Review: For the End of Time

By now, it should be abundantly clear to everyone who knows me that I am hopeless Messiaen trash. So when I stumbled on Rebecca Rischin’s For the End of Time, an account of the composition and première of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time), I knew I had to read it. It showed up under the tree for Christmas (thanks Mom and Dad!), I cracked it open eagerly, and . . . it was a very uneven ride.

The most (in)famous première of the twentieth century is unquestionably that of the Rite of Spring, but the première of Messiaen’s quartet is a minor icon in its own right. Captured by German soldiers while serving in World War II, Messiaen wrote the work in the prisoner of war camp Stalag VIII-A, and gave the première in the bitterly cold January of 1941 to a crowd of fellow prisoners. Because he had to use the instruments available to him, the work is scored for an unusual combination of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, and is inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelation that describes an angel who announces the end of Time as part of the apocalypse. Cheerful stuff.

Rischin pieces her account together primarily thru a set of extensive interviews she conducted with the musicians who premiered the quartet or, in the case of those who had already died, their surviving family members. Surprisingly, despite the work’s fame, this was the first time that anyone had actually approached some of these people to inquire about the circumstances of its creation and first performance, and the book’s greatest value is the long excerpts that Rischin includes. In the process, she uncovers some intriguing wrinkles in the story as it’s commonly told — for one thing, Messiaen had started writing at least one of the movements before being sent to Stalag VIII-A at all, and his repeated claim that the cello used for the première only had three strings is apparently an outright lie: the cello had four fully functional strings, and Messiaen persisted in claiming otherwise just to emphasize the less-than-ideal-ness of the conditions they were working under. (It also may have grown out of a good-natured inside-joke jab at the cellist, Etienne Pasquier.)

But this strength is also a weakness: There are many passages where the book feels less like a coherent narrative than a catalogue of transcripts stitched together with light connective prose. For all that the book is covering a seminal piece of music written in a prisoner of war camp in World War Two, the pace is supremely relaxed, seemingly unconcerned with the high stakes of the conflict unfolding in the background.

Indeed, in many ways the war seems like an afterthought, mentioned because it was factually necessary to get all the key players in the same place, but not particularly pertinent or interesting in its own right. Unsurprisingly, this causes problems. Consider the case of Karl-Albert Brüll. Brüll was a guard in the camp, and at numerous points he helped the quartet come into existence — sneaking in staff paper for Messiaen to write in, organizing expeditions to buy string instruments, and other things of that nature. Later, with stamps made from raw potatoes, he would help forge documents to secure an early release for Messiaen and Pasquier, as well as several other prisoners. One prisoner describes Brüll as “a German Nationalist, but an anti-Nazi” (p 29), and it sounds like he may have tried to shield some of the Jewish prisoners from the brunt of the Nazi occupation. Nevertheless, he was a guard in a camp that executed people for stealing food, deliberately withheld medical care from dying prisoners, and fed more than 1,500 eastern European Jewish captives into the death camps less than a month after the quartet’s première.

I don’t know how complicit Brüll was in all of this. It’s possible he was doing everything he thought he could without risking his own life (and being replaced by someone actually dedicated to the Nazi cause), watching helplessly from the sidelines as the horrors unfolded. It’s also possible that he helped carry them out. Rischin doesn’t tell us much, one way or the other, since these are questions that don’t directly touch on the four musicians or the quartet they brought to life. Brüll helped them, and for this, Rischin writes, since “the Angel of the Apocalypse inspired Messiaen to compose, Monsieur Brüll could be said to be the angel’s emissary” (p 29). I am very uncomfortable with this description. Brüll undoubtedly provided material support that helped the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps come to be. That doesn’t mean he was sent from God Himself. Brüll may have been an “anti-Nazi”, but he still worked as a guard in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, and that’s not something that can be so lightly tossed aside.

This is emblematic of a larger trend in Rischin’s writing: She is very deferential to the musicians at the core of her story, and especially to Olivier Messiaen, whose treatment at her hands often feels more like hero worship than biography. Henri Akoka, the clarinetist in the quartet’s première, was Jewish, and from the day he was captured, he was already planning his escape. Messiaen, believing that everything was unfolding according to his Catholic God’s plan and that they were thus meant to be in the prison camp, urged Akoka to abandon such plans and merely wait. Rischin is almost certainly right in attributing such advice to not only Messiaen’s religious convictions and his desire to be “apolitical” and “[transcend] his experience in Stalag VIII A by transfiguring it into exalted musical language — the Quartet for the End of Time — rather than by confronting its everyday realities” (p 121), but that isn’t quite the defense Rischin seems to think it is. Messiaen didn’t know about the unfolding Holocaust in 1941, but we certainly do, and that should probably color our feelings about advising a Jewish prisoner to wait patiently in Nazi captivity. For Rischin, it doesn’t seem to. (Henri Akoka was ultimately successful in escaping Nazi clutches, at one point jumping off a moving train with his clarinet still tucked under his arm after volunteering to be the person shot if anyone in his train car escaped. I would probably watch an action movie about his life.)

Despite these misgivings and shortcomings, the book has some searingly powerful passages. Towards the end, Rischin delves into her interview with the violinist Jean Le Boulaire (who after the war became an actor and took the name Jean Lanier) and his memories of the war. For the most part, Rischin lets the violinist speak for himself with little commentary, and the result is heartrending, the passage that most powerfully speaks to the devastation — both physical and mental — that the war wrought. And, in addition to the interviews, the historical investigative work Rischin does is careful and thoro — this is an authoritative account of the work’s creation and première, and it’s unlikely there could ever be a version with a more compelling piecing together of the actual timeline of events and attitudes and personalities of the key players at the heart of it all. It’s just a pity she seems so hesitant to acknowledge the context of the war that was raging around them.