At one of the last of this year’s concerts in the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, I sat at the front of a packed, hot, dark church at 11 pm and heard Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. It was the first time that I’d heard it performed and it was a moving concert; the ‘cellist being in tears at the end.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger prints Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows twice. The first time he labels it “Cornfield with Birds Flying out of it” and the second time he titles it “The Last Picture that Van Gogh Painted Before he Killed Himself”. He then remarks, “It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but they undoubtedly have. The image now illustrates the sentence.”
Before listening to the Messiaen, I knew that the quartet had been written in a German Prisoner-of-War camp. I knew that it had been performed under incredible harshness. I had read Messiaen’s own description of the piece with the quotation from Revelations.
As I walked away afterwards, shattered, I wondered how the quartet would have sounded had it had been entitled something like “Scenes from a Rustic Wedding” and accompanied by a description of the happy, light and cheerful nature of the piece. This would be an interesting experiment to perform.