On Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

Photo courtesy of Luis Luque.

Jonathan Biss, pianist and frequent guest artist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, returns this weekend for the first time since 2019.

The theme of the program is perseverance and features Quartet for the End of Time, written by Olivier Messiaen while imprisoned during World War II. Jonathan recently reflected on preparing for this performance, below:

“Preparing to perform Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time — the greatest work of art to come out of Stalag VIII-A, Görlitz, Germany (now Poland), as Europe descended into brutal, senseless war — while watching in horror as Europe is again threatened with a brutal, senseless war, is a surreal experience. The quartet has become a symbol of human resilience – of the ability to create beauty and keep faith even in the direst of circumstances. To play the piece in normal times (whatever those are) is to feel altered by it; to play it now is something else entirely.

“Something else: but what? I would like to be able to say that the Quartet for the End of Time is renewing my faith in humanity and reminding me of the power of music. But it wouldn’t be true. Instead, its evocations of the infinite keep bringing to mind the repetitiveness of history, and our capacity to forget even the most shocking events of the past, which doom them to become our present, and our future. To have this made palpable by Messiaen, in March 2022, as Ukraine attempts to repel a modern-day Stalin, is sobering, to say the least.

“With each passing day, music grows larger in my life. I need it, almost like I need air. But does it have a message? I suspect that it doesn’t. At most, it amplifies what already lives within us. It has made people more empathetic and open-hearted; it has also provided a pretext for the most hideous ideologies imaginable.

“Make music. Listen to music. Share music.

“Never forget. Never forget. Never forget.”