Most people think birds just go pi-pi-pi

James Fletcher

  • The Messiaen Companion edited by Peter Hill
    Faber, 581 pp, £40.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 571 17033 1
  • Olivier Messiaen: Music and Colour. Conversations with Claude Samuel translated by Thomas Glasow
    Amadeus, 296 pp, $29.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 931340 67 5

By spring 1940 France and Britain had been at war with Germany for more than six months; Belgium was already occupied by the Nazis. On 9 June some fifty divisions Of the German Army under von Rundstedt, a commander so formidable that even Hitler is said to have treated him with considerable respect, struck southwards from Belgium towards Rheims. The French forces behind the Aisne resisted heroically, but were far outnumbered. On 11 June they began a strategic withdrawal south across the Marne, then east into the Vosges. But the situation was hopeless, and on 22 June they were forced to surrender.

A few days later in Nancy, the occupying forces arrested a young medical orderly while he was trying to escape into the countryside on an old bicycle without tyres. He was stocky and fit, but somewhat shortsighted, which had disqualified him from active military service. Along with more than a thousand other prisoners he was transported by train to a prisoner-of war camp in Görlitz, about sixty miles east of Dresden. The journey, more than four hundred miles on a slow train in high summer to an unknown destination, must have been more gruelling than anything he had so far experienced in the war. At one point he witnessed a near riot as hundreds of dehydrated men fought to get at a single outlet where water was being distributed. He refused to join in the struggle and struck up a conversation with another soldier who was calmly reading a book. He found he was talking to a fellow-Parisian. Guy-Bernard Delapierre, an Egyptologist. The two were shortly separated, but he was later handed a note from Delapierre giving him Delapierre’s address in Paris, and they were to become close friends during the second half of the war.

On his arrival at Görlitz he was assigned to Stalag VIII A. The Germans discovered that he was a music teacher and church organist, that his name was Olivier Messiaen, and that his haversack contained scores of the Brandenburg Concertos, works by Beethoven, Ravel and Stravinsky, and Berg’s Lyric Suite. It contained very little else. They could scarcely have guessed at the strangeness of the music Messiaen would write and perform in the camp.

Conditions there were bleak but not horrific. On top of physical hardship, hunger and boredom, the prisoners faced frightening uncertainty: no one knew how long the war would continue, nor when or whether they would ever return to France. Messiaen called his Görlitz quartet Quatuor pour la fin du temps; Iain Matheson’s interesting essay in The Messiaen Companion discusses the ambiguity of the title. ‘Time’ can be understood in a musical sense (Messiaen’s preface to the score describes some of the musical devices by which he aims to bring the listener ‘close to eternity’) and it also has an eschatological meaning: the work is written ‘in homage’ to the angel of Revelation 10.6 who said that there shall be time no longer.’ But Malcolm Hayes is surely right that the title has a more immediate meaning: ‘We know now that Messiaen was not to stay in captivity in a German prisoner-of-war camp for years to come, perhaps even to die there. He himself did not know that at the time.’

At Görlitz he made friends with a violinist and a clarinettist, who had been allowed to bring their instruments with them, and an accomplished (but cello-less) cellist, Etienne Pasquier, who was later to play on the record Messiaen made of the Quatuor – a fact which oddly passes without comment in the useful discography by Christopher Dingle that concludes Hill’s book. The Germans were not unsympathetic to these musical endeavours. The camp commander supplied Messiaen with manuscript paper, and found a cello, with one string missing, for Pasquier. A German officer gave Messiaen the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas – a considerable gift in any circumstances – and Messiaen’s widow, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, remarks in an interview with Peter Hill that he was locked in a wash-house all day, not as a disciplinary measure, but with a supply of paper, pencils and dry bread, so that he could compose undisturbed. No one seems to have been at all concerned that he was studying the ‘degenerate’ Stravinsky and Berg – a liberalism of attitude that he was not to find in Paris when he returned there.

The first thing Messiaen produced at Görlitz was a sprightly but enigmatic two-minute trio for his three friends, which eventually became the Quatuor’s fourth and shortest movement, the Intermède. The Quatuor began to take shape, even before the Germans had found a battered upright piano, growing eventually to eight movements and lasting about forty-five minutes. The work received its world première on 25 January 1941, in a large prefabricated building like a Nissen hut, at a temperature somewhat below freezing. It was attended by several thousand prisoners of many nationalities (Poles, Czechs, other Central Europeans and French) and of every conceivable trade and profession.

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