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 …
— Rev 10:1–2, 5–7
This was the text that inspired Olivier Messiaen’s transcendent Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). It is also truncated in his preface to the score with this haunting phrase: “In homage to the angel of the apocalypse, who raises his hand to heaven by saying: ‘There will be no more Time.'” It is a powerful text, given that Messiaen composed this piece in late 1940 whilst held in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner of war camp, by the Germans of the second World War. Though there is much to say about this mystical 8 movement work, its creation, instrumentation, or initial performance on a rainy day in 1941, I am consistently drawn to one movement: Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus
An overarching and obvious aspect of this piece is stated quite nicely by Messiaen’s initial tempo marking in the score: “Infiniment lent, extatique” (Infinitely slow, ecstatic). He deals with concepts and preconceptions of time wonderfully in this piece in a variety of ways with his manipulation, contraction, and expansion of musical time. Dealing with time in this manner seems to be apropos to the Revelation text, the peculiar ‘there should be time no longer’ and an entrance into something that either doesn’t include time, or transcends it in some way.
Messiaen describes the movement this way in his preface:
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.”
I want to focus here on the words “regal distance,” which is a fascinating way of speaking to what I personally get from the score. In my opinion, it is one of the best instances in music that successfully portrays the concept of קֹ֫דֶשׁ, (Hebrew: qodesh). In Greek, it is ἅγιος (hagios). In English, it is holy.
I feel quite certain that most modern people do not understand the concept of (qodesh) holiness, or if they do, feel a little uncomfortable with the idea. Of the variety of possible translated meanings, (according to the NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries) qodesh can mean apartness, consecrated, dedicated, hallowed, sacred, sacrificial, holy, and my personal favorite: sanctuary. Of the variety of possible translated meanings, hagios can mean set apart, sacred, holy, or my personal favorite: sanctuary. These ideas circle around what holiness actually is: an ‘otherness’ or ‘separateness’ or ‘sacredness.’ It is a placement or condition of being and is a very antithetical idea to our current society (or perhaps any society). It is most easily and temporally seen as a concept or condition of personal moral character, but there seems to be a larger, more cosmic (immeasurable, limitless, infinite) aspect to it as well.
This concept is seen, or felt, here in this movement fairly explicitly. There is an aspect of holiness that is achieved by the eradication of Time, is there not? Part of the nature of God (Jesus), is that He is timeless or transcends time (“whose time never runs out”). He “Is,” or differently stated, He is eternally now. That is a holy concept. It is absolute, and absolutely pure. And particularly in Christianity, He ‘is’ sanctuary (holy). When one enters into the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ, it could be thought that one enters into eternity. The pairing of holiness and timelessness can also be seen in 1 Peter 1:13-25.
For Messiaen, the end of time also meant an escape from history, a leap into an invisible paradise. Hence the hypnotically simple E-major chords in the two “Louanges.” The postwar avant-garde composers who studied with Messiaen—Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis—wanted to eradicate all traces of the old world, but their teacher was not afraid to look back. In fact, Messiaen based the “Louanges” on two of his prewar compositions—“Oraison,” from a piece titled “Fête des belles eaux,” for six Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments; and “Diptyque,” a 1930 piece for organ. The scholar Nigel Simeone tells us that “Fête” was written for the Paris Exposition of 1937, one of whose attractions was a “festival of sound, water, and light.” Women in white flowing dresses played the Ondes in conjunction with spectacular fireworks and fountain displays. The opening phrase of the first “Louange” originally accompanied a colossal jet of water.
It is disconcerting to associate the Quartet with Moulin Rouge-style production values. But Messiaen always took joy in skating between the mundane and the sublime.
— “Revelations: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time” by Alex Ross; The New Yorker (March 22, 2004)
As stated by Ross above, Messiaen transcribed Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus from his 1937 work Oraison. Oraison is a commune in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France, which at the time of Messiaen’s composition had a population of around 1750. Given the nature and goals of The Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (The International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life) in May 1937, Messiaen’s selection of the ondes Martenot (invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928) would have been an excellent choice.
But why, while in Stalag VIII-A 3 years later, would he look back to this particular work and repurpose it for his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, especially the Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus? I think if you listen to Oraison played on the original instrument, you may have suspicions:
When I hear this played on original instrumentation, I get an even deeper, almost visceral, connection to the concepts described above, “קֹ֫דֶשׁ,” “ἅγιος,” …holiness. It is the nature, strangeness, and mystical sonic profile of the ondes Martinot that does it I suspect. It is even more affective than the 1941 transcription, in my opinion. (The violoncelle sound is more earthbound than the otherworldly ondes Martinot). The build and gravitational tension building at 5′ and subsequent denoument and release into space at 5’30” to the end (or 6’30” – 7’30” in the Yo-Yo Ma recording) creates a powerful εἰκών of the “gentle, regal distance” of God (Jesus). It is the image of the cosmic King and the holy sanctuary, the Λόγος — the Word of God.
On January 15, 1941, The Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus was first heard on deteriorating instruments by 400 prisoners and guards at Stalag VIII-A. It was raining. Messiaen was said to have recalled “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” They perhaps saw what could be described as “hope” in imagining the apocalyptic angel declaring Time be no more. There will be justice and there is an infinite Being who will provide it.
It was a perfect time in history to hear such a thing, as it remains now.