Mozart and Messiaen on a Monday night

To the Wigmore Hall last night for my first concert of the autumn season, and what promised to be a marvellous evening, part of clarinettist Michael Collins’s residency at the Wig.

Arriving super early – there was very little traffic on the way in – my friend and I had time to enjoy a leisurely glass of champagne in the front bar where we surreptitiously surveyed the other concert-goers, quite a mixed bunch, as one would expect from the programme. We observed, not for the first time, that some people were very scruffily turned out for the evening. Whenever I go to a concert, whether it is popular music (rare for me) or classical, I make an effort to get “dressed up”. It’s an occasion, after all, and if the performer/performers have gone to all that trouble to learn all that music and turn out to perform, I feel one should make a similar effort with one’s dress. Of course, these days, many performers, particularly men, are opting out of the traditional virtuoso “uniform” of white tie and tails, favouring instead Nehru jackets and collarless shirts, presumably because this attire is more comfortable. Given that performing the Rach Three is akin to shovelling several tons of coal in terms of its physical effort, it might be more comfortable for some performers to appear in a vest and shorts! But while male performers are dressing down, there is a general outcry if the women are not in sparkly evening dresses……but this is material for another blog post.

The first half was all Mozart: the Clarinet Trio K498, the “Kegelstatt” was undemanding and pleasant to the ear, while the Quintet in A K581, the one with all the recognisable “laahvely melodies”, was intelligently and sensitively played, Michael Collins displaying some fine virtuoso playing, especially in the arpeggiated passages in the last movement. This piece is very familiar to me: my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist, played it many times as I was growing up –  with his chamber group, with me at the piano in a reduced version, and with Music Minus One. I am sure, had he come to the concert (I did invite him), he would have thoroughly enjoyed Michael Collins’s superb, precise playing.

As the final movement of the Quintet drew to a close, I had the sense of the performers clearing the way for what was to come in the second half: Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

Messiaen is one of those composers (and there are many!) whose music nudges at the edges of my musical conscious; that is to say, I am aware of his music, but I have not had the opportunity to explore it in depth. At the piano course I attended in the spring, one of the students played one of the Vingts Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus, and I found it utterly captivating. I keep meaning to look up this music and learn one or two of the movements, but as usual, there is just too much repertoire and never enough time!

The Quartet for the End of Time was famously composed during a period when Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Silesia, yet it remains a work of religious meditation rather than political protest: as the composer said “this quartet was written for the end of time, not as a play on words about the time of captivity, but for the ending of concepts of past and future……..for the beginning of eternity”. I have heard excerpts from it on the radio – the more melodic, contemplative sections – but I have never heard the work in its entirety, performed live. Imprisoned with the composer, were a cellist (Etienne Pasquier), and clarinettist (Henri Akoka), and Messiaen wrote for them “an unpretentious little trio”, which they played to him in the latrines. This became the creative impulse for the remaining seven movements, and the complete work was first performed in the prison camp. The Quartet was directly inspired by a quotation from the Book of Revelation, and retains a sense of the Apocalypse throughout, even in the most quiet, meditative movements.

But one really doesn’t need to know all this: from the outset, it is obvious that this is a work of immense scale and emotional range, born out of incredibly straitened circumstances. The instruments clang, shriek and scrape; they sing and cry plaintively. There are fragments of birdsong (and I wondered whether these were the sounds the composer desired to hear while in captivity, or whether they were the only pleasant sounds he could hear), distant celestial trumpets, sirens, hammers falling on anvils, angelic choirs…. In one movement, Abime des oiseaux, the clarinet plays long sustained notes, from ppp to fff, and one can only marvel at the  technical control required to achieve this sound, while feeling one is staring right into the abyss.

The overall effect was searing, painful, extraordinarily beautiful. I told myself I would not cry, yet at the close, the tears poured down my cheeks, staining a path through my make up. There was a full two minutes of silence at the end as the audience continued to absorb what they had just heard, before rapturous, sustained applause. To adapt the composer’s own quotation at the first performance of his work, never before have I listened with such consideration and understanding. The elegant Wigmore Hall seemed altogether too refined a place for such a performance: it seemed as if we should be gathered on a rocky, windblown outcrop, the musicians playing while the churning sea below pounded the rocks to eternity…..


  1. Truly, deeply haunting music. From a space where many of us will thankfully, never go. I loved it Fran and so glad Sylvia, that you were unable to go!

  2. You write about Messiaen so beautifully. His profundity stems from life experiences which have only happened in the nightmares and dreams of others. He is a superlative non-verbal communicator, and conveys messages words could only , at best, fumble at. Thank you for this wonderful reminder.

  3. About Messiaen an birdsong: he was obsessed with birdsong, I understand, so it’s not surprising there is this element in the Quartet for the End of Time. My compliments on your listening skills. Not sure I would have been able to take in, much less appreciate, something as discordant as you describe.

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