I Crystal Liturgy:
Around five o’clock in the morning, a lone bird improvises, surrounded by fine fragments of sound, by a halo of harmony lost high in the trees. Transposing that to a religious level, you have the harmonious silence of heaven. The piano plays a rhythmic ostinato based on three Hindu rhythms; the clarinet spins out the song of a bird.
II Vocalise, for the Angel Announcing the End of Time:
The first and third parts (both very short), evoke the power of this strong angel, crowned with a rainbow and clothed in clouds, one foot on the sea and the other on land. The central section deals with the impalpable harmonies of heaven, the piano playing soft cascades of chords: blue and mauve, gold and green, red-violet, blue-orange; all of this dominated by steel-grey. These chords, faraway chimes, surround the plainchant-like melody of the violin and cello.
III The Abyss of the Birds:
Clarinet solo. The abyss is time, in its sorrows and lassitudes. The birds offer a contrast, symbolizing our yearning for light, stars, rainbows and jubilant voices. The piece begins in sadness. Notice the long tones:pianissimo, crescendo molto to the most atrocious fortissimo. The bird-songs are written in the gay and fanciful style of the blackbird. The return to desolation is manifested in the dark timbre of the clarinet’s lower register.
Scherzo. Of a more outgoing character than the other movements, but related to them nonetheless by various melodic references.
V Praise to the Eternity of Jesus:
Jesus represents, in this context, the word of God. One long, extremely slow phrase by the cello glorifies with tenderness and reverence the eternity of this powerful and gentle Word. Majestically the melody unfolds like a distant memory, tender and all encompassing. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
VI Dance of Wrath, for the Seven Trumpets:
Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse attend various catastrophes; the trumpet of the seventh angel announces the consummation of the mystery of God). Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury or ice-like frenzy. Listen particularly, toward the end of the piece, to the terrifying fortissimo of the theme in augmentation and with change of register of its different notes.
VII Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Announcing the End of Time:
This movement is dedicated to the angel, and even more so, to the rainbow covering him (a rainbow symbolizing peace, wisdom, and all luminous and resonant vibration). In my coloured dreams I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms; then, following this transitory stage I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colours. These fiery swords, these rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: Behold the cluster, behold the rainbows!
VIII In Praise of the Immortality of Jesus:
Abroad violin solo, balancing the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second tribute? It addresses more specifically the second aspect of Jesus – Jesus the man, the Word made flesh, raised from the dead and immortalized to make His life known to us. This movement is pure love. It ascends gradually toward an intense peak, the ascension of man towards God, of the Son of God toward his Father, of the creature become divine towards paradise.
Oliver Messiaen’s (1908 – 1992) Quartet for the End of Time
(Topic and Variation by J. Drew Stephen)