The arts have always been a vehicle for human expression, sometimes reflecting reality or perception, sometimes provoking and antagonistic, sometimes fantastical and . . . well . . . weird. The highest calling of the arts, however, is to show us a better way, to uphold truth, virtue, and beauty. This is especially needed in times of struggle, and without question, we live in a stressful and tumultuous time.
A pandemic has separated us from loved ones, and social unrest and highly-charged politics have divided our communities. In all of our sorrows, frustrations, anger, confusion, and even feelings of helplessness, is it possible to find truth, virtue, and beauty springing up out of the ashes of our griefs? Books could be (and have been) written that explore answers to this question, but today I will simply answer, yes, it is possible — and here is just one example that inspires me.
In 1940, France fell to the German Nazi invasion. A young man serving in the medical corps of the French army, but also a church organist, composer, and devout Catholic, was held as a prisoner of war in the German military work camp, Stalag VIII-A, located in present-day Poland. While there, Olivier Messiaen composed his deeply personal Quartet for the End of Time, an eight-movement work for piano, cello, violin, and clarinet (the only instruments available at the camp).
At the time of the Quartet’s inception, it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end, certainly the world as Messiaen knew it. In this piece, we find music that is sometimes chaotic, sometimes ethereal, sometimes rapturous, but always contemplative and profoundly descriptive of Messiaen’s faith. We hear sounds of war and fear juxtaposed with sweet sounds of birdsong and confident peace.
The final movement is titled “Praise to the immortality of Jesus: extremely slow and ecstatic” and ends with a single note from the violin, sustained into nothingness as though floating its way to heaven. Messiaen’s work challenges us to engage in a vision of eternity, rising above earthly and temporal miseries.
Messiaen was released from the camp in 1941, and went on to become not only a highly prolific composer, but one of the most sought-after teachers of contemporary music composition in France until his death in 1992. He was known for his fearless and radical explorations of free meters, rhythmic complexities, and instrumental timbres.
A synesthete, Messiaen saw certain sounds and combinations of sounds as actual colors, so his works are truly paintings in sound. The ever-present birdsongs (he was a dedicated ornithologist) wend their way throughout his body of works, as does his explicit Christian faith.
Fittingly, near the site of the Stalag VIII-A camp now stands the European Center of Memory, Education, and Culture that includes Meetingpoint Music-Messiaen, which supports international youth work, music education, and the preservation of history.
My challenge to you, reader, is to seek out the truth, virtue, and beauty around you — they are there if you look — and find strength and peace in the middle of our present turmoil. I think Messiaen would join me in this charge from Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Philippians: “. . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8; ESV).
(Various excellent recordings of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time can be found online — enjoy!)
Dr. Melinda Lein is an associate professor of music at Wingate University, where she teaches voice and music history. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.