Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (French pronunciation: [kwatɥɔʁ puʁ la fɛ̃ dy tɑ̃]), also known by its English title Quartet for the End of Time,[1] is a piece of chamber music by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. It was premiered in 1941. The piece is scored for clarinet (in B-flat), violin, cello, and piano; a typical performance of the complete work lasts about 50 minutes. Messiaen wrote the piece while a prisoner of war in German captivity and it was first performed by his fellow prisoners. It has come to be recognized as one of his most important works.

Quatuor pour la fin du Temps
Chamber music by Olivier Messiaen
Invitation to the premiere
EnglishQuartet for the End of Time
Performed15 January 1941 (1941-01-15): Görlitz
Duration50 minutes
  • clarinet
  • violin
  • cello
  • piano

Composition and first performance

Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered World War II. He was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland).[2] While in transit to the camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abîme des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier, were among his fellow prisoners, and after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard (Carl-Albert Brüll, 1902–1989), Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano. The combination of instruments was unusual at the time, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938.

The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on 15 January 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards.[3] The cello was bought with donations from camp members.[4] Messiaen later recalled: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."[5]

Brüll provided paper and isolation for composing, and he also helped acquire the three other instruments. By forging papers with a stamp made from a potato, Brüll even helped the performers to be liberated shortly after the performance. After the war, Brüll made a special trip to visit Messiaen, but was sent away and told the composer would not see him.[6]


Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version):

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth .... And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ...


The work is in eight movements. Quotations are translated from Messiaen's Preface to the score.

Liturgie de cristal

I. "Crystal liturgy", for the full quartet. In his preface to the score, Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet:

Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.

The opening movement begins with the solo clarinet imitating a blackbird's song and the violin imitating a nightingale’s song. The underlying pulse is provided by the cello and piano: the cello cycles through the same five-note melody (using the pitches C, E, D, F-sharp, and B-flat) and a repeating pattern of 15 durations. The piano part consists of a 17-note rhythmic pattern permuted strictly through 29 chords, as if to give the listener a glimpse of something eternal.

Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

II. "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time", for the full quartet.

The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello.

Abîme des oiseaux

III. "Abyss of birds", for solo clarinet.

The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.

A test for even the most accomplished clarinetist, with an extremely slow tempo marking quaver (eighth note) = 44.


IV. "Interlude", for violin, cello, and clarinet.

Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.

Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus

V. "Praise to the eternity of Jesus", for cello and piano.

Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, "infinitely slow", on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, "whose time never runs out". The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. "In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1 (King James Version))

The music is arranged from an earlier composition, "IV. L'Eau" from "Fête des belles eaux" for 6 Ondes Martenots, performed at the Paris International Exposition of 1937. The tempo marking is infiniment lent, extatique ("infinitely slow, ecstatic").

Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes

VI. "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets", for the full quartet.

Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Hear especially all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.

Toward the end of the movement the theme returns, fortissimo, in augmentation and with wide changes of register.

Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

VII. "Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time", for the full quartet.

Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). – In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout compenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!

Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus

VIII. "Praise to the immortality of Jesus", for violin and piano.

Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.

The music is an arrangement of the second part of his earlier organ piece "Diptyque", transposed up a major third from C to E.

Derivative works

The piece is the inspiration for Quartet for the End of Time, a 2014 novel by Johanna Skibsrud that borrows its title and structure from the piece.


  1. "Quartet for the End of Time". laphil.com. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  2. Dingle, Christopher (2007). The Life of Messiaen. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. pp. 68–70. ISBN 0-521-63547-0.
  3. Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Cornell University Press, 2003), 62
  4. Rischin, Rebecca (2003). For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8014-7297-8.
  5. Joseph Stevenson, All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music (All Media Guide, 2005), 843
  6. Mostel, Raphael (9 May 2008). "Book Challenges Old Myths and Uncovers New Surprises About Famed Quartet", The Jewish Daily Forward]. Retrieved 18 April 2014
  • Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (score) (Paris: Durand)
  • Anthony Pople, Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Cambridge Music Handbooks (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
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