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Monday, Oct. 27, 2008

Quartet for Our Time

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Like many composers plying their trades throughout the 20th century, France's Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was profoundly affected by war-in his case World War II, which raged across Europe from 1939 to 1945. But few composers were as completely immersed in the calamitous event as Messiaen.

Messiaen joined the army upon the outbreak of war, but when the German Blitzkrieg overran France in the spring of 1940, he found himself a prisoner of war. While in a German prison camp (Stalag VIII-A outside Görlitz in Silesia) he composed one of the century's greatest chamber works: the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) in 1940. The quartet's genesis is no less remarkable than the situation in which Messiaen wrote it.

Discovering that a fellow soldier/inmate from his army unit had his clarinet with him, Messiaen at first composed a piece for clarinet solo-a work that would later be the Quartet's third movement. Later, he encountered another musician in the camp, a violinist who likewise had his violin on hand. Together, they managed to acquire a cello from a local instrument maker through bartering and hoarding what scant reserves of money or possessions they could. Messiaen then worked the available instruments into a trio for violin, cello and clarinet. This would later become the Quartet's fourth movement. Finally, Messiaen discovered an old piano in the corner of a hut that was used as a makeshift church on the prison grounds. Adding his own pianistic skills, he now had four instruments for which the Quartet for the End of Time came into being. The work eventually contained eight separate movements, each reflecting the musical imagery Messiaen found in Chapter 10 of the "Book of Revelation."

He and his three fellow instrumentalists premiered the work at a camp concert for several thousand prisoners, as well as the camp kommandant and his staff, on Jan. 15, 1941. "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension," Messiaen later wrote of the momentous event. Indeed, shortly afterward the kommandant changed the classifications for Messiaen and his three fellow performers to "musician-soldiers," which enabled their release and repatriation to France thereafter.

Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time will be performed by Frankly Music, a choice that the group's founder and leader, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Frank Almond, says was made because "several years ago we played the Quartet at Villa Terrace, and [it] really stuck with me for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the powerful effect [it] evidently had on our audience, many of whom had never even heard the piece or the story behind it.

"It is clearly one of the most important compositions of the 20th century," Almond continues, "and still sounds revolutionary and fresh today. A committed live performance of this piece is truly an experience that most people don't easily forget."

Frankly Music (Frank Almond, violin; Todd Levy, clarinet; Joseph Johnson, cello; Gloria Cheng, piano) performs Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time in the Bader Recital Hall of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music on Nov. 3 and 4.

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