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quartetsTwo profound meditations on the end of time sprang from the desolate decade of the 1940s giving an austere hope in the midst of the dark. T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets, begun in 1937, were finally published in 1943. Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was composed in 1940 in the most extraordinary circumstances while he was in a prisoner of war camp.

Eliot’s Quartets draw from Eliot’s own history and destiny, gathering with great poignancy the echoes of the past, blending them with scraps of the memory and mingling them with the dust of war’s destruction. Eliot’s great masterpiece is best understood as a poem in wartime. The fourth poem—Little Gidding—was completed in 1942 and is surrounded with war imagery. The opening movement recalls King Charles I fleeing from the advancing Puritans to take refuge at Little Gidding while the second movement connects to Eliot’s own experiences as a fire watcher on rooftops during the German’s blitzkrieg on London.

Eliot’s poems force us to look at a war, which for the Europeans, must have seemed the end of all things. In the midst of the wreckage, Eliot clings to the past in order to meditate on the uncertain future. It is his Catholic faith that runs like a golden thread throughout the Four Quartets, for the Catholic faith is the rock on which European civilization was built and it is the one constant and reliable force that has weathered all the storms.

Another genius working at the same time and in even more atrocious conditions was the French composer Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen was born into a literary family. His mother was a poet and his father translated Shakespeare into French. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven and was a precocious musical student, eventually being appointed organist of the church of Sainte Trinité in 1931. At the fall of France in 1940, he was taken as a prisoner of war and it was in prison camp that he composed his remarkable Quartet for the End of Time.

Messiaen wrote his quartet for the musicians who were in the Stalag with him. The austere chamber piece therefore features the unusual combination of piano, clarinet, cello, and violin. The first performance was for four hundred fellow prisoners in the dead of winter, outdoors, in the drizzling rain.

Messiaen recalled, “Never had I listened with such rapt attention and comprehension. The cold was excruciating, the Stalag buried under snow. The four performers played on broken down instruments. Etienne Pasquier’s cello had only three strings, the keys on my piano went down but would not come back up. Our costumes were unbelievable. They rigged me out in a green jacket completely in shreds, and I wore wooden clogs.”

Messiaen was clear in his inspiration for his eerie wartime quartet. He wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation. “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 ….”

Intrigued by birdsong, Messiaen spent hours watching birds, recording, and cataloguing their natural music. With a deeply mystical Catholic faith, he merged a love of St. Francis with a deep appreciation for the beauties of nature. He claimed to hear chords of music that combined with visual stimulus so his perceptions of natural beauty were translated into aural compositions.

Messiaen’s music, like Eliot’s poetry, requires hard work. At first it is disturbingly modern, distasteful, and difficult. On second and third listening things come clear, and a beauty that was hidden in harshness comes into focus. Both works force us to struggle for meaning and beauty as we struggle to find truth, beauty and goodness in the midst of a harsh, modern, secular and mechanical age.

Though modernists, both Messiaen and Eliot reveal the strength of conservative principles. Both men were rooted in the great tradition of European Catholic civilization, and their work emerges from their immersion in the Great Tradition. The modernity of their method was their attempt to communicate the timeless truths in a modern world to a modern sensibility. Their wartime quartets show that to be conservative is not to be mindlessly reactionary or ignorantly antiquarian.

To listen to Messiaen’s quartet is, like Eliot’s work, to be taken into the heart of the darkness of total war. Out of this desert of despair these two works bloom with hope and faith. The inner, poignant beauty and the pain too sweet and tender to bear rings through. It is as if Messiaen and Eliot are brothers in arms: one wringing beauty out of war with words, the other forging hope out of the fires of suffering with music. In doing so they echo the eternal hope of all men that the “Light has come into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

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4 replies to this post
  1. Yes, Eliot excelled at using modern language and tropes to communicate a traditional message. That is also the continuing challenge for every conservative. As Eliot’s friend and mentor, Ezra Pound, put it, the goal is to “make it new.”

  2. The three-stringed cello myth is regularly repeated even by the BBC among others; Messiaen himself liked to perpetuate it. The prison guard Carl-Albert Brüll bought new strings, in addition to facilitating Messiaen’s work on the score and eventual release.

  3. This is a fine essay and a worthy reminder that the present is not ugly because it is the present, only because our people are no longer tied by education to the past (and by education I do not mean only formal schooling )

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