Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano
The circumstances of Quartet's composition in Stalag VIII-A, Görlitz, are well-known; the subject of the piece — the end of time in Christian eschatology, made more urgent and vivid due to those circumstances — is better known, and probably most widely known among people who will never hear Messiaen's music, which, with its moments of ecstatic joy, deep melancholy, and transcendent slowness are a profound and moving reading of the Apocalypse, a world apart from the silly adventure stories of the Late, Great Planet Earth and Left Behind crowds.
While the world of apocalypse, sublime or ridiculous, is not mine, there is one moment in Messiaen's work, in the third (of eight) movements, Abîme des oiseaux (abyss of birds) that is — for me, at least — a musical landmark of immense measure. Messiaen's abyss, for solo clarinet, is home to extremely slow plaintive melodies, focusing on half-step, whole-step trichords, fleeting bird calls, and strange arpeggios over the whole range of the instrument, the whole punctuated a number of times by very long tones played in crescendi from very soft to very loud. The effect of these crescendi is as much timbral as dynamic, and when well-played, the successive overtones each come into focus like a swell pedal opening on a pipe organ. (Messiaen was an organist, an instrument which he was denied during his captivity in Görlitz, where the piece was composed and first performed.) It is the penultimate of these crescendi that is my landmark, for it ties the whole movement together. It begins on the lowest tone of the clarinet, e, and ascends, whole-step, half-step, to f# and g, all the time getting brighter and brighter, a single organ mixture opening-up register-by-register, quite literally opening the abyss, escaping in the manner of the birds themselves, upward.