Third movement from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps
Messiaen had joined the military upon the outbreak of World War II. Shortly after, he was captured by the Germans and taken to Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager (Stalag) VII A, a German concentration camp. While there, he became inspired to write music and subsequently completed a quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The instrumentation he chose was dictated by the musicians he found at the concentration camp; three of them were fellow inmates, and Messiaen himself was the pianist at the first performance.
The piece was inspired by his observations of the war and by the Book of Revelation. It is more specifically in homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse; “And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and swear by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer.” – Revelation 10:5-6
The quartet consists of eight movements; Messiaen himself indicated that if the number seven is the number of perfection, then adding an eighth movement would extend the piece into eternity. “Abyss of the birds” is the only movement for solo clarinet, and because of this is often played as a stand-alone piece. The interpretation often used is that Time is considered the abyss, full of sorrow and hopelessness. The birds represent the opposite; our need for hope, joy, and light.