Except for performing ensembles, the two undergraduate college courses that have meant the most to me 30 years later are my first English literature course, Introduction to Poetry (I'm embarrassed that I don't remember the professor's name), and 20th Century Composition, taught with passion and deep knowledge by Tom Wallace*. I remember Tom analyzing Varese's Density 21.5 in great detail, dissecting it interval by interval. But the greatest gift Tom gave the students in that class was his discussion of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. I had never even heard of this piece, but it immediately became one of favorite "classical" pieces.
It's also the subject of book I'm just finishing up: For the End of Time by Rebecca Rischin. The Quartet is worthy of a book, because its story is one of the great classical music legends. As I learned in Tom's class, the piece was written and premiered in 1941 in Stalag VIII A, while Messiaen, along with the other musicians who premiered the piece, was a prisoner of war. Rischin's book debunks some of the myths I "knew," such as the story that the cello at the premiere only had three strings and that the clarinet had a broken key. It does make clear just how much this music meant to the musicians and the prisoners who heard it. It's fair to assume that most of the prisoners didn't "understand" this complex piece, but it apparently touched most of them deeply.
It continues to touch me deeply. After studying the piece 30 years ago, I went out and bought the LP recording by the chamber group Tashi. 15 years later I replaced the worn-out LP with the CD edition. Inspired by Rischin's book, I also just ordered a CD of the first recording, with Messiaen on piano.
Messiaen's quartet is inspired by the Book of Revelation, in particular by Chapter 10, in which the seventh angel blows the trumpet which marks the end of Time. Seven of the eight movements are moving, inspiring, frightening, or otherwise quite serious, but the brief fourth movement ("Interlude") is more lighthearted. The very slow fifth and eighth movements, "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" for cello and piano and "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" for violin and piano, are two of the most absolutely beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard; they should be heard by every musician and music lover, even those who don't care for "modern" classical music. They really evoke timelessness and eternity, even for someone like me who doesn't believe I have an immortal soul that's going to live anywhere when I die.
The third movement is a clarinet solo, "Abyss of the Birds." On the Tashi recording, the great Richard Stoltzman is the clarinetist. His control is so amazing that there are times when you become aware that there is a note sounding, but you can't exactly say when it began - it came from nowhere and at some undefined point became audible. I was lucky enough to hear Stoltzman play this movement in concert a few years ago. By the way, one of the beauties of Messiaen's music is that he didn't just evoke bird song with a few cliches, he transcribed hundreds of bird songs exactly and used them in his compositions.
I still remember two of Messiaen's techniques which give this piece much of its flavor - Modes of Limited Transposition and Non-retrogradable Rhythms. The first refers to scales which can only be transposed a few times before they return to their original pitch set. The simplest example is a whole-tone scale; it can only be transposed once. When you transpose it up a half-step a second time, it duplicates the pitches of the original scale. These scales have a color and flavor unlike the usual major and minor scales. A non-retrogradable rhythm is a rhythmic palindrome, a rhythm that is the same when it is reversed. A simple example would be half note, quarter note, whole note, quarter note, half note. Messiaen's rhythms are much more complex, however, and gave the musicians at the premiere quite a bit of difficulty.
One of the most touching things in Rischin's book is the fact that Henri Akoka, the clarinetist in Stalag VIII A, never lost his clarinet. He kept it with him when he was captured, and even managed to hold on to it through two unsuccessful and, finally, a successful escape attempt.
To be totally honest, inspiring bits like that are mixed into an overall somewhat dry tone in Rischin's book. While I have enjoyed reading it, I don't recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you don't know Messiaen's Quatour pour la Fin du Temps, I wholeheartedly suggest you do yourself a favor and hear it.
*I still see Tom occasionally in his capacity as trumpet player with the Peachtree Brass Quintet; the group sometimes plays concerts at one of my schools. When it does, I know I'm in for it - at the end of the segment demonstrating the history of popular music from ragtime to rock, he always makes me "volunteer" to come up and do the twist, much to the delight of my students.