Saturday, 29 November 2008

Apocalypse on the Spree

December marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the French composer Olivier Messiaen (December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992). To mark the anniversary, Dr B writes from the German capital, the Berlin radio station RBB organized a concert at the Watergate, a scene club venue next to the Spree on what was the border between East and West Berlin, with spectacular views of the river and the brick gothic Oberbaumbrücke bridge. Philippe Jordan and members of the Staatskapelle Berlin performed Messiaen's "Quatuor pour la fin du Temps" (Quartet for the end of time), a musical setting of the Book of Revelation. Jordan pointed out that Messiaen was "extremely Christian, or better put, Catholic" in his outlook. The choice of the piece was not accidental for it was written in German POW camp, and the rather unusual choice of piano, violin, cello, and clarinet,was constrained by the fact that having been taken a prisoner of war at Verdun after the fall of France in 1940, these were the only musicians he could find in the camp at Görlitz in eastern Germany where he composed the piece - first performed before 5000 prisoners of war and prison guards. The piece is a musical setting of the Book of Revelation, but the "end of time" also refers to Messiaen's use of time in his choice of rhythm and harmony, and maybe also the situation in which he was composing. Messiaen wrote that the first two parts of the piece describe the Angel, who in the Book of Revelation will appear to announce the End of Time, a towering figure straddling the earth, one foot on the sea, the other on land. The Angel of Time appears once more in the seventh section.Overwhelming as the Angel is, Messiaen sees colours and vibrations, for the End of Time is not negative, but leads to metaphysical union with concepts beyond time and space, which in the Book of Revelation means oneness with God (hat tip to classical iconoclast).