A Sound-Painting of Eternity

Image result for louange a l'eternite de jesus yo yo ma
The cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs on-stage with pianist Kathryn Stott

In 1941, pianist and composer Olivier Messiaen–trapped in a German prison camp with a violinist, a cellist, and a clarinetist–wrote his Quartet for the End of Time, a pivotal 20th-century work inspired by birdsong, the nature of time, and Messiaen’s own beliefs about the divine.

What I’d like to talk about is the fifth movement of the quartet: the “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus,” scored for just cello and piano. While I’m not a religious person, I find myself so mesmerized by this piece each time I listen to it–and only recently have I considered why. First, I’ll put a link to a recording:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od5cGDOKXFk

The movement begins with a lone cello line meandering in empty space, before being joined by warm, pulsing harmonies from the piano. There is no clear beat, no steady rhythm except the ringing, repetitive chords of the piano–the cello continues to sing a beautiful unbroken melody, like a vocalist that never breathes between phrases, defying the finite length of the cello bow. There is something simultaneously surreal and Herculean about this task, and the listener is left with little to no sense of tempo or time–after all, the piece is marked “infiniment lent” or “infinitely slow.”

Above all, I am amazed that Messiaen could choose to depict eternal divine love in the face of imminent death and destruction, and I think that speaks to many people–even if that love manifests itself in different ways for everyone.

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