He was an extraordinary organist, a groundbreaking composer, and a great lover of birds, this Frenchman.
At age 11 he began studying at the prestigious Conservatory of Paris.
20 years later, in 1940, he found himself a prisoner of war, captured by the Germans and detained at a camp in Poland.
His name was Olivier Messiaen.
Messiaen met with an unusual circumstance in that bleak, harsh place. One day, a German officer escorted him to a small, windowless room, and instructed him that as he was a composer, he could spend some time each day working on his music in this “office.” Messaien (pronounced, roughly, mess-ay-en) ended up composing an incredible piece of music, Quartet for the End of Time, in those extremely trying surroundings. Having learned that a clarinetist, violinist, and cellist were interred with him in the camp, Messaien wrote the quartet for these three instruments and a piano, which he would play.
In January of 1941, in that freezing, weary, despairing place, the four musicians debuted the piece of music, playing for an audience of thousands of prisoners. These ravaged prisoners listened, absorbed, to the trilling birdsongs Messaien had woven into the music, the glorious voices of angels; they heard weariness and sadness and jubilation and comfort. For an hour, they left their poverty behind through Messaien’s rich gift of music. Later in his life, he would say, “Never have I been heard with such attention and understanding.”
Jen Bryant has written a highly-accessible account of Messaien and his fascinating composition, vividly portraying the tragic circumstances of the prison camp, and the glorious birdsong which never failed to deliver such heart-lifting happiness to him. Beth Peck’s pastel illustrations convey the physical surroundings, but even more, the emotional tenor of the story — the oppressive gray of the soldier’s uniforms, and the bliss of sunshine; the solid, confining bunks and barbed wires, and the ethereal freedom of birds in flight. Great, inspiring read for kindergarten and up. Although the music is not so accessible to young children, the story is fabulous.
Here’s the Amazon link: Music for the End of Time