On 15 January 1941, in a prisoner-of-war camp in German-controlled Silesia, a crowd of prisoners and Nazi guards gathered in a freezing hall to listen to a performance.
The Stalag was buried in snow. We were 30,000 prisoners (French for the most part, with a few Poles and Belgians). The four musicians played on broken instruments … the keys on my upright piano remained lowered when depressed … it’s on this piano, with my three fellow musicians, dressed in the oddest way … completely tattered, and wooden clogs large enough for the blood to circulate despite the snow underfoot … that I played my quartet … the most diverse classes of society were mingled: farmers, factory workers, intellectuals, professional servicemen, doctors and priests.
Thus remembered the French composer Olivier Messiaen. The piece that he composed for the four instruments available at the camp – a cello, piano, clarinet and violin – was one of the most famous compositions to come out of the war years, his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Messiaen’s recollection of this concert has been challenged by many, including the other members of the quartet: while he remembers thousands in the audience, the camp hall could hold only a few hundred; his piano was not as imperfect as he describes; and his insistence that the cellist only performed with three strings has been repeatedly denied by the cellist himself. Nonetheless, few dispute the significance of the work itself, one of the most important to be produced in the 20th century.
Messiaen was born in Avignon, France on 10 December 1908 into a highly cultured family, his father a literary scholar and his mother a poetess. At a young age he taught himself to play the piano and began composing. After the end of World War I, the family moved to Nantes, where Messiaen received his first formal music lessons, and in 1919 he entered the Paris conservatory, where he was a highly successful student until his graduation in 1930. After completing his studies, he was awarded a prestigious position as organist at a large church. In 1936, he married Claire Delbos, with whom he had a son. That same year he joined with three other composers, Andre Jolivet, Daniel Lesur and Yves Baudrier, to form the group ‘The Young France’, which aimed to promote new French music.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, the composer was assigned to be a nurse rather than a soldier. This assignment, however, was not to protect him from the Nazis. Soon after starting service in a war hospital, he was taken prisoner, and taken to Görlitz in Silesia where he was imprisoned at prison camp Stalag VIII-A, where he was to stay from 1940 to 1942. When he was initially searched, the guards were astonished to find not weapons or supplies, but musical scores in his pockets. His status allowed him special ‘privileges’, including permission to play the camp organ, as well as access to writing materials, which enabled him to compose. Although conditions were not as harsh as in other Nazi camps, however, it was an emotionally and physically taxing experience.
At the camp he befriended three other musicians, and it was together with these men that he performed the Quartet in 1941. One of the musicians acknowledged that the listeners did not know what to make of Messiaen’s unusual composition style:
The audience, as far as I remember, was overwhelmed at the time. They wondered what had happened. Everyone. We too. We asked ourselves: ‘What are we doing? What are we playing?’
Among other things, the Quartet was one of the first of Messiaen’s pieces to experiment with incorporating bird song, which was to become a trademark. The piece was profoundly affected by the environment in which it was composed, but despite its potentially political title and the context of its origins, the Quartet – and Messiaen’s work more generally – is generally seen as entirely apolitical. It was at least in part his commitment to apolitical art that allowed him to successfully rebuild a career in Paris upon his return in 1942, while the war was still raging and France was still under German occupation.
After arriving back in Paris, Messiaen was made a professor at the Conservatory, where he taught until his retirement in the late 1970s. During these years, Messiaen first came into contact with the young pianist Yvonne Loriod, who influenced him to begin composing for piano. Loriod was to become his wife years later, after his first wife had died of disease. By the end of the war, his reputation as one of the great French composers had been established.
Hilll, P. ed., 1955. The Messiaen companion, London: Faber and Faber.
Hirsbrunner, T., 1988. Olivier Messiaen: Leben und Werk, Laaber: Laaber-Verlag.
Rischin, R., For the end of time: the story of the Messiaen quartet, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.