by Jennifer Bryce

Talk on Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, by Peter Hill. Edinburgh International Festival, 11th August 2014

Peter Hill is an emeritus professor and well-recognised interpreter of Olivier Messiaen’s music. He worked closely with the composer before his death in 1992.

‘Quartet for the End of Time’ was composed during World War II when Messiaen was in Stalaag VIII A, a German prisoner of war camp. There is a legend that it was first performed on very shoddy instruments in extreme cold weather – that the ‘cello had only three strings. Peter Hill acknowledged that the piece was composed during one of the coldest winters of the 20th Century, but suggested that the instruments were actually of better quality than described in the legend, although the lack of solo piano parts in the piece may be because the Germans provided a poor quality piano. The performers rehearsed every night for a month, for four hours, after carrying out the work required in the camp. This is Messiaen’s only major piece of chamber music. It evolved, presumably, because of the situation in the camp, using the available musicians. Peter Hill demonstrated, for example, how a dotted rhythm is used in the final movement ‘like a shudder’ so that the piano sustains a line in this very slow movement that could have been executed by one note on an organ. But there was no organ. Some movements have no piano at all. They may have been composed before the Germans provided a piano.
There are eight movements in the piece, maybe because it took seven days to create the world and then the eighth movement suggests eternity. Hill suggested that Messiaen wrote something that transcends war and looks to eternity and the life beyond.

Peter Hill made a lot of interesting general references to Messiaen and his work. He demonstrated the use of modes alongside conventional harmonies – such as use of the E Major scale hovering between a G sharp and a G natural that leads to an ultimately satisfying resolution in the major key. He demonstrated and described Messiaen’s study of bird song – how he transcribed it. Before his capture by the Germans Messiaen was a medical orderly at Verdun. (He had poor eyesight and was therefore assigned a non combative role.) He chose to go on watch at an unpopular time, the early hours of the morning, so that he could hear the bird call.
At Stalaag VIIIA when Messiaen saw the Northern Lights, he first thought he was hallucinating. Hill thinks that this may have helped to inspire the ethereal nature of the quartet.
What I hadn’t realised before is that in this work the end of time is literal as well as figurative. In the final movement, as the piece slows to the end, it becomes so very slow that it kind of runs out of rhythm. It is infinite slowness. Thus, the end of time.