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Messiaen’s Dark Past

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.

In 1939, Messiaen was mobilized as a soldier, assigned to carry stretchers. After the French surrender in 1940, Messiaen was imprisoned at Görlitz in Silesia. There, a German sergeant took a liking to Messiaen after learning he was a composer. He gave Messiaen extra rations of bread to eat and allowed him to write undisturbed in the afternoon. The product of these afternoon sessions was the Quartet for the End of Time, which the other prisoners were even commanded to stand and listen to when it was first performed in the camp.

Insofar as Nazi officers made the work materially possible to compose, and incited Messiaen to write it, his Quartet was a Nazi commission. Messiaen himself never explicitly denied this, stating decades later in an interview, “As Germans always admire music, wherever it may be found, not only did they leave me my scores, but an officer gave me pencils, erasers, and music paper.” In the 1960’s, he went so far as to object when an American recording was published with a cover design of a swastika torn into pieces: “This hideous and stupid drawing is the complete opposite of what I intended to do!”

All of the books mentioned above are huge improvements over earlier hagiographies of Messaien. The composer is frankly overdue for a clear-eyed estimation of his co-relationship with the Nazis and his anti-Semitic statements, such as this one, made to the interviewer Claude Samuel in 1987:

What I am going to say is horrible, but the Jews as a people committed a deicide. No doubt they didn’t know what they were doing . . . but finally they did pronounce that terrible sentence “May his blood fall on us and our children.”

Someone close enough to observe at first hand Messiaen’s relations with the Nazis, and a figure generally ignored in Messiaen literature, was his former student and eventual colleague at the Paris Conservatory, Odette Gartenlaub. I interviewed Gartenlaub in the early 90’s about her relationship with the composer and her Vichy-era vicissitudes as part of a research project about French music. So stay tuned for the follow-up to this post, which will be drawn from that interview.


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