In July 1940, Olivier Messiaen was among the thousands of French soldiers rounded up by the Germans and transported to Stalag VIII-A. In this prisoner camp, he composed one of the most remarkable works to have come out of World War II, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Only a clarinet, a violin, a cello missing a string, and an upright piano of which the keys stuck at random were available to play the work.
With snow on the ground and rooftops, the première of the Quatuor took place on January 15, 1941 at 6 pm, in front of an audience of approximately 5,000 prisoners—farm workers, laborers, intellectuals, career soldiers, doctors, and priests.
Earlier in Phillips Music’s 75th season, musicians from “The President’s Own” US Marine Corps Band offered a chilling rendition of the Messiaen’s Quatuor. Excerpted here are the final moments, performed by SSgt Karen Johnson and SSgt Christopher Schmitt, captured on film by H. Paul Moon of Zen Violence Films. Echoing a documented account of the audience’s reaction to the 1941 première, a moment of silence followed the final notes, establishing the profundity of the work, both then and now.