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Friday, 30 November 2012

Olivier Messiaen: Favourite pieces of 20th-century music

Works by Olivier Messiaen feature twice in a 'What's your favourite piece of 20th-century music?' article in today's Guardian. Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy chose the Quartet for the End of Time but describes the piece solely in terms of science: 

"Our concept of time and space were totally disrupted by Einstein's breakthroughs at the beginning of the 20th century. No longer was there a single timeline, or a fixed frame of reference. Time could go at different speeds. Space could contract. For me, the Quartet for the End of Time captures some of the spirit of that scientific revolution. The story of its composition reflects one of the major historical events of the century: the second world war. But it is the music that resonates with this new view of the universe. The opening movement exploits the mathematics of two prime numbers to create a sense of destabilised time. The piano part plays a 17-note rhythmic sequence against a 29-note harmonic sequence. The two different primes create a sense of two different timeframes that never quite get in sync."

While this captures an important aspect of the piece, it completely overlooks the Christian belief which infuses the piece and without which the Quartet for the End of Time could not have been written.

By contrast Rufus Wainwright, who chose Messiaen's Saint Fran├žois d'Assise, although stating clearly that he is not a religious person, responds to the "incredible spirituality at its base which gives it a timeless quality" and says that he can "certainly appreciate it when music strives for the heavens."

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Olivier Messiaen - Quartet for the End of Time.

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