Messiaen's vision of the end of time was born in the most
improbable and dire circumstances. Written in 1940 in a Silesian
prisoner of war camp, the composer was fortunate to have a
sympathetic guard who provided him with paper and pencils. The
instrumentation is strange, given mainly that he had to compose
music for the players that were available, but this odd combination
of colors serves the music well.
Ever occupied with birdsong, Messiaen based many of his themes on
literal transcriptions of the bird's sounds. It was a favorite
technique and this fascination for the music of feathered flying
creatures was not only to last his entire life, it was a major
creative force for him as well.
Given the circumstances under which this work was composed, one
might be instantly drawn to war-time parallels, but this Messiaen's
vision of the end of the world is not a gloomy or despondent one.
Rather, this music goes to far greater lengths to express the
composer's joy for the beginning of eternity rather than his dread
of the end of the world. This worldview is most vividly captured in
the two movements entitled "Praises for the eternity of Jesus."
This is the music of angels and armies, not of emaciated and
desperate prisoners. It is a song of freedom, not of captivity.
At the first performance in 1941, the audience of 500 or more
captives sat rapt. The composer would later recall that at no other
time in his professional life did an audience greet him with more
attention, enthusiasm and praise. In addition to the obvious
difficulties of a prison camp, the cellist's instrument had only
three strings. Messiaen chose to use his instruments not only in
ensemble, but also as lone voices, and this thought process led to
some particularly original and striking music for the solo
One might expect that this music would be fraught with challenges
for the listener. Not so. Although there are some jarring
dissonances, there are just as many moments of rapturous beauty and
soaring, sublime melody. Yes, there are some angular rhythms too,
but there are just as many periods of serenity. The music is as
deeply spiritual as you might expect it to be given the overt piety
of its composer and his unimaginably difficult living
Ensemble Incanto give us a nearly flawless performance. Their
dedication to the spirituality and mysticism of the score is
completely palpable from the first notes. This is not a rendition
fraught with empty virtuosity and histrionics. Rather, it is
dedicated and passionate story telling that I found to be truly
transcendent. Frankly, this recording received my highest
compliment: several repeated hearings. This is music that demands
the undivided and dedicated attention of the listener. This is a
performance that deftly enables that kind of commitment, a true
testament to these musicians, who forego the shallow temptation
toward egotism, presenting instead a meaningful gift in sound.