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Quartet for the End of Time

painting by Catherine Parker (photo: Todd Treat)

The Buffalo Chamber Players present a multi-media version of Messiaen's masterpiece

The Buffalo Chamber Players launch their fourth season on Wednesday, October 6 at 7:30pm at their home in the Buffalo Seminary on Bidwell Parkway with a gala opening concert, featuring both the Quartet for the End of Time and a new cycle of paintings by the noted Buffalo artist Catherine Parker, inspired by the work and created especially for this event. The performance, sponsored by Dean Brownrout and the 20th Century Finest Gallery, will feature Shieh-Jian Tsai on violin, Feng Hew on cello, Robert Alemany on clarinet, and Alison d’Amato on piano.

Olivier Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour la fin du temps) when he was a French prisoner of war in a German stalag; the details of the premiere on January 15, 1941, at Stalag VIIIA, Görlitz, Silesia, have become legendary. Drafted at the outbreak of war into a construction battalion and captured at the fall of Verdun in June 1940, Messiaen met Étienne Pasquier, the cellist of the well-known Pasquier Trio, along with a member of a military band, the clarinetist Henri Akoka. During the course of a long forced march, Messiaen convinced Akoka to try to sight-read his composition for solo clarinet, and Pasquier later recalled literally serving as the music stand for the score in an open field. Akoka at first complained that the piece was unplayable, due to its technical difficulties, which continue to challenge clarinetists. Incorporating some of the composer’s earliest attempts at using bird song, the piece eventually became “The Abyss of the Birds” movement of the Quartet.

Before the outbreak of the war, Messiaen, a professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatory, was already recognized as a promising composer with several published major works. Due to the interest in music of some German officers at the camp, notably a Hauptmann Brüll, Messiaen was offered both the free time in the harsh conditions of the camp and the necessary supplies, such as score paper, pencils, and erasers, to continue writing music. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, composed the Quartet “in homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse,” basing it on Chapter 10 of the Book of Revelation of Saint John. The work was written for the only instruments in the camp: the unusual combination of violin, played by Jean La Boulaire, cello, clarinet, and eventually, piano, played by Messiaen, when one became available. According to the composer, the work is in eight movements, because seven being the perfect number (God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh), the eighth day moves beyond time. The contrast between fast and slow tempos, which Messiaen made starker as he revised the work, is crucial to the works visceral impact, as is the use of non-retrogradable rhythms, which contribute to the suspended sense of time in several of the movements.

The evening of the works’ premiere was bitterly cold, but the several hundred prisoners and guards who were jammed into the building in which the performance took place proved to be a rapt audience. The French, Polish, and Czech prisoners, as well as the German guards, were from many different social backgrounds, and most of them had little or no previous exposure to classical music, let alone the Quartet’s esoteric style of music. Yet all accounts remark on the attention paid by the audience to the music and the absolute silence during its performance. The Quartet for the End of Time remains central to the music of Messiaen, and every live performance continues to provide its own revelations for many listeners.

“I first heard the Quartet and other works of Messiaen, about the same time, probably 10 or 15 years ago, and I was obsessed with him for a while,” Catherine Parker says. “I spent several weeks in Paris and visited the church that he played the organ at, Eglise de la Trinite, where I heard the organist perform a recital of Messiaen’s music. I was fascinated also by the knowledge that he associated colors and tones. His work seems visual to me. Messiaen had visited the American West, the Grand Canyon and Arches National Monument at Moab. I had been there and could appreciate the grandness of his musical vision. Also like Messiaen, I love birds and use birds a lot as a symbol of another dimension, maybe of transformation.”

About being a prisoner, Parker observes, “I have tried to imagine myself in such an environment, but it’s pretty much impossible. In my paintings I tried to represent a kind of barrier that you might be looking beyond, as though something is blocking your view. In a couple of them it’s maybe as though you are stopped from seeing the complete landscape because something, a cliff or a mountain, is in your way. I think a prison camp would certainly feel that way.”

Parker says that she feels “privileged to be a part of this performance with these wonderfully talented musicians and grateful to Janz Castelo for giving me this opportunity.”

Tickets are $15 general admission, $5 for students. For more information visit

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