Quartet for the End of Time

“Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered World War II. He was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). … after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard (Carl-Albert Brüll, 1902-1989), Messiaen wrote … [The] quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on 15 January 1941.

The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” Brüll provided paper and isolation for composing, and he also helped acquire … instruments. By forging papers with a stamp made from a potato, Brüll even helped the performers to be liberated shortly after the performance….

Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, KJV): “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….”

–excerpted from Wikipedia entry, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps”

The sweetest days.

I love autumn: the scents, the colors, the sensation
of Earth rolling out her red carpet,
not in welcome anticipation of her death in winter,
but rather, in a final mad fling, to spend her riches
in a jumble before her days are done
and the bitter frost comes again to chase
summer’s extravagance back under the soil.

Fall’s fruits are not the lush, wanton beauties of summer,
but deeper, sweeter, richer, firmer,
because the kiss of frost is at her heels, making her serious
after summer’s loose gaiety.

Growth slows,
but it is stronger growth for the slowness.

Roots deepen. Flowers fade.

Colors are deep, passionate, somber, velvety
like port wine and dark chocolate.
Fire dances on the hillsides, and dark blood
glistens at the ends of curling thorny vines.

The atmosphere bears conflicting senses of abandonment and restraint,
like a girl saying farewell to her lover who is leaving for the war.
There should be no holding back of her affections,
because for all she knows, this could be the last time she sees him.
And yet
to abandon herself completely to the moment and leave nothing unshared
would be to admit her fear that he will not return.
To admit this, in her mind, would be to prophesy it; so,
while she gives her heart near-wholly to him
in one last dance, one last heartfelt kiss, one last tearful embrace,
so also she quietly stores up for his return,
not yielding all her gifts at once,
in defiance of her despair of a tomorrow
when they will have their leisure
to enjoy each other at length.
A mad urgency
and a wish to make time move more slowly
trip up her tongue with their struggle.
Her song is not the lark of springtime,
nor is it the wild bacchanal of summer,
nor the keening wails and transcendent silences of winter;
it is the wind over the heathers, at once a wistful smile
and a voiceless lament.
Her tears are hot and alive, but they turn
to ice on her wind-chapped cheeks.
Part of her will lie buried until his return, and when that part of her
is unearthed, it will have changed,
despite both their wish
to preserve it just as they remember it at this moment.

Autumn’s lamp against the darkness is her hope
that sun will warm the land again, and so she labors
over her seeds, carefully padding them about
with the fleshy and substantial profits of summer,
even as she shares her abundance with the hungry.
She lays her hopes aside carefully,
nourished, protected, safe. But as they lay there
beneath the riotous leaves,
the moldering confetti of summer’s going-away party,
those seeds will change
as much as they remain the same.

The new year is born of these hopes;
it is autumn’s prudent forbearance (so often unsung)
that secures our futures, just as much
as winter’s introverted restfulness, spring’s tender bravery,
and summer’s joyous exertions.

Each autumn day, still warm with memory of joys recently past,
is followed by a night littered with mirror shards—
beautiful, delicate, and untouchable—
oracular fragments reflecting what is to come.

Over all, the winds of change blow as they will
through the hours, with no regard
for sun or moon, birth or death. These days
before the last days of the year
are the sweetest to me in all the world.