The article of the month

Olivier Messiaen by Heather King

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), French, composed the “Quartet for the End of Time” while a German prisoner of war during World War II. The piece was first performed by Messiaen and fellow prisoners before an audience of 5,000 guards and inmates.

Born in Avignon, as a child Messiaen asked for musical scores rather than toys for Christmas. In Catholicism, he found “the marvelous multiplied a hundredfold, a thousandfold.”

He began composing at seven, taught himself piano, and entered the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of eleven. He visited the Sainte-Chapelle that year and, “overwhelmed by the colors of the stained-glass windows,” began mentally transposing them into sound, an example of a perceptual phenomenon known as synesthesia.

In 1932, he married the violinist and composer Claire Delbos. Their son Pascal was born in 1937. Delbos later underwent an operation, lost her memory, and was institutionalized for the remainder of her life.

Drafted into the Army as a medic at the outbreak of World War II, Messiaen was captured by the Nazis in May 1940, and imprisoned at Görlitz’s Stalag VIII-A.

“Quartet for the End of Time” was based on the only four instruments available in the camp: violin, cello, clarinet, and piano. A friendly German officer smuggled in manuscript paper and pencils, and allowed him to work in the priests’ block.

Messiaen went on after the war to a long and distinguished career. He developed such innovative techniques as limited transposition, additive rhythms, and chord coloration. He often incorporated birdsong into his compositions. His Treatise on Rhythm, Color, and Ornithology (1949–1992) runs to eight volumes.

He died in Paris on April 27, 1992, leaving a prodigious body of work, much of it sacred. But “Quartet for the End of Time,” based on Revelation 10:1-7, remains probably his most performed composition.

Of its January 15, 1941, premiere, he wrote:

“It took place in Görlitz, in Silesia, in a dreadful cold. 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: Etienne Pasquier’s cello had only three strings; the keys of my upright piano remained lowered when depressed…. It’s on this piano, with my three fellow musicians, dressed in the oddest way—I myself wearing a bottle-green suit of a Czech soldier—completely tattered, and wooden clogs large enough for the blood to circulate despite the snow underfoot…that I played…before an audience of 5,000 people. The most diverse classes of society were mingled: farmers, factory workers, intellectuals, professional servicemen, doctors, priests. Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.”

The conditions Messiaen describes were not perhaps ideal for composing. They may, however, have been ideal for listening. That “diverse class of society,” desperate for a crumb of hope, hearts atremble, could have been the same poor-in-spirit crowd Christ gazed upon as he delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

Heather King is a contemplative laywoman and author of several books. She blogs at www.heather-king.com.