Stephen Coyle

Quatuor pour la fin du temps

This composition has come to mind a lot during the past few months. It's among the most perfectly stunning pieces, both for its musical content and for the context in which it came to exist. Meaning Quartet for the end of time, it was composed by Messiaen during his time as a prisoner-of-war in Stalag VIII-A. Premiered in the camp in 1941, and owing its then-unusual instrumentation to the necessity of using whatever instruments and players there were to hand, the story of its composition is almost as captivating as the music itself. It's not hard to figure out why such a piece comes to mind these days; it feels impossible to overstate the magnitude of global events, and the very real sensation of being near the end of time.

In stark contrast to this feeling, though, is the optimism that I also associate with the piece. It almost goes without saying that the very idea of such a monumental piece of art being crafted in such hellish circumstances is a testament to the importance and tenacity of human creativity. In addition, though, is the thought that the end of time need not be seen in the biblical sense implied by Messiaen's Preface. While it may have seemed it at the time, the second world war and its accompanying cataclysms were not in fact the end of time. The end of an era, undoubtedly, but ultimately a time from which humanity learned a great deal, and from which it has since made great strides. 2020 has been a monumental year; the tremendous isolation and death brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as horrific tragedy in the death of George Floyd and similarly brutal treatment of countless people of colour, are the two that loom largest. Though my hope is that this time will also end, and that humanity makes great strides in its wake.