One Composer’s Conception of Time

“I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clad in a cloud, having a rainbow upon his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He placed his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the land; and, supporting himself on the sea and the land, he raised his hand heavenward and swore by the One Who lives forever and ever, saying: ‘There shall be no more time, but in the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel the mystery of God shall be consummated.’”

– Apocalypse of St. John, 10:1–2, 5–71

So begins Olivier Messiaen’s preface to his Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour las Fin du Temps). We might call it the prologue or the prelude to his preface, for this excerpt from Revelation (aka Apocalypse of Jesus Christ) provides the sole inspiration for the entire piece.

The quartet here is unusual in that it is not the typical string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello), instead consisting of piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. Messiaen finished composing this chamber music work while imprisoned during World War II. A sympathetic guard provided the needed materials for the captive composer. Quartet for the End of Time premiered in Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany (modern day Zgorzelec, Poland).

In his preface he describes how the composition’s “musical language” evokes time, timelessness, and eternity:

Certain modes, realizing melodically and harmonically a kind of tonal ubiquity, draw the listener into a sense of the eternity of space or infinity. Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities. (All this remains mere striving and stammering if one ponders upon the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!)2

By “[p]articular rhythms existing outside the measure” the composer means irregular rhythms; in some sections the number of beats per bar (measure) varies. In the first movement, for example, one instrument is assigned notes/chords to be played at specific intervals, while another is given different notes to be played at different intervals.3 Such intermixing represents “the banishment of temporalities”.4 These musical effects express time nearing its end, after which it will segue into eternity.

The composition consists of eight movements, two of which center on Christ. The first of these, the much-lauded fifth movement, is titled “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”. The composer explains:

Jesus is here considered as one with the Word [Logos]. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello magnifies with love and reverence on the eternality of the powerful and gentle Word, “whose years will never cease.” Majestically, the melody unfolds at a sort of distance, both tender and supreme: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

As I understand the composer, he appears to recognize that the earthly Jesus (the Word become flesh) preexisted as the Word. That is, there is continuity in the ‘Person’ of “the Word” and the Person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, then, he seems to correctly recognize that Jesus is coextensive with the Word only at the point of the Incarnation. Before that point in time the Word was not with flesh, and the Word was simply “the Word”.

Thus, while the Word eternally exists, Jesus has a beginning in time—at the instant of Incarnation, at the Conception of the Virginal Birth. In other words, though the Word exists eternally, the Word began a new mode of existence at the Incarnation—as Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ—which did not alter His eternality. Stated another way, the Word has unbounded eternality; comparatively, Jesus Christ has bounded eternality—bounded at the moment of the Virginal Conception, when the Word took human nature unto Himself (see An Eternal Christological Conundrum).

The second movement exalting Jesus Christ is the final (eighth) one: “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.”

Expansive violin solo as counterpart to the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second eulogy? It addresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus—to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, resurrected immortal in order to share His life with us. It is total love. Its slow ascent towards the highest pitch is the ascension of man towards his God, of the child of God towards his Father, of the divinized creature towards paradise.

In keeping with his Roman Catholic faith, it seems likely the composer has in mind Athanasius, whose words were revised a bit to become the pithy aphorism “God became man so that man could become God”. That Messiaen understood this not as a full-on capital ‘D’ Deification seems evident in the last sentence above, especially the French créature divinisée. This retains the Creator-creature distinction, for a creature cannot truly become “Divinized”—capital ‘D’. The created cannot become just like the Creator. That would be oxymoronic. We are ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2Peter 1:4), not wholly Deity, God.5

Coming full circle, one last aspect of Messiaen’s preface commands our attention: his translation/interpretation of time in the prologue/prelude. A quick search of various English translations finds quite a variety in Revelation 10:6. Of this, the composer states:

“There are people who understand [the Biblical passage as] ‘there will be no more delay.’ That’s not it. [Instead it is] ‘there will be no more Time’ with a capital ‘T’; that is to say, there will be no more space, there will be no more time. One leaves the human dimension with cycles and destiny to rejoin eternity. So, I finally wrote this quartet dedicating it to this angel who declared the end of Time.”6

