Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

I’ve made an online lecture that discusses the compositional technique of Olivier Messiaen with reference to his quartet: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for clarinet, piano, violin and ’cello. In this lecture, I discuss his use of ‘modes of limited transposition’; ‘isorhythms’, ‘non-retrogradable rhythms’, and ‘reductive rhythm’. This blog post features as a supplement to the lecture, which you can find on my YouTube channel.

Olivier Messiaen

First, some contextual background: who was Olivier Messiaen? He was born in 1908 in Avignon, France. His father was a translator of English (especially Shakespeare), and his mother was a poet. Messiaen taught himself piano and wrote The Lady of Shalott after Tennyson’s poem (here, he is already demonstrating extra-musical influences). He attended the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 until 1930. There, he studied piano, organ, percussion and composition (and history). Messiaen also learned about Greek rhythms from Marcel Dupré, and discovered a table of 120 Indian ‘deci-talas’ listed by Sharngadeva (these are rhythms of the Indian provinces). Knowing all this is important for understanding his works post-1935 (including Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps).

In 1931, Messiaen was appointed organist at the Church of La Sainte Trinite in Paris. Messiaen’s Catholic faith is a key influence on him.  It is, along with nature, birdsong and literature, the most important extra-musical source of inspiration for him. Messiaen has also written a lot of organ music, which is meditative rather than for specific use in the actual liturgy of the Roman service.

In 1936, Messiaen forms La Jeune France, a fairly short-lived group determined to write music with a human/spiritual dimension. He also married violinist Claire Delbos in 1932, for whom he writes a song cycle (1936 and 1937). Delbos dies young from illness in 1959.

In 1940, after war breaks out, Messiaen joins army and is taken prisoner. He spends two years in Stalag VIII at Gorlitz in Silesia where he writes Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (while imprisoned).  The piece receives its premiere in the camp on 15th January 1941.

In 1946, Messiaen gives private classes attended by Stockhausen, Boulez and Yvonne Loriod (the pianist who later became his second wife in 1962). In 1947, he is appointed Professor of Analysis, Aesthetics and Rhythm at the Paris Conservatoire (until 1966). His influence as a teacher and composer in the 20th century is quite significant.  He knew when to nurture his students (guiding Boulez and Stockhausen, for example) and when to let the student follow their own path (he told Xenakis that he could not teach him – Xenakis did not need Messiaen’s guidance).

Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

Now for some context on Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps: finding himself in Stalag VIII with a violinist, cellist and clarinettist, Messiaen wrote a short trio for them that would become the 4th movement of the Quartet. Despite the lack of a piano, Messiaen persisted writing the work as a quartet; the piano was brought into the camp later for the performance.

You might wonder why Messiaen wrote this piece; he is reported to have said the following:

“If I composed this quartet, it was to escape from the snow, from the war, from the captivity, and from myself. The greatest benefit that I drew from it was that in the midst of thirty thousand prisoners, I was the only man who was not one.”

Anthony Pople, Messiaen: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Cambridge 1998), p.15

The first performance took place in front of an audience of 5000 – peasants, workers, intellectuals, doctors, priests and others.  “Never”, says Messiaen, “have I been listened to with such attention and understanding”.

As a starting point, the piece is influenced by the vision of the Angel of the Apocalypse “who lifted up his right hand towards heaven, and swore an oath […] that there should be no more Time”. But the work, while inspired by this vision, is not a commentary upon it (as Messiaen insisted). The title has another implication: it expresses Messiaen’s desire for the end of musical time based on the equal durational divisions of classical music. Furthermore, since music is the art form most obviously concerned with the passage of time – rhythm, tempo, time signatures, pulse – it is well placed to respond to the notion of Time as a theological issue. In The End of Time, Ian Matheson says:

“The dissolution of time which Messiaen seeks, implies a sort of rhythmic music, one which for Messiaen eschews repetition, bar-lines and equal divisions, and ultimately takes its inspiration from the movements of nature, movements which are free and unequal in length.”

Ian Matheson, The End of Time

Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps incorporates a non-narrative structure in that it sounds directionless, particularly in the piano and cello parts. This is intentional and primarily due to the way in which Messiaen treats temporal features. For the melodies, Messiaen takes fragments of material which he rearranges to form various phrases in the clarinet and violin parts. He intends this to sound like birdsong.

