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Messiaen’s Dark Past, II

After the German invasion of France in 1940, a so-called “renewal” began at the Paris Conservatory with the firing of all Jewish teachers. Among the five professors eliminated were the eminent piano teacher Lazare Lévy and the harmony professor André Bloch. Messiaen, returning early and in good health from the prison camp at Görlitz, was handed the job of teaching Bloch’s harmony class.

Odette Gartenlaub (b. 1922), the noted pianist, professor, and composer, was one of the students in Messiaen’s first class in May, 1941. (Despite her historical closeness to the composer, she has generally been ignored in the Messiaen literature.) When Bloch was fired, Gartenlaub knew that her future was imperiled because she too was Jewish. Yet she remained at the Conservatory because she enjoyed Messiaen’s unorthodox and wide-ranging lectures.

Odette’s studies with Messiaen were interrupted in the fall of 1941, when she received a letter from the Conservatory’s director, Claude Delvincourt, who had received his appointment as a reward for his right–wing political beliefs. (Gartenlaub would tell me decades later: “Delvincourt might at least have summoned me to his office to tell me this, instead of just sending a letter.”) Delvincourt cited a decree by the French Ministry of National Education stating that it was forbidden to admit or instruct any Jewish student, and explained that Odette would be removed from the student lists in a week. The prominent musicologist Jacques Chailley, then secretary general of the Conservatory, went so far as to chase after Odette during one of her last days at school, saying, “After September 30, you are no longer allowed to eat in the student cafeteria. Don’t forget!”

Odette managed to survive the German occupation of Paris, and although her Conservatory friends knew where to find her, Messiaen never wrote to her during the War. After the Americans liberated Paris, Messiaen finally sent Odette a letter dated September 1, 1944, declaring that it was now possible for her to take his course and that he’d be happy if she could resume. She felt odd about returning to the harmony class after her wartime difficulties, and did not accept the offer. On December 30, 1944 Messiaen wrote to Odette again, announcing that he was offering a free class in composition, during which Stravinsky’s Petrushka would be analyzed. Gartenlaub still refused to become one of Messiaen’s regular students.

Gartenlaub told me that during the War, “Messiaen had my address; he just didn’t want to compromise himself.” She added: “After the War when I returned, all the Conservatory people were very friendly and pleasant again, but these were the same people who ignored me after I’d been thrown out. I might have wound up in a crematory oven.” Fortunately, unlike Messaien’s previous hagiographers, his new biographers show an interest in examining the composer’s political commitments and motivations during and after the war years.


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