Pandemic heightens the message of ’Quartet for the End of Time’

Olivier Messiaen wrote "Quartet for the End of Time" while imprisoned in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

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The inevitability of death, the vicissitudes of time and the hope of transcendence. These themes and more come together to make Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, one of the unquestioned chamber-music masterpieces of the 20th century.

A performance of this epic yet intimate 50-minute work will debut April 22 as part of CSO Sessions, a series of small-ensemble concerts streamed on the CSOtv video portal. It features three members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Concertmaster Robert Chen, Principal Cello John Sharp and Principal Clarinet Stephen Williamson, as well as guest pianist Kuang-Hao Huang.

This foursome first performed the work in November 2018 as part of the festivities surrounding the opening of DePaul University’s $98 million Holtschneider Performance Center, and it was supposed to take it up again in 2019 as part of the orchestra’s All-Access Chamber Series. It was postponed until February 2020, one of the last in-person events in Orchestra Hall before the coronavirus shutdown.

“The four of us have been living with this piece for a few years now,” said Huang, a member of the artist faculty in piano at Roosevelt University. “It is a good thing, especially for a piece like this. The stuff that is tricky is so much easier to play when you just know the group. There’s just a settled quality that makes playing the piece that much more fulfilling.”

Sharp argues that the profound musical journey built into the quartet could hardly be more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the isolation, disruption and loss have created a sense of time slowing down and sometimes even stopping.

“It’s a very apropos piece for this time we’ve been in,” he said. “In the sense of the subject being the Apocalypse and the end of the world. People may feel something similar to that in this time of COVID. The world stopped for many people. There’s a certain feeling of emptiness when you walk through the city, and you see it shut down. It’s like a dystopian ghost town. The world is gone in a way.”

Messiaen wrote the eight-movement work during World War II while imprisoned at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp near the present-day town of Zgorzelec, Poland. He chose the unusual but not unprecedented instrumentation based on the group of professional musicians who were with him: clarinet, cello, violin and piano. Playing on subpar instruments, with the composer on the keyboard, they presented the premiere at the camp on Jan. 15, 1941, before about 400 prisoners and guards.

The French-born composer, who was a devout Catholic, wrote in a preface to the score that the work was inspired by the Book of Revelation, the apocalyptic final section of the New Testament. He cites a passage that ends with these words: “But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished.”

Williamson has played the quartet at least once every two years since he learned it as an undergraduate in 1990. “It was the piece that I always wanted to learn,” he said. “I didn’t want to tackle it until I felt I could really grasp what it was about, and technically be able to do what Messiaen is asking us to do.”

Three of the participating musicians shared some of their impressions of and experiences with the quartet:

John Sharp, principal cello

First performance of the quartet: He first performed the slow fifth movement, which is scored for cello and piano and often performed on its own, on a recital program some 30 years ago. He later played the entire work at summer music festivals.

Thoughts on the piece: “It’s a very long piece and a difficult piece. It’s also a different world from a lot of other music. He has a very specific idea and coming to understand what that might mean when you play it has been a journey for me. Messiaen writes quite a bit about the piece, and it’s quite specific. His inspiration came from the Book of Revelation and the New Testament about the Apocalypse, the end of the world. Not to put too fine a point on it, but his religious feelings seem to be very mystical and mysterious and real to him, [like] this passage from Revelation about a giant angel who has one foot on the land and one foot on the sea — very descriptive things.

"Along with that is a passage about time stopping, and that is where the title comes from. He tries to portray that [phenomenon] in some of these movements, which are extremely slow, the cello movement and violin movement. He writes a number of times in the music more or less: ‘Really, I mean it to be this slow. Don’t go faster!’ It’s supposed to evoke something infinite, something without time.”

Challenge of the slow fifth movement: “It’s difficult to sustain the tone well for such long notes. The 16th note is the beat. Usually, 16th notes are fast. Every one is about 44 [beats per minute] which is very slow. So one of the challenges is just being able to sustain that, and all it entails technically and musically. The development of the phrase happens very slowly and gradually, but it’s there. You hear it harmonically where it’s leading to. And after a while, you understand where it’s going.”

Stephen Williamson, principal clarinet

First performance of the quartet: He spent six months learning the piece in 1990 during his final year of undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., collaborating with three fellow students who remain close friends: Chicago violinist Kevin Case, former concertmaster of the Grant Park Orchestra and Dallas Opera; Robert DeMaine, principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Craig Ketter, a noted New York pianist. “These guys were unbelievable, and I was just so happy to get a chance to learn the piece with such great musicians,” he said. “It became something that was in our DNA.”

Demands of the solo-clarinet movement: “That’s what is so special: I’m the only person who gets a solo movement — entirely by myself. I think that solo movement is the most demanding nine minutes of playing that I will ever do. You go from the absolute softest playing to most forceful playing that you can get, and there’s no hiding. It’s just you, so it’s pretty obvious if you can pull it off or not.”

His strong connection the work’s religious nature: “There was a time when I was contemplating becoming a priest in the Catholic Church. This was one of the deciding factors that changed my life. This piece helped me decide that I can actually still be strong in my religious convictions but not to the extent that I have to join the priesthood. I can do what I need to do through the art of making music.”

The endurance necessary for this piece: “When you are done, you are so fatigued. We had to do a dress rehearsal in the morning and then come back at 2 o’clock and give the performance. Just playing it once in a day is taxing enough but to do it twice, that was crazy. I remember feeling like: How I am going to do this again? But we did, and I hope it will be something that everyone will enjoy.”

Kuang-Hao Huang, guest pianist

First performance of the quartet: His first performance came about 20 years ago as a professional, not the full work but a presentation of the slow fifth movement for cello and piano in a recital. He has since realized it with a range of other artists, including the Sheridan Chamber Players and Chicago Chamber Musicians.

Relationship of the piano to the other instruments: “I think in many ways it is the least showcased instrument of the four,“ he said. ”People often say the second to last movement is the piano movement. Even so, it’s not really the piano movement. It starts with the cello solo and then there’s the violin, so we don’t really have a shining moment the way all the other instruments do. But I can’t say that it leaves me unfulfilled. I think I play a very important supportive role for sure.”

Meaning of the work to Huang: “I think it is the entire journey that really makes the piece great. When you look at each of the individual parts, sometimes it doesn’t seem so remarkable. But when you play it all at once, the journey is really quite incredible.”

The work’s unexpected universality: “The one thing that surprises me is that the music is kind of thorny — the first movement is downright weird — yet somehow this piece speaks to everybody. Even for people who don’t particularly care for 20th-century music, it seems to speak to them. They’re not put off by it. That to me is pretty amazing.”