His is an interesting interpretation. As for the translation, Messiaen is technically correct. Let’s look at the Greek (transliterated):

Hoti chronos ouketi estai
That time no-longer will-be
That time will be no longer
That time will no longer be
That there will be time no longer
That there will be no more time

The first Greek word, hoti, can be understood as “that”, followed by a statement, in narrative form, of what someone had said. Or it can be construed as the beginning of a quotation, as Messiaen construes it, along with a few English translations. Messiaen goes a bit further, though, by prefacing this statement by the angel with “saying” (French: disant), which is not in the Greek. The composer also capitalizes “Time” (French: Temps).

Those versions that render this either as a quotation of the angel as “There will be no more delay” or the narrator’s reporting of what the angel had said as that there will be no more delay are making interpretive decisions based on the larger context. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into more detail, but the reader is free to make any comment on this.

The composer follows the words accompanying movement VIII—and thus concludes his preface—with the same words he had used parenthetically earlier in the preface, this time without the parentheses: All this remains mere striving and stammering if one ponders upon the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!

In sum, Messiaen offers an intriguing take on the Revelation 10 passage, which then functions as a basis for his unique conception of time musically, as realized in his chamber music piece Quatuor pour las Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time). That this piece was conceived and completed while a WWII captive makes it perhaps all the more intriguing.

___________________________

1 As translated from Olivier Messiaen’s French, with the assistance of various online helps.

2 Again, as translated from Messiaen’s French, though comparing with the English translation in the CD  liner notes of RCA Victor Gold Seal (reissue of original 1976 RCA Red Seal), MESSIAEN Quatuor pour la Fin de Temps, Tashi (Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, Richard Stoltzman), 7835-2-RG, BMG Classics, © 1988 BMG Music. The translation in the above text above differs, e.g., in “the eternity of space or infinity” as compared to liner notes’ “the eternity of space or time” (the French is infini), and in “if one ponders upon” as compared to “if one compares it to” (French is songe à). The rest of the translations follow similar methodology.

3 See Lawrence University’s Gene Biringer’s “Analysis” tab here: I. Liturgie de cristal. Also, under the “Musical Elements” tab the author writes: [Heterophonic texture] can also describe certain polyphonic textures, like that of the first movement of Messiaen’s Quartet, in which there is no discernable relationship among some of the parts . . .  the violin and clarinet parts, which are meant to evoke birdsong, are so independent of the cello part and, especially, the homophonic piano part that they seem to occupy a wholly different sonic world . . . here four characters are speaking simultaneously, unresponsive and perhaps even oblivious to the others. Instead of a harmonious counterpoint between independent but related melodies, we hear a juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas – a true heterophony.

4 For further—and better—explanation, see Peter Gutmann’s Classical Notes site, particularly here.

5 See Roman Catholic Catechism 460.

6 As quoted from the Lawrence University site (see Biblical Source tab) as found in Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (New York, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), p 51.

Free on PDF! Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions by Vern Poythress

This is just too good to pass up: A free pdf download of a new philosophical book from a Christian worldview. Dr. Poythress, current editor of the Westminster Theological Journal and former member of the translation committee for the ESV, writes from the perspective of the Reformed tradition. This work, like some of his others, is written at a more conversational level, that is to say, at a level understandable to the general layperson. Each time he brings up a term which may be unknown to the average reader, Poythress defines it. Download and enjoy!

The Domain for Truth

I just posted a few minutes ago but this is too good not to share right now!

Redeeming Philosophy A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions

Dr. Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary has just had his book Redeeming Philosophy published just a few weeks ago last month.  Apparently he has made this book available for free online as a PDF!

You can download the file if you click HERE.

Here’s the book’s description from the publisher’s website:

Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I find meaning?

Life is full of big questions. The study of philosophy seeks to answer such questions. In his latest book, prolific author Vern Poythress investigates the foundations and limitations of Western philosophy, sketching a distinctly Christian approach to answering basic questions about the nature of humanity, the existence of God, the search for meaning, and the basis for morality.

For Christians eager to engage with the timeless philosophical…

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