For more information, the following books are useful:

  • Anthony Pople: Messiaen: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Cambridge 1998)
  • Robert Sherlaw Johnson: Messiaen (London 1989)
  • Peter Hill (ed.) The Messiaen Companion (London 1995)
Compositional Techniques in Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

The Quartet uses several innovative techniques or methods of construction. First are the modes of limited transposition: these are artificial modes, having no connection with the modes of folk music or plainchant. There are seven modes in total and, if you’re interested, you can find a list of modes in Anthony Pople’s book, listed above. In order to understand why their transpositions are limited, let’s take mode 2 as an example. This mode is more commonly known as the octatonic scale (it moves up in semitone, tone, semitone, tone, and so on). The number of transpositions for this mode (and indeed all the other six) is limited: if it starts on C, then it can be transposed up to Db and D but not Eb because this would result in pitches from the original starting position on C. Messiaen uses these modes of limited transposition as the basis of melody and harmony.  

The first mode of limited transposition is also known as the whole-tone scale. Messiaen didn’t want to simple use this in his music because the whole-tone scale had been exhausted by earlier composers such as Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky. Therefore, when he came to use this mode, he placed it in harmonics in the cello line so he could play with the listener’s perception of it.

For the harmonic movement in his music, Messiaen created what are known as parallel chords. These parallel chords are an arrangement of his modes of limited transposition. He used a ‘skipping’ technique to pick notes from each mode and create this harmony (so, he might pick a pitch, skip one, pick another, skip two, and so on, intuitively). Some of the chords in the Quartet is essentially consonant in their appearance, but the relations between these ‘tonal’ chords is not traditional western harmony, but purely modal-based. The point here is that one can create consonant harmony with these modes of limited transposition. Likewise, there are also ways of ordering the ‘skipping’ sequence that result in less tonal harmony. If you need more information here, this point is explained with moving visual examples in my online lecture on my YouTube channel.

There are two major rhythmic innovations that both appear in the opening movement, Liturgie du Cristal. The first is isorhythmic patterns, and the second is non-retrogradable rhythms.

Isorhythmic patterns are rhythmic sequences overlaid on a melodic shape, each recurring continuously but independently. For instance, in the opening movement, the cello has a 5-note melodic sequence over a rhythmic ostinato of 15 durational values (my online lecture explains this better with visuals).

Messiaen doesn’t simply insert an isorhythm, but he combines more than one isorhythmic pattern simultaneously. By doing this, he creates an overall sense of stasis in the music. Combining isorhythms multiplies enormously the complexity which will occur between the instruments before they return to their starting point. The overall result is a dissociation of rhythm from melody and harmony, emphasising the autonomy of music’s time over other formal parameters such as harmony. This isn’t to say that Messiaen doesn’t like harmony, he’s just foregrounding the aspect of time more than other parameters that had been so important through the 18th and 19th centuries (for instance, in the time of Beethoven, there was a focus on being creative with harmony more so than time). Due to the length of these isorhythms in Messiaen’s Quartet, it would take several hours for the instruments to return to their first starting patterns together. As such, the process is not allowed to conclude and the movement is brought to an abrupt close by the violin, which, with the clarinet, is accompanying this complex temporal process with bursts of birdsong-like material. Have a listen to this opening movement and see what you think!

Now, let’s discuss those non-retrogradable rhythms: these are essentially palindromic rhythmic patterns. They comprise retrograded fragments which make them palindromic, or symmetrical, and, because of their internal symmetry, they cannot be written backwards. An attempt to write them backwards would result in the same thing. They’re basically palindromes. Moreover, non-retrogradable rhythms typically comprise more micro-level non-retrogradable rhythms. You might need the visuals for this one (head over to the lecture on YouTube if so).

Non-retrogradable rhythms contribute to the sense that time is being elongated in Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps.  The patterns (from non-retrogradable rhythms and isorhythms) and the repetitions (which are subtle and almost too long to make you realise that there are repetitions) create this sense of something directionless: a stasis, an elongation of time. Naturally, this causes one to consider the direction of time and question its irreversibility (because, although time is obviously moving forward, Messiaen creates the sense that it is standing still).

Messiaen plays with our perception of time further with reductive rhythms. These involve removing or shortening a beat within a phrase: have a look/listen to the first five bars of mvt. III (Abîme des oiseaux).  Reductive rhythms usurp the listener’s expectations: they expect the phrase to finish strongly on that consequent, but it doesn’t. It’s cut slightly short.

A final point about some of Messiaen’s melodies in Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps: they comprise of a series of fragments (also called ‘organic fragments’) that are rearranged in any order (decided intuitively by the composer) to form melodic lines that resemble birdsong.


Messiaen was a French composer who, when he was held prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II, composed Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. In Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, Messiaen’s compositional techniques included modes of limited transposition, parallel chords, isorhythms, non-retrogradable rhythms, organic fragments and reductive rhythm. A knowledge of these compositional techniques helps us to understand the construction of Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps.

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