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on 10 June 2011
This book is a fine, enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of musical investigative journalism.

In 1941, inside a Nazi prison camp, the French composer Olivier Messiaen premiered his quartet "For the End of Time", playing it with three fellow French prisoners of war. It is one of the incredible stories of 20th century music.

But it seems that until the writing of this book (expanded from a doctoral thesis) little serious historical enquiry had been made into the circumstances of the quartet's composition and performance. Unbelievably, over 50 years after that famous premiere, Rebecca Rischin was still apparently the first person to seek an interview with the two surviving members of the prison camp quartet.

The book is not so much an analysis of the music as a telling of its composition, the background to the premiere, and what happened to the four participants afterwards. We hear of how they variously managed to get out of prison, survived life in occupied France, and rebuilt their lives after the war was over. It includes 24 black and white plates of photos.

In telling the story Rebecca Rischin manages to distill fact from the various myths which have sprung up over the years (some of them instigated by Messiaen himself). We're left with a moving portrait of four musicians brought together by force of circumstances; of a harrowing existence in wartime France and in a Nazi prison; and of a seminal, deeply religious, musical work which, in the midst of all this, speaks of eternity. Apocalyptic music written in apocalyptic times.
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It was January 15, 1941, in the midst of a very bloody World War, and a very cold winter. In Gorlitz, Silesia, Germany, the temperature routinely dipped below -22 degrees Fahrenheit. In Stalag VIII A, something without precedent was happening: Olivier Messiaen, a renowned French composer and prisoner of war, was premiering his newest work, a chamber piece destined to be considered one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time, written - of course with the help of a couple of sympathetic German officers, the composer had even to be given pencil and paper, after all -- while he was a prisoner of war at that stalag.

I must first issue a disclaimer. I own this quartet,Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time. I also own Messiaen's "Catalog d'oiseaux," ("Catalog of Birds," the composer loved birds) and [ASIN:B0007RA7BS Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony - Quatour pour la fin du temps (GEMINI)]]. I listen to them, and I love them. They are modernist, and I don't understand them. In fact, though I own, listen to, and love quite a bit of recorded classical music, I don't understand much of it. The piano teacher of my teenage years, Roz Strumpf, made Herculean efforts to teach me music theory: I clearly remember poring over the score of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony with her. But I found it so much easier and more fun to understand rock and roll at that time. SO: don't expect a technical discussion of this work of art, in eight movements, lasting nearly an hour, from me. Rebecca Rischin, a professor of music at Ohio university, and a talented musician herself, has done a great deal of research, and interviewed many people, to make this story available, largely for the first time, in this book. Thanks to her efforts, I am equipped to discuss the music's remarkable, too-little known history, as she conveys it: and only that.

The Quartet's composition and debut must rank as one of the great uplifting World War II stories: a triumph of human faith --Messiaen seems to have been born a religious Roman Catholic---and endurance in the worst of circumstances. However, before we embark on this, we must recognize that, desperate as stalag conditions were, even granting fully the multitudes of unfortunate prisoners of war that died in them; they were not the Nazi death camps. You cannot equate a stalag to Auschwitz. That being said, it's time to quote Messiaen himself:

"Conceived and composed during my captivity, the `Quartet for the End of Time' was premiered in Stalag VIIIA, on 15 January 1941. It took place in Gorlitz, in Silesia, in a dreadful cold. Stalag was buried in snow. We were 30,000 prisoners (French for the most part, with a few Poles and Belgians). The four musicians played on broken instruments: Etienne Pasquier's cello had only 3 strings; the keys of my upright piano remained lowered when depressed.... It's on this piano, with my three fellow musicians, dressed in the oddest way - I myself wearing a bottle-green suit of a Czech soldier - completely tattered, and wooden clogs large enough for the blood to circulate despite the snow underfoot... that I played my `Quartet for the End of Time,' before an audience of 5,000 people. The most diverse classes of society were mingled: farmers, factory workers, intellectuals, professional servicemen, doctors [and] priests. Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding."

To quote the author Rischin, "This was a special occasion indeed, and the camp commandant ensured that it would be remembered as such. He ordered programs to be printed listing the name of the camp, the title of the composition, the name of the composer, the date of the premiere, the names of the performers, and the camp's official stamp, 'Stalag VIIIA gepruft' [Stalag VIIIA approved]....these programs also served as invitations to the historic event."

Rischin's researches make clear that the composer began work on this quartet before his imprisonment, and that 5,000 men could not have squeezed into Barrack 27, used as the theater. Etienne Pasquier, when interviewed, insisted that his cello had the requisite four strings - he couldn't have played it otherwise, and that Messiaen had exaggerated a bit in that regard, as well. Rischin continues," Recounting the war..., the actions of a kind German officer, the miraculous premier,...Messiaen's subsequent fame, and the heavenly music that united them all in a time notorious for unimaginable barbarism, Pasquier, then 90 years old, remarked: `C'est un roman policier. Mais, c'est vrai, cette histoire.' [It's a detective novel. Only, it's a true story.] Who could say it better?
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