Musicologists often revere Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) as one of the most, if not the most, important works of the twentieth century.
Yet the reason is often overlooked, even though it lurks in plain sight right there in the title. I’ll admit that decades ago I was first drawn to the Quatuor by its potent title. But even though that remarkable title resonates even more profoundly in our current political climate, its indelible import lies beyond its two most apparent connotations that evoke the Quatuor’s origin and mysticism.
The tale of the Quatuor’s origin is indeed compelling. Born in 1908 to a teacher and a poet, Messiaen was already attracting notice as a brilliant student, organist and visionary composer when he was drafted for wartime military service but assigned as a medical orderly due to his poor eyesight. Captured and held in an open field for three weeks, he met Henri Akoka, a clarinetist who remarkably had managed to keep his cherished instrument and for whom Messiaen wrote a solo piece.
Also with them was Etienne Pasquier, a cellist who played in a famed trio with his brothers Pierre and Jean, and who accompanied Messiaen for pre-dawn bird watching (and listening). All three then were sent to Stalag VIIIA, a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia for 30,000 enlisted officers. In his barracks Akoka encountered violinist Jean Le Boulaire.
In light of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust concentration camps seared into human memory, it seems apt to clarify the conditions under which Messiaen was held. Although food, heat and clothing were sparse, Stalag VIIIA was not a death camp (nor, at the other extreme, the cruelly-deceptive artist showcase of Theresienstadt, much less the insultingly light-hearted lark of Hogan’s Heroes), but rather akin to the conditions depicted in Renoir’s Grand Illusion – indeed Le Boulaire claimed to have been profoundly bored, Akoka spent much of his time trying to escape, and the camp had a library, newspaper and concerts. Despite overall deprivation, Messiaen fared rather well.
Even beyond the preferential treatment accorded to artists generally (Pasquier was reassigned from granite mining to cooking), Messiaen was excused from routine chores and assigned an early-morning watch to accommodate his interest in ornithology. Karl-Albert Brüll, a sympathetic and admiring German officer, procured manuscript paper, provided extra food and even posted a guard at the door of an isolated barracks to enable Messiaen to study and compose in privacy. (An unsung anti-Nazi nationalist hero, Brüll also protected Jews in the camp, including Akoka.)
The Quatuor arose over the course of several months, and was rehearsed four hours a day. Le Boulaire recalled that although the score was difficult and his demands severe, Messiaen provided constant guidance and reassurance. The camp commandant loved music and obtained instruments, including a violin and piano. Pasquier told movingly of how fellow-prisoners collected funds to buy a cello, with which he gratefully entertained A special notice with an art-deco design (and bearing the camp’s stamp of approval) announced the premiere which took place at 6 PM on January 15, 1941 as the week’s regularly-scheduled Saturday concert. Sadly, even modern program annotators still perpetuate myths asserted by the composer himself: a crowd of 5,000 jammed into the theater, the cello had only three strings, the clarinet was missing a key and the piano keys all stuck.
Rebecca Rischin documented that, while the venue was bitter cold and dimly lit, the “theater” was a partly-converted barracks that could have held at most a few hundred, and that others had no recall of damaged instruments (with which in any event the score could not possibly have been played).
The witnesses she interviewed generally agree that Messiaen prefaced the performance with a lecture explaining his religious inspiration, that guards, inmates and even recuperating ill prisoners attended, and that the performance was heard in silence (whether out of respect for Messiaen’s reputation, gratitude for a brief cultural respite, or sheer perplexity). While the music was strange even to trained ears, and many were unaccustomed to chamber music, clearly all seized upon the occasion as a profoundly spiritual vehicle to escape actuality, if only for a few moments, and it resonated deeply within each man’s soul. Despite Messiaen’s penchant for exaggeration (which Rischin attributes to his desire to stress how far he transcended the challenging circumstances), it’s hard to doubt his oft-cited ultimate recollection: “Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding.”
In spite of the tight bond that must have formed during the months of focused preparation, the four musicians never performed the work again. The next month Messiaen and Pasquier were liberated as part of a political gesture prioritizing the repatriation of unarmed artists (and with the help of forged papers provided by Brüll to erase their status as soldiers, who were ineligible for release).
With his brothers, Pasquier went on to renew their illustrious Trio, which over the next three decades extensively concertized and compiled a magnificent discography of elegant performances from Mozart to moderns. In April Akoka succeeded in escaping – with his precious clarinet! – passing through enemy lines as an Arab and ultimately enjoyed a long career playing in French orchestras.
After an unsuccessful attempt, in late 1941 Le Boulaire also escaped thanks to more of Brüll’s forgeries but felt that he and his artistry had suffered too severely during his confinement and so he proceeded to bury his career, memories and even his name by becoming an actor under a new identity of Jean Lanier.
The four original artists bonded so well despite their disparate temperaments and religious outlooks – Pasquier was agnostic, warm and worldly, Le Boulaire atheistic and deeply depressed, Akoka a secular Jew and revolutionary who was constantly planning escape, and Messiaen a devout Catholic who accepted his fate as God’s will.
Of the four, Messiaen fared the best of all. Repatriated, he formalized the musical innovations of the Quatuor into a hugely influential treatise (Technique de mon langage musical), returned as organist at the Trinity Church in Paris (a post he held for a remarkable 60 years, interrupted only by the War, and which Anthony Pople notes was at odds wit his radical musical sensibilities), began teaching at the Paris Conservatoire (in part to replace ousted Jews), went on to become one of the leading musical pedagogues and theorists of his time, and produced an extraordinary body of compositions.
Adapted from: http://classicalnotes.net/classics6/quatuor.html