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On Sunday afternoon, October 9 at 3 o’clock, the stage of the Mead Theatre in the Schuster Center will hold only four musicians. Yet, the message the music they will play resonates through far more than just the building. It resonates through Time itself. For over six decades, it has struck a responsive chord in people of faith – any and all faiths – a sense of mutual connection to something greater than ourselves and the world in which we live.

It is the Quartet for the End of Time, which French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote while a prisoner in a German prisoner of war camp in World War Two.

“And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow on his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire…. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he raised his right hand toward Heaven and swore by He who lives forever and ever…saying: ‘There will be no more Time; but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of god will be fulfilled.’”
Revelation of St. John the Divine, Chapter 10.

It was this verse that set Messiaen, a devout Catholic, on a path that would led him to create a work of inter-faith, religious significance. The place was Stalag VIII A, a German camp for prisoners of war of enlisted rank located on a five-hectare lot (approximately 12 acres) in the town of Görlitz-Moys in Silesia, Germany. The Germans had captured Messiaen, a French Army medical orderly, at Verdun.

At Stalag VIII A, Messiaen met and befriended three fellow prisoners, who – along with Messiaen on an old, upright piano – would eventually become the Quartet’s first performers. And their religious backgrounds and philosophy could not have been more different than Messiaen’s, or each other’s: Etienne Pasquier, a cellist, had been raised Catholic, but was ideologically agnostic; Jean Le Boulaire, a violinist, had also been raised Catholic, but was an admittedly staunch atheist; Henri Akoka, a clarinetist, was a secular Jew…and an ardent Troskyist.

In microcosm, these four represented the religious viewpoints of most of the armies and peoples of the combatant nations in the European theater of World War Two. Given such disparate philosophical, religious, and ideological backgrounds, it is no small wonder that they not only could agree on the essential theme of Messiaen’s work, but also forego their own religious perspectives and corroborate simply as musicians.

Messiaen favored the Revelation of St. John the Divine, with its description of the end of Time. In it, an angel predicts the Apocalypse and the end of the world, asserting that Christ’s death and resurrection would consequently redeem the world. It must have been easy for Messiaen to draw a rather consistent parallel between the message in that book and the ominous events unfolding around him in Europe, events which would continue until the end of the war. He and his fellow prisoners must have felt themselves caught in a living Armageddon.

However, Messiaen’s faith would not afford him the luxury of self-pity or despair. He set out to embody his personal philosophy of hope for universal mankind in a composition, a quartet with eight movements, with such names as Praise to the Eternity of Jesus and Praise to the Immortality of Jesus. Intrigued by the concept of Time and its end, he constructed his quartet with a strong desire to eradicate traditional concepts of not only musical time, but past and future as well.

In Stalag VIII A, there were only five violins, one or two cellos, and one piano. The clarinet was Henri Akoka’s personal instrument. And Pasquier had purchased his cello in Görlitz-Moys with 65 marks other prisoners had raised from money they had received for working at the camp. Anxious as well to hear Messiaen’s new composition, German officers arranged to provide the camp with an out-of-date, upright piano with sticking keys that was almost hopelessly out of tune.

In a prison camp where – adherence to Geneva Convention requirements notwithstanding – prisoners were executed for rule infractions as paltry as stealing potatoes, the prisoners could not have helped but wonder about the source of the power that enabled Messiaen to “…continue believing in a greater good, when the immediate world seemed to be teetering on the edge of an apocalypse.” 1.

Messiaen and three of his fellow prisoners gave the premier performance of the quartet on January 15, 1941…before 5,000 prisoners of war. “Like Messiaen, Pasquier was struck by the transfiguring power of the moment (performance) – how music transformed the banality of Stalag VIII A into something sublime. ‘Everyone listened reverently, with an almost religious respect, including those who perhaps were hearing chamber music for the first time. It was miraculous.’”1.

Neither Messiaen’s circumstances nor the premier of his work were directly related to the atrocities of the Holocaust that occurred in World War Two. However, the relationship between this seminal work created by an extremely devout man and the faith of countless millions that sustained them through one of the most horrific ordeals in the history of mankind is clear.

For the concert, the Wintergarden of the Schuster Center will feature a display of Holocaust-themed artwork and poetry from the Dayton Art Resource Center. The display will also include a piece of art by a student of Chaminade-Julienne High School commissioned especially for the Messiaen concert based on the history of the music.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra wishes to recognize the positive impact of Greater Dayton area clergy, by admitting them to the concert free of charge. To arrange for their free tickets, all clergy should call the Philharmonic at 937-224-3521 and ask for Kara Jump.

1. For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet, Cornell University Press, 2003