The Composer Who Preserved a Bit of Optimism While in a Nazi POW Camp

The premier work of Olivier Messiaen, a giant of modern atonal music, will be performed across Israel this week.

Olivier Messiaen
Wikimedia commons

Part of what is so special about the most famous work of French composer Olivier Messiaen, his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (“Quartet for the end of time”), is related to the circumstances of its composition in 1940. Messiaen (1908-1992) was at the time held as a prisoner of war by the Germans in Stalag VIII-A in Gorlitz, then in Germany and today in Poland.

The makeup of the musicians imprisoned with him in the camp was what dictated the unusual choice of instruments for the quartet: violin, cello, clarinet and piano. The eight movements are arranged for different groupings of the instruments and some remain silent in some of the movements. The motifs touch on those in many other works by Messiaen: religious inspiration, alongside a deep musical investigation of birdsong.

Messiaen premiered this work, which the Israeli Chamber Project will perform this week all over the country in a series of concerts with the focus on this work, in the POW camp in 1941 with an audience of 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen said the audience listened with the greatest attention, and emotion, he had ever witnessed.

Messiaen - Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps YouTube

Later it turned out that the conditions for composing and performing were not quite as bad as they had seemed. A music-loving German guard, Carl-Albert Brull, supplied paper and a pencil so Messiaen could compose, and arranged a bit of quiet and isolation, first for writing the piece and later so they could rehearse. Bruller also helped acquire the instruments, though the cello was bought with contributions from other prisoners. After the performance, Brull helped Messiaen and the three other musicians gain an early release. Messiaen certainly was not left with a feeling of gratitude, or he may have wanted to play up the myth of a composition written under great suffering in the camp. After the war, when Brull journeyed to France to visit Messiaen, the composer refused to see him.

“What is special and ingenious in this quartet is the timing,” says Tibi Cziger, clarinetist and artistic director of the Chamber Project. “The slow movements were written back in the 1930s, before the war, for various ensembles. The fifth movement, written for a cello and piano, appears in a work from 1937 for six Ondes Martenots,” which is an electronic instrument invented in 1928. It has a unique, wavering sound that Massiaen included in a number of his works. The eighth movement, the last, which was written for violin and piano, is taken from an earlier work for the organ, and transposed to a different key, E, which gives the end of the work an atmosphere that it seems Messiaen saw as a holy harmony. From the musical standpoint, too, it raises questions of the end of time, says Cziger. “The music examines whether in that period, tonality had reached the end of its road. Messiaen, one of the fathers of modern music, deals with questions of a new language, the tonal boundaries, new rules in music. He looks ahead, but back too, and finds interesting solutions in expanding the tonal boundaries, in spilling out and back into them.”

Israeli Chamber Project.
Israeli Chamber Project.

Alive, not under glass in a museum

Cziger says classical music is an active process, living and breathing, not a museum of works from the past. He remembers sadly a master class with a successful musician who in recent years has not performed, but his public classes for young musicians, the master classes, have turned into successful performances with large audiences because of the humor and charisma he integrates into the classes.

During one of these classes, Cziger heard the musician stop his conversation with the student for a moment to turn to the audience and say that everything written in the 20th century, after the appearance of atonality, is not music.

That is an irresponsible statement and it encourages a lack of willingness to listen and a broad generalization that rejects every innovation, says Cziger. “New music comes to us unfiltered. In works from the past, the test of time brings us the best. In new works, we are part of the process, and we hear the good and less good works. There is also a process of familiarization, and identifying the important composers, which takes time. I believe that a composer such as, let us say, Elliott Carter [1908-2012], will take a prominent place in concert halls and recordings in the future.”

“The Israeli Chamber Project invites new works,” adds Cziger. “And this is an important function. It is also important, in my view, that we mix music from different periods, new music too, in our programs, but we definitely are not an ensemble that specializes in new music.

“We are a chamber ensemble that plays a diverse repertoire, in which the new repertoire that we are interested in fits in naturally. One of the interesting challenges from my perspective, and the area that I delved into deeply, is how to build a program, how to combine works so the overall experience of the listeners will be good, for the works to connect one to another in an interesting way. Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the end of time’ sets a special challenge, because of its unique composition [of instruments], the musical depth and the religious and liturgical meanings linked to it,” says Cziger. None of Messiaen’s other works is performed or recorded as much, or has taken such a prominent place in the repertoire. One of the possibilities is to play it alongside a work, or works, of Bach, he added.

“For this concert I found a different solution,” said Cziger. “We play the quartet after the work of Darius Milhaud, “La création du monde” (“The creation of the world”). Milhaud represents a completely different side of French music in the 20th century: light, bouncy, almost entertaining. In addition, we decided to dare to accompany the performance with special lighting design. ... We believe we will succeed in making use of the lighting with sensitivity, so it does not distract attention but supports the music.”