The French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) is one of modern music’s most prominent figures. Although he died in 1992, Messiaen’s CD’s are sold in the classical music section of most stores, instead of the less commercially viable contemporary music bins. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in 1940-41 for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (and dedicated to the Angel of the Apocalypse) has become particularly popular for its spirituality and accessible tonal style. There are currently seventeen versions of the Quartet in print, of which the most fervent remains the one by pianist Peter Serkin and the chamber group Tashi on RCA Victor. Likewise infused with Messiaen’s ardent Catholic piety, his Twenty Gazes at Baby Jesus (Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus) has been brilliantly recorded by Serkin on RCA and with stark conviction by the gifted Norwegian virtuoso Håkon Austbø on Naxos.
Recently Messiaen has been the subject of a flood of books, including For the End of Time: the Story of the Messiaen Quartet by Rebecca Rischin (Cornell University Press); Messiaen by Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press); and The Life of Messiaen by Christopher Dingle (Cambridge University Press). These books reveal a long-overlooked shadow on the composer’s history: his ambiguous relationship with the Nazi occupiers of his native country.