen became the first composer in centuries to explore the technique.

This odd rhythmic device creates the sense that there is no rhythm in the piece at all ? that the music itself can exist outside the constraints of time or other boundaries.

?Through the use of many ?tricks,? Messiaen is able to manipulate one?s perception of the passing of time,? said Paul Miller, a graduate student at Eastman and violinist in the quartet. ?The work is a kind of meditation on the apocalypse.?

The violin and clarinet parts were based on bird songs and added a haunting yet beautiful compliment to the cello and piano.

The piece is set in eight movements to mimic the days of creation. Since there were only seven days involved in the story of creation, the eighth day/movement was added to represent eternity.

In the midst of the chaos unfurling around him, Messiaen composed an innovative piece with universal themes.

Unlike later works that dealt with war, like Britten?s War Requiem for example, Messiaen?s quartet lacks loud blasts and blows to remind the listener of the temper of war. Instead, the piece is about the personal and often difficult relationship that man has with God.

The ?Quartet for the End of Time? reinforces the value of faith despite encroaching chaos. Composed under the harshest of circumstances, Messiaen?s work represents a heaven that seems disjointed to the untrained ears of mortal men.

Miller will interpret Messaien?s quartet with graduate students Fang-Tzu Liu and Christopher Haritatos, along with junior Brian Hermanson.

The performance will take place tomorrow at 8pm at the Atrium across from the Eastman Theatre. Admission is free.



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