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What is this century’s greatest piece of music? Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron? Britten’s Peter Grimes? Bernstein’s West Side Story? Carter’s Piano Sonata? I don’t know the answer to the question. “Great” is hard to define: do we mean the most influential, most original, most subtly crafted, most popular? It’s hard to say. But I am pretty confident as to what the century’s most miraculous work is. Composed and premiered in a German prisoner-of-war camp, Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 quartet for piano, clarinet, cello, and violin is a piece of musical radiance, joy, and transcendence in the midst of squalor and misery. In other words, it’s a miracle.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was something of a cause célèbre even in his teens. While he was still a student at the famous Paris Conservatoire, his teacher Paul Dukas insisted that his publisher Leduc issue the seventeen-year-old Messiaen’s Le Banquet céleste for organ. By graduation, Messiaen had won twice as many “firsts” as had Debussy, and was quickly appointed principal organist at the Church of La Trinité, one of Paris’ most important musical posts (a position he was to hold to the end of his life). Barely out of his teens, Messiaen became a fixture of musical life in Paris, which in the early 1930s was the most fashionable (and richest) capital in Europe. Captivated by the Harlem import Josephine Baker (famous for appearing on stage adorned by only a few bananas), stylish Parisians crowded music halls a-sizzle with le jazz-hot. They only slightly less eagerly awaited the latest creations of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Milhaud, either in the public theaters or in the rival private salons of the Polignacs and Beaumonts. But from the start, Messiaen’s music spoke of a world radically different from the sophisticated cynicism of his contemporaries. It wasn’t that his music was more conservative than Stravinsky’s neo-classicism or Milhaud’s jazz-influenced pieces––because, if anything, his was more radical––but that Messiaen’s music spoke of a different world than that of the swank Paris boulevards.

Messiaen was a deeply committed Catholic. Although not raised by particularly religious parents, he described himself as having been “born a believer,” and remarked that the most important function of his music was “[to shed] light on the theological truths of the Catholic faith.” Le Banquet céleste, the piece which so impressed Dukas, was typical of the religiosity of almost all of the works that followed. Messiaen replaced traditional major and minor scales by those of his own invention, which not only resonated differently than the traditional scales, but were not bound by the same relationships. His most important innovation, though, was rhythmic. Messiaen began to complete the dislocation of rhythm from meter, which Wagner had begun and which Debussy continued, both by making his piece extremely slow and by avoiding any suggestion of a regularly weighted beat. Although only twenty-five measures long, the Banquet lasts for over six minutes. By any standards of the day, this was a daring piece of music.

But Messiaen’s purpose was neither to amuse nor to shock. It was devotional. The Banquet was a profound (and unnerving) musical meditation on the sacrament of the eucharist; the most time-conscious of arts celebrating that least temporal event. Messiaen disjointed meter because the sacrament exists outside of time. And he adopted bizarre harmonies because the colors of such a celestial banquet are too vivid for the familiar progressions of Wagner and even Debussy to convey. The Banquet was not so much a work of art as an act of private piety publicly expressed. It was prayer first, music second.

Messiaen was thirty-one when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. In the previous decade he had received academic appointments to the École Normale and the Schola Cantorum, saw the first public performances of his orchestral triptych Les Offrandes oubliées, published a set of piano preludes and songs, and completed several cycles for organ. Although a pacifist, married, and the father of a two-year-old son, Messiaen volunteered for the hospital corps. He was overtaken by the German advance near Nancy in June 1940. Herded into cattle cars, Messiaen and his fellow prisoners of war were shipped across Germany to Silesia where he was imprisoned in Stalag 8a. He had no food and little clothing, but somehow he had managed to take with him a knapsack stuffed with Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and scores by Ravel, Beethoven, Berg, and Stravinsky.

The camp commander soon discovered this bespectacled prisoner with all the scores, and gave him manuscript paper and a quiet place to compose. Three other musicians had been caught in the German advance (a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist), and Messiaen began to write for them. He completed the quartet late in 1940 (incorporating in it two earlier works rewritten from memory), and performed it in January 1941 in the prison camp. Of that first audience of four thousand prisoners and their guards, Messiaen later said, “Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding.”

Taking his title from (a slight mistranslation of) Revelation 10:6, Messiaen called it, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, the “Quartet for the End of Time.” The title worked at several levels: the work was about the apocalypse, but it also was a pun––the quartet separates rhythm from meter, so it is for the end of “time.”

This revolution in rhythm is best seen in the quartet’s introductory movement, the “Liturgy of Crystal.” For the piano Messiaen superimposed a progression of twenty-nine densely voiced chords (some of which have as many as nine notes) upon a pattern of seventeen rhythmic durations. He added to this a cello part constructed of five harmonics coupled to a pattern of fifteen rhythmic values, arranged in two palindromes: the first a three-note rhythm and the second a twelve-note grouping. Messiaen would later call this kind of thing a “non-retrogradable rhythm.” Messiaen had rediscovered a medieval device called “isorhythm,” in which unequal patterns of chords, pitches, and rhythms revolved around each other—except for medievalists, few musicians knew of the device until the 1950s. By avoiding metrically defined phrases and patterns of stressed and unstressed beats, these isorhythmic “wheels within wheels” destroyed any sense of meter, and thus created a piece of music outside of “time.”

This could have been merely a clever innovation. But Messiaen’s purpose was more than just to be “progressive.” In performance, should those multiple patterns be allowed to cycle through all their possible combinations, the movement would take about two hours. But Messiaen cut it off after only two and a half minutes for a theological purpose. This music functions as does an icon in Orthodoxy. Just as the icon isn’t primarily an aesthetic object to be enjoyed but rather a “window” through which the devout glimpse the holy reality of the saint portrayed, so too the “Liturgy of Crystal” gives the listener a glimpse into the reality of the heavenly Jerusalem, a place beyond “time.” His cycles are metaphors for the life of heaven, and the forty-three bars are a peek into eternity.

