Drawing the Music: preparing for Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor de la Fin du Temps’



This Summer at Música en Segura in Andalusia, a performance of Oliver Messiaen’s Quatuor de la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) will be given, accompanied by some projected images that festival director, Daniel Broncano, has commissioned me to make.

In June 1940 Messiaen was captured by the German army and imprisoned in the prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIII-A. Some sketches for Quartet for the End of Time had been begun before the composer was incarcerated, but the work was completed during his captivity, and rehearsed and performed in front of an audience of about 400 inmates and guards on 15 January 1941. The instruments were poor and rain fell on the musicians and the audience. The composer later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension”.


Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by a text from The Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version):

“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….”


The eight movements are:

i) Liturgie de cristal

ii) Vocalise pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

iii) Abîme des oiseaux

iv) Interméde

v) Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus

vi) Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes

vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

viii) Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus

Daniel and I first had conversations about the use of some of my existing work from the Mari Lwyd series. But as the conversations went on it became apparent that he favoured the idea of me producing new paintings, using Messiaen’s notes on the work as a guide.


Daniel wrote in an e-mail to me:

“Messiaen was a notable synesthetic composer. Sound triggered colour in his mind. He often mentions colours on his scores and was an admirer of stained glass church windows.

In the preface of the work he lists the birds, angels, rainbows, Jesus, trumpets, and also blue-orange chords in the 2nd movement.”


Daniel requested four artworks, images of which will be projected alongside four photographs of the Stalag VIII camp. My iconography for the compositions draws on the traditions of Romanesque art and has been boiled down to images of birds, foliate scrolling, a fight between mythic animals, the Angel who announces The End of Time and a portrait of Jesus Christ. The latter, a traditional representation, is a first for me. I’ve only painted Christ once before, and then the image was contemporary. Here I’ve immersed myself in something I would usually balk at: marks of the scourge, crucifixion and spear wounds, thorn perforations and death’s lividity.

The images are formal, densely patterned, intended to be contemplative. I’m at the drawing stage as I wanted to complete the four compositions before beginning to paint, the better to work quickly with my brushes. Time is short.



18 thoughts on “Drawing the Music: preparing for Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor de la Fin du Temps’

  1. And yet..thinking of this exciting and timely project I’m ‘Pollyanna’ enough to still believe that love, laughter, warmth and friendship can weather most storms and it is surely the ‘arts’ that help humanity shine on.
    Love as ever and always
    B xxx

    • I agree to all the above, Bern. I’m finding the news very stressful right now. You’re quite right about the arts being the voice of humanity and conscience so lacking from Mrs May and her band of moral bankrupts. (This is why the Tories are so unsupportive of the arts, and indeed hostile to them.) I can’t watch her any more. Can’t witness the lifelessness behind her eyes and the grim determination to plough ahead wreaking as much damage as she possibly can while her claws hold on to the reins of power. Can’t bear the evasions and the endless repetition of her points of view, never engaging in debate, just barging on carrying a big stick and snarling at all opposition.

      But, we must plough on, too, voicing our concerns, alerting, explaining, showing humanity and insight when those in power do not. And for me, making art. It’s what I do. And remembering. And laughing. We must never forget to laugh.

  2. Clive, I’m moved and excited by the prospect of this project, and love these drawings which immediately reminded me of the drawings by Henri Matisse for the chapel at Vence which I saw this fall at the Vatican Museum. I also suspect you will be led from here into further explorations, because, like you, the world is giving us many things to think about that circle back to this story.

    During the three-hour Good Friday meditations I found myself transfixed by the wound in Christ’s side when we stopped singing for a bit, and lit candles in front of a small but quite beautiful crucifix. This had never happened to me before – I think I’ve always avoided the “wounds” — but this year that is what I saw. I’ve thought about it a lot after – why this, and why now? What did it mean, and what am I supposed to take from it? The spear wound in the side feels gratuitous – not necessary, and particularly awful, like so much of the pain inflicted on innocent victims in the world today – but it is also that entry point into the body for Thomas (and all doubters) later on.

    An aside: our music director at the Anglican Cathedral here, Patrick Wedd, is probably Canada’s foremost interpreter of Messiaen’s organ works, and plays them often here and elsewhere. I think the complexity of Messiaen’s music will be well served by the approach you’re taking, and can’t wait to see the paintings. Bon courage!

