100th birthday of Messiaen celebrated with a concert series

Ralph Fassey Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen composed the Quartet for the End of Time while incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp on the Polish-German border of Silesia.

Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) had an astonishing debut on the bitter, sub-zero night of Jan. 15, 1941. The venue was the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, on the Polish-German border of Silesia. The audience included about 400 prisoners and prison guards. The 32-year-old composer, a French soldier, had been captured at Verdun during the German invasion nearly a year before.

Bad luck—but maybe not. Messiaen had a special guide and a special protector, besides the divine ones he evoked in his apocalyptic Quartet. Henri Akoka, one of Messiaen's fellow prisoners, an Algerian Jew, was a bit of a wild card and an unquenchable optimist. He possessed the only musical instrument in the camp—a clarinet. He convinced Messiaen, a profound Catholic, that if God had willed Messiaen to be a prisoner, he should at least compose something for them to perform.

Messiaen's protector was Karl-Albert Brüll, a music-loving lawyer fluent in French (his mother was Belgian), who was Messiaen's guard at the stalag. Brüll had given Messiaen pencils, erasers, music paper and, above all, time and solitude to create in an empty barrack. A guard at the door turned away intruders so that the composer could create one of the musical masterpieces of the 20th century.

Stanford audiences will have a chance to experience Messiaen's ethereal and otherworldly quartet at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, in Memorial Church—the launch of Lively Arts' three-month celebration of the 100th anniversary of Messiaen's birth.

The Lively Arts centenary focuses on the life and work of the composer, including two interpretations of the seminal quartet. The first, a traditional performance on Nov. 13, features Scott St. John (violin) and Christopher Costanza (cello) of the St. Lawrence String Quartet with special guests Todd Palmer (clarinet) and Jamie Parker (piano). (Messiaen composed for this unusual combination of instruments because they were the only ones available at the stalag.) The program also features Stanford organist Robert Huw Morgan in selections from Messiaen's substantive output for this instrument, including excerpts from his last major organ work, Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984).

Prior to the performance, at 7 p.m., there will be a free pre-concert talk by author and critic Paul Griffiths, whose book Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time will be republished in paperback by Faber & Faber (London) in late November. The discussion will take place in Room 120 of Building 60.

At 8 p.m. Jan. 28, 2009, cellist Matt Haimovitz, clarinetist David Krakauer (known for his klezmer performances) and DJ Socalled present Akoka, a "Messiaen Remix." Recreating the world premiere of Quartet for the End of Time through the eyes of Akoka, Haimovitz and Krakauer explore the perspective of this Sephardic Jew performing an intensely Catholic-inspired piece for prisoners of war and German officers in a time of terror and upheaval.

At 2:30 p.m. Feb. 22, pianist Christopher Taylor will conclude the series by performing Messiaen's most significant work for solo piano, Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, a sequence of 20 meditations on the theme of the Nativity.

Reflections on the quartet

"I composed this quartet in order to escape from the snow, from the war, from captivity, and from myself," Messiaen said in a later interview. The composer found inspiration in the natural world as well as the spiritual one (he considered himself an ornithologist as much as a musician, and much of his music is based on birdsong)—but the textual jumping-off point for the quartet was the passage in St. John's Revelation where the seventh angel descends, "clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun," and announces "that there should be time no longer."

The "end of time" of the title is not purely an allusion to the Apocalypse, however, but also refers to the way in which Messiaen, through the rhythms and harmonies, used music to try to reach into eternity. Messiaen, who died in 1992, said that the quartet was not intended to be a commentary, nor to refer to his own captivity, but to be a kind of musical extension of the biblical account.

It seemed to work. "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension," Messiaen recalled of the quartet's unorthodox premiere. A few months afterward, Brüll proved again to be the musicians' guardian angel. Forging papers with a stamp made from a potato, he arranged for the freedom of some of the musicians, including Messiaen, who returned to France.

Brüll repeatedly advised other French Jewish prisoners not to escape, that they would be safer in Stalag VIIIA than in Vichy France. In the case of Akoka, he may have had a point. After Brüll finagled Akoka's exit, a guard pulled him off a truck at the last moment because of his Jewish looks. But the indefatigable Akoka felt that "a prisoner is made for escaping." After more attempts, he finally leapt to freedom from the top of a fast-moving transport train, with his clarinet under his arm. He returned to his post at the Orchestre National de la Radio, in the Free Zone of Marseilles. His sister, in a memoir, recalled, "He could make a stone laugh."

Brüll's postwar years were harder. He returned to practicing law under the new East German government, but after a 1948 insurrection was sentenced to three years of forced labor.

Messiaen publicly acknowledged his debt to Brüll, crediting him with his liberation. So no one knows why Messiaen refused to see Brüll when he came to the composer's Paris home years later. The German was very upset.

Messiaen tried to make amends later, attempting to contact Brüll several times without success, according to Messiaen's wife. If true, Messiaen may have been trying to reach a dead man; Brüll was killed by a car.

Tickets for the Nov. 13 event are $44 for adults and $22 for Stanford students. Seating is general admission. Half-price tickets are available for young people age 18 and under, and discounts are available for groups and non-Stanford students. For tickets and more information, call 725-2787 or visit online http://livelyarts.stanford.edu.