Messiaen reinforced that heavenly vision by his violin and clarinet parts. For the first time in his own writing, Messiaen incorporated bird songs, perhaps inspired––as have been so many prisoners before him––by the sight of birds free to fly over the prison walls. He would later describe birds as “little prophets of immaterial joy”; here he wrote flourishes reminiscent of the blackbird and nightingale for the clarinet and violin.

In his note to this movement, Messiaen wrote that he was trying to describe the “harmonious silence of heaven.” Whatever that metaphor may mean, his bird calls, the nontonal harmonies, the isorhythmic palindromes, all coalesce in a piece of unearthly tranquility. If this heaven is not quite silent, it is certainly hushed and attentive, awaiting the angel’s annunciation of the apocalypse.

Messiaen cast that apocalypse in eight movements, one for each of the days of creation, the seventh day of the sabbath extending into the eighth day of eternity. The second movement, “Song for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time,” is an extended aria for the violin and cello accompanied by shimmering nontonal piano chords (Messiaen called them “waterfalls of red-hot pitch”) bracketed with fortissimo flourishes by the whole ensemble. The third movement for clarinet alone is perhaps the earliest piece of minimalist music. In the fourth movement (a trio where the piano is silent), Messiaen showed his debt to Debussy and Ravel. The quartet’s fifth movement for cello and piano alone, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” was one of Messiaen’s reconstructions. The sixth movement is the work’s most dramatic (“Dance of Wrath for the Seven Trumpets”). Here Messiaen rejected all harmony, writing for the instruments in startling unions which he called “music of stone, formidable and resounding granite; irresistible movement of steel . . . purple rage, icy ecstasy.” The seventh movement (“Frenzy of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”) returns us to the world of the second movement. The eighth movement (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”) echoes the texture of the fifth movement, but here the solo instrument is violin instead of cello. This movement, with its simple iambic accompaniment and ethereal violin line, may very well be the most radiant and transfixing piece of music written this century.

The scope of Messiaen’s imagination is stunning. The great revolutionary works of the previous generation can be seen as logical developments of nineteenth-century traditions. (Stravinsky’s 1914 Rite of Spring, for instance, for all its genius, is only Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade at a fever pitch.) Messiaen’s work, however, is without precedent. And the sheer sonic beauty of Messiaen’s textures and melodies dazzle. The unisons of the sixth movement are startling, and elsewhere the textures created by Messiaen’s four instrumentalists make those created by Stravinsky with 111 players seem pale by comparison.

I have called the work a miracle. Certainly, any masterpiece is a kind of miracle. And it can be called miraculous that Messiaen found himself imprisoned where his abilities would not only be recognized by the camp commander, but encouraged and even rewarded by a performance. But what is most miraculous about this quartet is its character. This is deeply irenic and joyous music, yet it is written in a prison camp, by a prisoner, in the middle of a war, about the end of the world. This is not the kind of work one would most likely expect under such circumstances.

In the midst of chaos, Messiaen wrote about the apocalypse in a completely “unapocalyptic” manner. In the previous century, the sequence from the Requiem Mass had given composers the opportunity to unleash all the thunder they could muster to depict the horrific details of God’s day of accounting. Berlioz and Verdi had both written depictions that chill––or more honestly perhaps, thrill––us to this day. And not too long after Messiaen’s quartet was completed, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Britten, and Penderecki would write pieces expressive of the horrors of the Nazis and their war, music full of screams, howls, and cries for righteous justice against the oppressor.

But Messiaen has no place for such neo-pagan hysterics. In the middle of a prison camp, a prisoner unsure if he would ever again see his family or home again, Messiaen composed a vision of heaven where anger, violence, vengeance, and despair are not so much repressed as irrelevant. This work has nothing to do with war, or prison, or “man’s inhumanity to man.” This piece is entirely about the work of God and the glory of Jesus. There is no darkness here. There is no bitterness. There is no rage. Instead there is power, light, transcendence, ecstasy, and joy eternal.

Fortunately, this miracle is well represented on CD. There are at least two hundred CDs featuring Messiaen’s work now on the market, twenty of which are performances of the Quatuor. Probably the one overseen by Messiaen’s widow Yvonne Loriod at the piano is the most authoritative recording (EMI Classics CDC 54395). But RCA markets a wonderful performance on its Gold Seal label (7835-2-RG) that features Peter Serkin on piano and Richard Stolzman on clarinet. The clarinetist Eduard Brunner joins the Trio Fontenay in a fine performance on the Teldec label (9031-73239-2).

Messiaen was repatriated to occupied France in the spring of 1941. Back in Paris, he returned to his liturgical and academic positions, and his compositions continued to win enthusiasts and detractors. (Stravinsky once sneered that one of Messiaen’s works could have been composed by anybody, “if he had had enough manuscript paper.”) Yet his compositions received international attention, students flocked to his classes, and by the time of his death in 1992 his position as France’s greatest twentieth-century composer was challenged only by his pupil, Pierre Boulez. On his last trip to New York to hear a performance of his Turangalîla Symphony, Messiaen told the Times that while the sole purpose of his music was to point people to Christ, somehow even his greatest enthusiasts usually seemed blind to his intent. They admired and even praised his work, but cared little––or purposefully ignored––its message. This failure, or refusal, of so many musicians to understand his music was the greatest sorrow of Messiaen’s artistic life.

But the miracle of the Quatuor ––perhaps the greatest artistic miracle of our times––remains.

Michael R. Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.