Time and eternity


One of my favourite pieces of music is Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen is one of the stranger religious artists of the 20th century: his music sounds like virtually nothing else out there, and is intensely drenched in a mysticism that seems a bit oddly detached from the circumstances it emerged from. The Quartet, in particular, was famously written and performed while Messiaen was being held as  POW by the Germans during World War II (this also gives it a weird instrumentation, as a violin, cello, piano and clarinet were the only instruments Messiaen and his colleagues had access to). Yet there is no sense in the music of the struggle against evil that Messiaen was a part of – this is the same war that made martyrs out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein, after all. Instead, Messiaen takes the listener elsewhere, as he notes in his preface to the score:

[the quartet’s] musical language is essentially transcendental, spiritual, catholic. Certain modes, realizing melodically and harmonically a kind of tonal ubiquity, draw the listener into a sense of the eternity of space or time. Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities. (All this is mere striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!)

This quartet contains eight movements. Why? Seven is the perfect number, the creation of six days made holy by the divine Sabbath; the seventh in its repose prolongs itself into eternity and becomes the eighth, of unfailing light, of immutable peace.

The listener is drawn towards the contemplation of God’s eternity, where the history of the human race, and indeed, of the entire universe (or multiverse or whatever other theory you subcribe to) is but a tiny blip. I dislike the attitude that says beautiful things and love are precious, because beauty fades and the beloved dies. That just makes them tragic. Part of the experience of these things is a suggestion of the halting of time, the intersection of eternity into temporality. They are precious for that glimpse.



About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in Catholicism, fragments of culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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