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.

Continue reading