after visiting the POW camp where Messiaen and his quartet premiered his 'Quartet for the End of Time.'
In December of 2015, I traveled to Europe with my husband Nico to visit the site of the prisoner of war camp where Messiaen was held during World War II. I wanted to see what Messiaen saw as he was composing the Quartet For the End of Time, a piece that has held me captive since I first came across it in 2013.
It’s hard to capture what it’s like, visiting a place like Stalag VIII A in Poland, on a cold day in December. We spent two days there. That first night, after we toured the camp at sunset, I wanted to record my observations in real time. I asked Nico to interview me about my first impressions:
N: What was the goal of the trip to the camp?
F: I just needed to go; I needed to be at the camp, because that’s part of my research. I had to be there.
N: Was it like you expected, or was it different?
F: It was exactly what I expected. Every time I did research on Messiaen, I pictured him at a desk, writing the quartet and looking out at a forest. For some reason, being there today, I felt like I saw what he saw.
N: Will that change the way you approach the piece when you play it?
F: It all has an impact on how I play, because there’s no way it can’t. I’m just glad to be here.
N: Do you have other impressions of this place and how it’s different now?
F: It’s incredibly beautiful, which is what I think is interesting. So much of this piece is about the horror of war, and it’s strange to think about the atrocities of war occurring in such a beautiful place. It’s weird. Today was so still. And beautiful. It’s hard to think about there being a prisoner of war camp [here], especially because there are basically just remnants of it. The only thing that I can feel that I know is similar to maybe what Messiaen and the other prisoners felt is the cold. The temperature. That’s something that you can feel; it can be a shared experience. But it was really beautiful.
N: You think it’s kind of surreal? Is the contrast between nature and the human aspect--does that make it surreal?
F: Yeah, because in some ways it points to the fact that war is surreal. And it’s...how do I explain it? It’s an atrocity. It can happen in any circumstance and position itself within our reality and completely alter it. So war occurred in this beautiful setting. It rips a hole in reality, right? Like a wound.
N: And in this piece you use a lot of direct references to nature, to birds--and also to greater things, like his religion. Did you feel that in this place? Did you feel that he took that from the place?
F: I think being there makes it easier to grasp why he uses these symbols. They were part of his life before he even came to the camp. It makes sense that, in the horror and reality of war, you would hold those symbols that give you comfort even closer. So, I think a lot of what I experienced and realized today, comes as no surprise. I think when you’re doing research like I was doing in grad school, you read about circumstances, and you start painting a picture in your head of what you expect.
Because there’s so many symbols you read about--about being at a prisoner of war camp, in the cold of Silesian Germany. The weight of the war on everybody. And it’s difficult to understand. And so to go to the place--it gives it a new sort of reality for me. It does make clear something about Messiaen: that idea of sort of looking out beyond the immediate circumstances. That he could see something beyond. Just as, within the Book of Revelations, he saw something beyond the cataclysms, in the horror of war, just looking out the window he saw maybe beyond it, to bird songs and to nature. For me it really cemented what I already knew about Messiaen, which is that he was profoundly religious, and that he was an academic. And that these are the things that carried him through unbelievably horrible circumstances.
N: Since the camp doesn’t exist any more, they built this museum, to remember, to educate people. To maintain the memory. Is the piece the same thing? Is it something to represent what happened? To educate? Do you see it the same way? Is it the right way of approaching both what they did in the place and in the piece?
F: What music can do and what it does is it can serve as a sort of museographic marker of time. It’s almost like a compass. It can go in all kinds of directions. It’s a...time compass. It doesn’t have a purpose. But it allows us to give it a purpose. And so I think that for me personally, working with this piece and doing the research, and performing it and creating an installation about it, it’s almost like a marker for my life too, and a time that I’m in. I’m grateful that this piece found me. It gave my life a sense of purpose and meaning. And since I’ve been working with it since 2013, when I first stumbled on it, I feel like my life is more meaningful.
N: What are some last impressions? Tomorrow we are going to go back. Anything you want to see there?
F: I am excited to go back tomorrow because we’ll go in the morning. Tonight we went at sunset, and tomorrow we’ll go at sunrise. And I’m excited to see the sun the way Messiaen did. He saw it rise in size. It’s sometimes just enough to view the world in a place that someone else did.
N: We are here almost at the time that the representation happened--the same time of year. So it means that the weather, the light, the duration of the day, the look of the trees, the look of the trees, all of this is very similar.
F: They are. It’s timeless, just like Messiaen would want it. I think in Anthony Pople’s book on Messiaen’s quartet, he talks about the opening movement, which is the liturgy of the crystal. In the very first analysis of the first movement, there’s a rhythmic pedal in the cello, and it’s the only constant in the piece. He’s using non-retrogradable rhythms. Over top of the cello, over the rhythmic pedal, is bird calls. And so it is between the violin and the clarinet and the piano also. He talks about the consistency, the constant pedaling of the cello. It’s almost like insects preserved in amber. They’re just frozen there. Timeless. Beautiful things, just preserved. So it’s a moment that’s been preserved. Since we’re visiting at the same time, 75 years later, in the same season, it’s like these moments are preserved for everyone to hold. And that’s exciting.
N: Finally, do you think it would be important for you at some point to play the piece there?
F: I was actually thinking that today. I don’t know that it is important, actually, to play the piece there. I think in some ways for me, that what was significant was to just be there. And to be there with a couple years of research behind me, and a couple years of very intense experiences that have, for me foundationally as a creative, changed everything and made my path as a creative and a researcher and a musician and someone who cares about the community--that’s what matters. So it just felt really good to be there today. I think that’s enough. It would be nice to play the piece in the same place where it was premiered, but to me to premiere it in San Jose, with all of us being a part of it, it’s maybe more meaningful. It’s really good to be here today.
released November 10, 2016
Interview conducted by Nicolas Hadacek
Cello accompaniment by Cellista
Cellista's penchant for performing music in unconventional spaces, and her devotion to collaborating with artists across mediums has led her to create unique performances that incorporate elements of classical music, improvisation, and visual art.