A quartet for the end of time

Monday, January 23, 2017 - 5:30pm

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My parents are musicians. Not the cool, rock-band type, with national tours and color-flooded light shows and electric guitars. I know because when I was a kid and first learned they were musicians, this was the picture that I had in mind, and it was — sadly, I thought — incongruous with what I saw in day-to-day life. Instead of shaking hands with famous VIPs backstage at rock concerts, I spent many a night of my childhood sitting bored in the middle of a concert hall, doodling on programs while my parents took formal bows atop a minimalistic stage. When I was interested in music, I was interested in the songs on the radio and old Beatles CDs, the things I could dance to. Scarcely did it occur to me that this chamber music could ever truly impact the lives of random listeners, or affect people in the same way that I was affected by music that made more sense to me. That these pieces, from the inventive movements of contemporary compositions to the symphonies of long-dead composers, could move people profoundly, and tell stories that mattered.

When I was ten years old, I traveled to Alabama to watch my mother and three of her colleagues perform Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.” We arrived at the concert hall early and, having brought nothing else with me to do while the quartet rehearsed, I spent what felt like hours reading, re-reading, doodling all over and re-re-reading the program, which explained the context in which the piece was written. It was the story of the Quartet for the End of Time” (or, untranslated, Quatuor pour la fin du temps) that has prompted me ever since then to allow music to touch me. That story made me recognize that music is a human experience: It is created by people who are trying to reach out to the world using the best of themselves, and, as the listener, I have the option of reaching back.

Messiaen was a young composer living in France during World War II, and in 1940 he was imprisoned by the German army in a camp called Stalag VIII-A. It was in this prisoner-of-war camp that Messiaen made the acquaintance of clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean de Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier, all of whom were fellow prisoners. It was also here that he composed the quartet, adding himself as the pianist. The piece is named, of course, for the end of the world, and each movement represents a different stage in the religious cleaving of humanity, the addled process of love, destruction and apocalyptic absolution. The camp guards allowed the musicians to perform this quartet for themselves and for the other prisoners using dilapidated instruments, and the piece’s premiere took place in January of 1941 at Stalag VIII-A, outside and in the rain.

The idea that people could relate to music in this way astounded me. It resonated with me that a man could — and did — write an entire quartet, eight movements of translated emotion, imprisoned in a foreign country during one of the bloodiest wars of history. I tried to imagine the musicians playing on the battered instruments, the guards who allowed them to play and the prisoners of war who gathered and saw the piece first performed in the middle of the camp. The thought of all of these people watching this musical premiere in the middle of a war made me think that this event must have deeply impacted and revealed something about everyone who was involved in its manifestation.

In the years since then, I have been struck many times over by people’s commitment to music and deep faith in it as a measure of humanity. This is true both of dedicated musicians, like my parents, and of people whose lives and careers have nothing to do with music at all. We all have songs that we go back to when life feels so oppressive that the word “hard” doesn’t even begin to cover it — songs that tune us into our own pain, songs that cleanse us. Only yesterday, in one of my English classes, I learned about how Rosa Parks, upon hearing of Dr. King’s assassination, reacted by holding her mother, crying and listening to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” over and over again. According to biographer Doug Brinkley, Parks said that Cooke’s voice “soothed” her and that his words were “like medicine to the soul.”

This past weekend, my mother performed the quartet yet again, this time at Michigan State University. Over the phone, she told me about how people were crying — both the performers and members of the audience — as they reached the final movement, which is meant to represent the achievement of love and faith at the culmination of the end of time. When I think about it, this is truly one of the most important things that music does for people. It reveals our commitment to creativity and personhood, brings us together when there is nothing else to, and offers us love, strength and community, even in the face of the end of the world.