Sad Men

What Writers Can Learn from the Great Depression

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Abyss of the Birds



This year marked the 72nd anniversary of the debut of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a gorgeous cycle of chamber music first performed in a German prison camp during World War Two. 

I have been lost in “Abyss of the Birds,” a mournful seven-minute clarinet solo that sounds like a songbird lost in the frozen darkness of a January night. The composer described his own piece: “Clarinet alone. The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to time, They are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant Songs.”

The melody must leave the clarinet player dizzy from its long passages, stretching the loveliest notes for seemingly endless measures. In the best recordings you can hear the clarinetist gulping for air.

No matter where you live, the clarinet makes for great writing music, a sad and slow tune that emerged from the hell-hole of World War Two. 

Alex Ross described this magnificent series at The New Yorker

The title does not exaggerate the ambitions of the piece. An inscription in the score supplies a catastrophic image from the Book of Revelation: “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.’” It is, however, the gentlest apocalypse imaginable … [there] are episodes of transfixing serenity—in particular, two “Louanges,” or songs of praise. Each has a drawn-out string melody over pulsing piano chords; each builds toward a luminous climax and then vanishes into silence. The first is marked “infinitely slow”; the second, “tender, ecstatic.” Beyond that, words fail. 

To celebrate the anniversary, I’m reading For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. by Rebecca Rischin. She dispelled many myths about this monumental work, bringing to life a cast of amazing musicians making music in one of the most terrible places on earth.