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.