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S. Crayton: ‘Caged Bird’, Out of Order (University of Cambridge, 2023), pp. 122-142.

A recording of Messiaen performing 'Liturgie de cristal' alongside Étienne Pasquier (1956, rereleased Accord, 2001).

Caged Bird

‘En hommage à l’Ange de l’Apocalypse,

qui lève la main vers le ciel en disant :

« Il n’y aura plus de temps »

In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse,

who raises a hand to the heavens saying :

“ There will be no more Time ”

An extraordinary work composed for the most part during Messiaen’s internment in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1941, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps has rightly been considered a masterpiece of the twentieth century. But it is not the apocalyptic sentiment as it is often portrayed; rather, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (“Temps” is capitalised) deals with Time itself. In ‘Liturgie de cristal’, the first movement of the quartet and focus of the chapter, Messiaen conjures eternity, drawing on Augustine: if the past is a present moment that was, and the future a present moment that will be, then what is the present if not eternal?

The chapter essentially offers a proof for the application of this philosophy of Time by way of an analysis that uncovers a rotational procedure at the centre of Messiaen’s composition, leading to revelations of consonance and dissonance and their performative repercussions, as well making sense of such facets of ‘Liturgie de cristal’ as the existence of a key signature, which have long puzzled musicians. The analysis, which also argues for a different presentation of the movement’s materials, is interwoven with existing scholarship as well as consolidates accounts of the circumstances of the quartet both from Messiaen throughout his life and the first performers of the quartet in prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIIIA.

Messiaen describes the movement in a preface to the quartet:

‘Between 3 and 4 in the morning, the awakening of birds: a blackbird or a nightingale improvise alone, surrounded by sonorous dust, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this on the religious plane: you will have the harmonic silence of heaven.’

As is widely known, the composition of ‘Liturgie de cristal’ features isorhythms, a medieval technique—albeit unbeknownst to Messiaen at the time—whereby a rhythm (talea) and collection of notes (color) are superimposed in a theoretically endless cycle (Messiaen’s incorporation of prime numbers, as is often remarked, emphasises the expanse of his “eternal” ambition).

The chapter reveals how the opening eight chords of the piano color are based on a series of cyclic rotations of Messiaen’s “chord on the dominant”. Messiaen elaborates each chord with what is essentially a double appoggiatura, with various adjustments for voice-leading such that the sequence of chords realises a chain of suspensions. As a result, alternate chords can be considered to express dissonance and consonance respectively, which, considered in a context of conventions of tactus (the relationship between harmony and its emphasis in time according to which dissonance is sounded on a strong beat and resolved on a weak beat) evidences the implementation of a compositional procedure engineered to represent “the ending of conventions of musical time”, thereby uniting the movement’s musical materials with its philosophical argument.

Examination of the piano color as a whole, reducing the consonance and dissonance to their fundamental progressions via voice-leading reductions, reveals it to be built upon F. Most irregularities in Messiaen’s procedure can be explained with regards to voice-leading but the omission of one chord of the series of rotations stands apart. Here, analysis uncovers what is essentially a “tonic” function, whose omission, in a context of a harmonic collection built upon F, is a deliberate attempt to undermine resolution. The meaning of the B♭ key signature, it appears, is simply that ‘Liturgie de cristal’ does not actually express B♭; in other words, the key signature draws attention to the fact that the movement inhabits the harmonic space of B♭ without ever sounding its foundation, as if to suspend ‘Liturgie de cristal’ in a kind of harmonic stasis, “lost very high in the trees”.

In addition, the chapter presents a different conception of the cello talea such that is notated as a single non-retrogradable rhythm (contrary to Sherlaw Johnson); in this way, working backwards from the cello entry (mid-talea) on the last quaver of the second bar to the very beginning of the movement, the five-and-a-half beats rest align precisely with what would be the beginning of the talea according to the presentation the chapter proposes, an analysis that literally realises Messiaen’s intriguing notion of “harmonic silence”.

Ultimately, ’Liturgie de cristal’ is illustrated as a duality, strict and free, temporal and eternal, silent and harmonious, rhythmic and unmeasured. However, in a performative context the experience of these contrasts presents oppositely to what might be expected, whereby it is the strict procedure which allows the transcending of conventions of musical time, and the “free” composition ‘comme un oiseau’ (‘like a bird’) which is compelled to fit around the existing notational structures, a reality which befits the chapter’s overarching metaphor of a caged bird.

Click the icon below the network to view the chapter (this will open a PDF in a new tab).


Angelou, M.: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1969).

Augustine: Confessions, Book XI, trans. W. Watts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1912).

*Balmer, Y.: ‘Repenser la genèse du Quatuor pour la fin du Temps d’Olivier Messiaen’, Créer, jouer, transmettre la musique de la Troisième République à nos jours, eds. A. Piéjus and A. Laedrich (Abbeville: F. Paillart, 2019), pp. 159-168.

de Bolla, P.: Art Matters , 2nd ed. (First Harvard University Press, 2003).

*Crayton, S.: ‘The Caged Bird Sings’ (University of Cambridge, 2018).

——— ‘A Religion of Cycles: ‘Liturgie de cristal’ from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps’ (University of Cambridge, 2017).

*Goléa, A.: Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Slatkine, 1984).

*Messiaen, O.: Technique de mon language musical (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1944).

*——— Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Paris: Durand, 1942).

Pasquier, É.: ‘Hommage à Olivier Messiaen’, Olivier Messiaen: homme de foi: Regard sur son oeuvre d'orgue (Paris: Trinité Média Communication, 1995), pp. 91-92.

Pickstock, C.: Repetition and Identity (Oxford University Press, 2013).

*Pople: Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

*Rischin, R: For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (Cornell University Press, 2003).

Sherlaw Johnson, R.: Messiaen, 3rd edn. (Omnibus Press, 2008).

——— ‘Birdsong’, The Messiaen Companion, ed. P. Hill (Faber and Faber, 1994).

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