    • Hi Beth. I’m hugely moved to be mentioned in the same breath as Matisse. He casts a giant shadow that I’m happy to shelter under.

      The work is being done at a cracking pace. Originally I’d been concentrating my studies more on the architecture and mood of Stalag VIII. But when Daniel Broncano suggested I work in colour and draw on the texts Messiaen had used for his inspiration, the images took off in a different direction entirely.

      Yes, it feels significant at a point when Britain has turned her back on the migration crisis and a new and isolating nationalism holds sway (something a Tory government has opened its arms to embrace) that my mind turns to mankind’s cruelty and stupidity, endlessly reinvented as though nothing has been learned from the past. I thought we had long moved away from the rhetoric we witnessed during the lead-up to the referendum, but here is the same old same old, floating like rancid grease to the surface and tainting us all. Hostilities simmer. Communities fracture. Interesting that when governments feel themselves to be weak, they embrace war. Here, at a time when the Brexit strategies are chaotic, there has been ludicrous sabre-rattling over Gibraltar (again), and in the US President T raises his fists against North Korea in the belief that his action will deflect from other issues closer to home and pressing in on him and his administration from all sides. Jingoism prevails. It’s always so much easier to disseminate hate than to find solutions. I despise our prime minister. From the moment I saw her skipping along hand in hand with that man, I knew we were in trouble. These are dark and troubling times, and here I am, drawing the old stories, trying to make sense of it all.

  3. Tremendously exciting prospect this Clive, and those drawings are tantalising and touching already. Sending you strength and stamina thoughts for the weeks ahead, all the best x

      • I love that style, and look forward to seeing more of your process with it, as I still don’t have it down 😛
        It’s also what you used with those wonderful blue-on-blue and blue-on-startling red images you used with Jeffrey Beam and the horse, right?

        • Yes, the Dark Movements paintings were made that way, though they were densely worked in order to get the required luminosity of colour. These are going to be thinner in terms of the paint, and the drawing is going to be quite edgy and scratchy. I want there to be strangeness to them. (No surprises there, then, knowing my interest in the strange!)

  4. How inspiring! This perfect for you and I can’t wait to see the finished pieces. Hopefully when they are completed you can show us the evolution from drawing to final artworks. We mustn’t expect anything from you til the end of May, I know you must be working day and night already! Bon courage……xxxxL

  5. What inspirational subject matter you have been given Clive and what an exciting and challenging brief, which touches on so many of the themes from your own personal iconography.

    I have always thought I would like one of your angels on my side, in times of trouble, so the thought of the Angel Who Announces the End of Time is a tantalising prospect for me!

    I know that the Isenheim Altarpiece has long been a source of inspiration for you and here you are finally painting the crucifixion. I am sure I am not alone in greatly anticipating your first encounter with this subject matter. The religious experience Grünewald’s art records is a long, dark night of the soul, which is territory that is deeply familiar to you. I can imagine that it is never easy to re-visit this place, so take care as you tread this path once more.

    • Sarah, the inspiration is rich, but time is short and I’m having to work at a furious pace. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Speed can be liberating. I’ve decided to use my gouache-and-pencil technique for the images, which is the only way I can produce them in the time. (Easel painting is out of the question as I’d spend the rest of the year producing four paintings on these deep themes.) I’m not producing a crucifixion as such, but a depiction of Christ after the event, with just a head, arms and upper body shown, like a portrait bust.

      However, the crucifixion is on my mind – it has after all, been Easter – and if it comes it will be a project for which I’ll have to gird my loins. In a world torn apart at the seams as the UK retreats into isolationism, turning her back on the refugee crisis, Russia sabre-rattles and the middle east further fractures to the accompaniment of a deluded and narcissistic US president charging into headlong conflict with North Korea, my embarkation on painting a crucifixion showing the combined horrors of cruelty and stupidity may be closer than I thought. But today I’m painting birds, which is always a pleasure.

      • How wonderful that Daniel has asked for colour with these images, Clive. He has definitely chosen the right artist to pair with a synesthetic composer. I wrote last year at the Artlog on how your ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ images brought to mind the wall decoration in medieval churches, which were places filled with colour and light. The medieval mind believed that what was seen with the eye entered the body, so that benefits or damage to health were literally only a glance away; this seems as good an argument as any for making sure we seek out colour in our everyday lives.

        With this commission, I do hope that your dream to create an altarpiece moves closer to being realised. After all, who knows who is out there watching this work emerge?!

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