Messiaen’s Quartet

About 300 prisoners—and several Nazi officers and guards--in prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII A, near the Polish border, were the first to hear one of the most beautiful and haunting musical works of the 20th century, on a winter’s night in 1941. Before the event, a prisoner drew up an artistic poster with the imprint of a camp-sanctioned seal. On the evening of the performance, officers and guards seated themselves in the front row, placing prisoners behind them— half-frozen in an unheated barracks.

Stalag VIII A (or Prisoner-of-War Camp 8A) in Goerlitz, Germany was not unlike other camps of the Third Reich. Subject to brutal conditions, prisoners were often treated as less than human. This particular camp, however, was unique in three distinct ways. Inside, there inhabited: three gifted musicians, a sympathetic officer, and a renowned 31-year-old French composer named Olivier Messiaen. This famous composer, captured at the (World War II) Battle of Verdun in 1940 while his wife and two-year-old son were back in Paris, wrote and premiered one of his greatest masterpieces, the Quartet for the End of Time, in this German camp. 

Messiaen wrote the whole Quartet for piano, cello, clarinet, and violin while imprisoned. Unquestionably, this complex and religiously inspired musical piece about the end of days in the Book of Revelation would never have come to fruition without a little serendipity. The combination of a surprisingly civilized Nazi officer encouraging Messiaen to write and a few musically gifted prisoners spurred his composition. The Nazi officer fortunately loved classical music, and Messiaen’s mere presence at the camp thrilled him. He went out of his way to supply the composer with the necessary writing materials and instruments. There were three prisoners who were brilliant musicians — one could even say virtuosos. They were willing to learn Messiaen’s demanding and textured composition, with its eight movements, using inferior instruments under appalling circumstances. Étienne Pasquier was the cellist, Henri Akoka was the clarinetist, and Jean Le Boulaire was the violinist. Messiaen himself debuted as the pianist.

The reaction to the performance of these beleaguered, emaciated musicians and to the composer’s music on that January evening in 1941 was one of astonishment. Even the cynical, hardened Nazis at the camp and the demoralized prisoners were made speechless by its grace, exquisite construction, serenity, and passion. The cellist, Pasquier, described what he saw afterward: “These people … sensed that this was something exceptional. They sat perfectly still, in awe. Not one person stirred.”

For Messiaen, the Quartet for the End of Time was not really about a dramatic and awful end, nor was it about the war, or prison life. Instead he saw it as a song without words, written to God. It recounted, in quiet and dramatic ways, the triumph of beauty and truth – what was eternal and outside of time - with the help of the ordinary, powerless prisoners trapped in a quagmire of extraordinarily terrible circumstances. The piece was not only difficult to play and impressive in scope; it was also thought- provoking and a compelling spiritual response to the ugliness, destruction, and evil that pervaded the camp. It was a window into eternity, “the harmonious silence of heaven.” It was not a window into bitterness, anger, or resignation to the darkness.

The Quartet was an unexpected gift, a beautiful bird in flight. Given all that Messiaen suffered through and saw in the war and the camp, one senses from his music that he did not lament his lot in life, or ask God why he was stuck in such a desolate hellhole. He instead whispered to God: “At the end of all days, I want to be with you, you whom I love. I am not able to walk this difficult path alone.” Messiaen presented a wellspring of hope, faith, and love when he could have composed something utterly different. He created something so thoughtful, delicate, and lovely - almost the opposite of a response to catastrophe. After listening to the eight movements, one cannot help but shed tears. One can easily see how the piece left prisoners and guards at a loss for words. 

January 15 is the anniversary of the Quartet for the End of Time performance in Stalag VIII A. For many years, to mark that event, Germans and Poles have descended into a museum and concert hall, next to the remains of the old prisoner-of-war camp, to quietly listen to a performance of this remarkable, moving piece of music by a deeply religious Catholic French composer and former prisoner of war, Olivier Messiaen.

After his release from the camp, Messiaen returned to Paris. He died in 1992.