On this day, January 15th in 1941, something of a miracle took place. Olivier Messiaen was a prisoner of war under Nazi Germany and was held in Stalag 8A at Görlitz in Silesia, about fifty miles east of Dresden. Here he suffered extremes of cold and hunger, but here also his musical imagination was fired, and a masterpiece born.
As Jeremy Begbie describes in his book Resounding Truth:
In the camp with him were a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist—all highly competent and experienced players. The first rehearsal of an emerging quartet took place in one of the barrack washrooms, where in the absence of a piano, they could play only through a movement for violin, clarinet, and cello. The first performance of the complete Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) on January 15, 1941, is one of the great stories of modern music: for nearly an hour, hundreds of prisoners and soldiers sat in Barrack 27B in the depths of a subzero winter, the wounded lying on stretchers at the front of the audience. They listened to the four performers, the composer in wooden clogs struggling with a run-down, out-of-tune upright piano. As one of the players later recalled, the music seemed to transfigure the misery of Stalag 8A “into something sublime.” The composer himself remarked that he had “never … been listened to with such consideration and understanding.”
Terry Glaspey writes in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:
That such a piece could even be written under these circumstances was partially due to the efforts of Karl-Albert Brull, a music-loving guard who was familiar with some of Messiaen’s prewar compositions and went to extraordinary efforts to provide the composer with pencils, erasers, and music paper. He also found a quiet place in an empty barracks where Messiaen could work undisturbed, even posting a guard outside to keep him from being bothered. After the performance, Brull helped forge the documents that made it possible for Messiaen to return to France.
Surely it must have felt to many Europeans as though the apocalypse was at hand as Nazi aggressors stormed triumphantly across Europe, set on establishing their Third Reich. But Messiaen’s music is not a gloomy meditation on defeat and hardship; it is a musical expression of a hopeful expectation of the future God has promised.
As Elie Wiesel said
We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.
Has God ever inspired beauty in the midst of disaster in your life?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
(1908–92). One of the most original composers of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen was the only major composer to also serve as church organist (for the Church of the Sainte-Trinité from 1931) since César Franck and Anton Bruckner. His students included two major figures of 20th-century music: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.
Olivier-Eugène-Prosper-Charles Messiaen was born in Avignon, France, on Dec. 10, 1908. He began to compose when he was 7 and entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 11. He began an intense investigation of both Western and Eastern rhythms, birdsong, and microtonal music. These elements and Roman Catholic mysticism are reflected in his compositions.
With three other composers Messiaen founded in 1936 La Jeune France to promote new French music, and he taught at the Schola Cantorum and the École Normale de Musique from that year until World War II. While a prisoner of war he wrote Quartet for the End of Time, performed at the prison camp in 1941. After the war he became professor of harmony and later of composition at the Conservatoire. His compositions include L’Ascension (1934), Turangalîla-Symphonie (1949), La Transfiguration (1969), and Des canyons aux étoiles (1974) for orchestra; an opera, St. Francis of Assisi (1986); numerous pieces of chamber music; vocal works; and organ pieces. He died in Clichy on April 27, 1992.
Sources & Resources
“Messiaen, Olivier,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Bannister, Peter. “Olivier Messiaen—‘Plain Old Propaganda’?” Thinking Faith (blog). December 10, 2008. http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20081210_1.htm.
Osborne, Steven. “Olivier Messiaen: Beyond Time and Space.” The Guardian. August 7, 2014.
Shenton, Andrew, ed. Messiaen the Theologian. London: Ashgate, 2010.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 163–164.