I’m writing this after attending the high school Remembrance Day assembly this morning where my daughter was singing in the choir. The school created a poignant and meaningful tribute that caused students to reflect on the privileges they have as middle class Canadians. The musical selections were moving and contemplative. As a teacher and as a performer, I have been involved in many musical acts of remembrance. Music allows us to grieve, to remember, to pay tribute and to build community. About twenty years ago I first learned about the French 20th century composer, Olivier Messiaen when I was studying for a music history exam. His ‘story’ left an imprint on my heart, and has caused me to reflect on the power and purpose of music, especially at this time of year.
Messiaen was a teacher, composer and pianist who was conscripted into French army during WWII as a nurse. When France ‘fell’ he was captured and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp from 1940 to 1942. During this time he continued to compose, and he formed friendships with fellow musicians at the camp, despite the dismal conditions. Quartet for the End of Time, arguably his most famous composition, was written while he was a prisoner. It is an eight movement work for chamber ensemble; piano, violin, cello and clarinet. Messiaen chose these instruments, because they were those of his fellow musician prisoners, and were all that were available under the circumstances. The work was first performed in January 1941 to an audience of prisoners and guards amidst freezing and desperate conditions inside the walls of the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany.
The title implies that this is a grim apocalyptic piece, but actually he wrote it “in homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who raises his hand towards Heaven saying ‘There shall be no more time.’” (Messiaen). The composer plays with time, honours time and challenges the listener’s ideas about time. To me this says that hope and joy reside in a place beyond our limited concept of linear time, and that faith and connection to source are always possible because they don’t depend on time or circumstances. The seventh movement called “Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time” is for me the most moving. Messiaen describes through music that the Angel appears in full force covered in rainbow (which symbolizes peace) to usher in an era where time is no longer constraining us. I’ve included a link to this movement below. It is full of colour, movement, fervor and discomfort. It runs about 8 minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wx3zJJJsKd8.
This seems to me to be the essence of what Remembrance Day is all about. I only can imagine the broken human beings in that POW camp hearing Messiaen’s music. No doubt they thought it was strange and unconventional, as many modern-day listeners still do, but undoubtedly it created hope for what was possible, even though… Messiaen transcended his limiting circumstances to find hope, peace and joy within himself and then expressed this in his music, creating a space of hope, peace and joy for the listener. And I think that’s what Remembrance Day calls us all to do – create a space of hope, peace and joy within ourselves, and hold that space for others, even though our life circumstances may be difficult.