Quartet For the End of Time: Abyss of the Birds

Published: 2021-10-12 17:15:13
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Quartet for the End of Time: Abyss of the Birds The Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen, is a multi-movement piece written for the instrumentation of a piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. While the instrumentation is odd and uncommon, it is incredibly fitting for the piece upon knowing the background. Olivier Messiaen was a French soldier back in World War II who was captured by the Germans and held in a camp for prisoners of war. He composed this piece to perform with three other musicians of the camp.
Due to the limits he faced with the musicians, the quartet had to be written for specific nstruments. However, the instrumentation is seemingly perfect for the atmosphere and mood that the piece should provoke. Messiaen went through a lot of suffering during his time period, and it is clearly evident in the music. Throughout every movement, you can hear the anguish and misery that he hoped the music would inflict. The title of the piece, “Quartet for the End of Time” also includes a clever double meaning.
It alludes to the end of days, as well as the fact that Messiaen played with time and rhythm unlike other composers of his time or before him, including the lack of an indicated time signature during certain sections. This is particularly relevant in the third movement, the Abime des oiseaux, or Abyss of the Birds. The third section of the quartet stands out because it is a solo piece for the clarinet. It is meant to be played as an elaborate cadenza, where the time and phrasing is completely up to the interpretation of the performer.
There is no indicated time signature, only tempo markings. The tempo changes occur with the introduction of a new section. The piece starts out painfully slow at 44 eighth notes per minute, but introduces a main theme from the very first phrase in mm1-2. The first theme (presented below) is then repeated before it moves on for further development. It uses notes entirely from the 12 octatonic scale, as does the rest of the first section. The 12 octatonic scale also is favored by Messiaen, and his second mode.
After a few more bars from the repetition of the opening melody, it is reintroduced with a slightly different rhythm at the end of mml 1 . The opening section really only has those three recurring spots in those first 12 measures. The other material presented in those measures differs pretty drastically from the main heme. The main theme consists mainly of half steps, whole steps, and minor 3rds intervallically, but the intervallic structure of the other material has almost no correlation due to the large disjunct motion that it contains.
After the repetition of the opening theme, the piece moves onto a different section with a different, much faster tempo. This piece is much more lively and free, and is the title of the piece. It is known that Messiaen had an affinity for birdsong and liked to incorporate it into his music, and it is very prevalent in this second section. It is layed very sparsely, with fast descending and ascending runs that are occasionally repeated after one is presented, much like the way birds would normally communicate with each other.
A phrase is presented, and then mimicked immediately after as if the clarinet was in fact 2 birds carrying on a conversation. Occasionally these phrases will be transposed copies, or even inverted copies. Other times the phrase will be close to the original, but may repeat one note too many, making it a different type of chord that isn’t an exact copy intervallically or melodically of the corresponding material. For instance, a descending trichord shown below) followed by a leap of a major 7th is seen in mm15, and it can be seen later in the piece at mm23 transposed down a fourth.
There is also a set of three tetrachords with a prime form of 0137 (shown below) in mm18 that are all transpositions of each other. The second tetrachord is transposed a step down from the first (A=T2B), and the third is transposed down a fourth (A=T5C). Within the same measure (mm18), we are presented with a large nonachord, (shown below) which comes back as an inversion (A=T14B) two measures later in mm20. The last chord mentioned is also an important chord for the rest of this section, ecause it introduces one of the main themes for the second section of the piece.
For the next few measures Messiaen plays with this idea of an ascending octachord with a descending fourth as the last note, ending the nonachord. He uses this idea in five consecutive passages, but they aren’t all copies of one another. While the chords all have nine distinct notes, some of the chords repeat notes in different octaves, therefore we cannot define it as a nonachord since there aren’t 9 different notes involved. However, the nonachords in mm 26 and mm 28 are in fact transpositions of ach other (A=TeB).
Upon ending the upbeat and lively B section, we are returned to the A section with some added material. The tempo drops drastically once again, and we transition into the last A section through a swelling drone of an a technique that is used as a transition between every section of this movement. It draws attention to the F# as a focal pitch. After the F# finishes and we move on, we see the main theme from the first measure repeated once again. After it is presented, Messiaen drifts away from that idea to explore others for what seems like the rest of the movement.

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