Quartet For The End Of Time by Olivier Messiaen (1941)

By now you have seen the apocalyptic images of Houston Texas with its entire infrastructure completely submerged in the floods of Hurricane Harvey.  As one of her lifelong residents, I assure you that no photograph captures its impact.  Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people saw their homes swept away by the water.  Even as I write this, four days after landfall, people are still being rescued by watercraft over impassable roadways.  It’s hard to image Armageddon as much worse. It is fitting that our masterpiece today is a quartet written in the midst of epic disaster.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:

It was an unlikely time and place for the debut of a major composition by one of the twentieth century’s great composers. But in the middle of the Second World War, on a brutally cold January night in 1941, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was performed for the first time in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in Gorlitz, Germany. On that evening, frost covered the windows and the snow piled twenty inches high outside as an audience of several hundred prisoners and guards crowded into an unheated, makeshift performance hall—Barracks 27. They were there to hear a piece that Messiaen had written during his imprisonment in the camp, following his capture as a French soldier during the German invasion the previous year. As the unlikely audience sat transfixed, their cold breath rising in little puffs of steam and their bodies shivering against the cold, few would have guessed that they were being treated to the initial performance of one of the masterpieces of modern concert music.

That such a piece could even be written under these circumstances was partially due to the efforts of Karl-Albert Brull, a music-loving guard who was familiar with some of Messiaen’s prewar compositions and went to extraordinary efforts to provide the composer with pencils, erasers, and music paper. He also found a quiet place in an empty barracks where Messiaen could work undisturbed, even posting a guard outside to keep him from being bothered. After the performance, Brull helped forge the documents that made it possible for Messiaen to return to France.

To arrange this quartet—born in conditions of war, death, famine, and frost—Messiaen used the only instruments that were available in the camp: a cello with only three strings, a clarinet, a violin, and a dilapidated piano. It was an unusual combination, but around these instruments he fashioned something startling, strangely beautiful, and spiritually evocative.

The title refers to the proclamation of the “seventh angel” from Revelation 10, about the time when all will be made right in eternity—a time beyond time. Messiaen inscribed in his notes to the score, “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.’ ” Surely it must have felt to many Europeans as though the apocalypse was at hand as Nazi aggressors stormed triumphantly across Europe, set on establishing their Third Reich. But Messiaen’s music is not a gloomy meditation on defeat and hardship; it is a musical expression of a hopeful expectation of the future God has promised.

Has God ever inspired beauty in the midst of disaster in your life?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen

(1908–92). One of the most original composers of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen was the only major composer to also serve as church organist (for the Church of the Sainte-Trinité from 1931) since César Franck and Anton Bruckner. His students included two major figures of 20th-century music: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

Olivier-Eugène-Prosper-Charles Messiaen was born in Avignon, France, on Dec. 10, 1908. He began to compose when he was 7 and entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 11. He began an intense investigation of both Western and Eastern rhythms, birdsong, and microtonal music. These elements and Roman Catholic mysticism are reflected in his compositions.

With three other composers Messiaen founded in 1936 La Jeune France to promote new French music, and he taught at the Schola Cantorum and the École Normale de Musique from that year until World War II. While a prisoner of war he wrote Quartet for the End of Time, performed at the prison camp in 1941. After the war he became professor of harmony and later of composition at the Conservatoire. His compositions include L’Ascension (1934), Turangalîla-Symphonie (1949), La Transfiguration (1969), and Des canyons aux étoiles (1974) for orchestra; an opera, St. Francis of Assisi (1986); numerous pieces of chamber music; vocal works; and organ pieces. He died in Clichy on April 27, 1992.



Sources & Resources

“Messiaen, Olivier,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Bannister, Peter. “Olivier Messiaen—‘Plain Old Propaganda’?” Thinking Faith (blog). December 10, 2008. http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20081210_1.htm.

Osborne, Steven. “Olivier Messiaen: Beyond Time and Space.” The Guardian. August 7, 2014.

Shenton, Andrew, ed. Messiaen the Theologian. London: Ashgate, 2010.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).


Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!


Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com


Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life