I'd like to christen my website with a post about Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. I think it serves as a nice curtain-raiser to my new page, as it touches on an integral, albeit small, part of the core of who I am as a musician and a person. In its own way, it explains at least one facet of what music means to me, and where my work sprung from.
The question has always been asked whether the arts, music included, are mere luxuries, non-essentials. And most people do believe that they are important solely for the purpose of entertainment or pleasure. This is a topic on which I could write endlessly about: but for now I will just start with the back story of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.
Messiaen was imprisoned in a Nazi German prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz in the winter of 1941. He discovered that among his fellow prisoners were a clarinetist, a violinist, and a cellist. Messiaen wrote the piece while imprisoned with the help of a sympathetic guard who provided him with a pencil and paper, and solitude to write in. It had its première on a cold January night in an unheated barrack. The audience, including both prisoners and German guards, listened to that performance in sub-zero temperature in absolute rapt silence. Messiaen later said, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."
There's another story about how the premiering cellist Etienne Pasquier got his cello. The prisoners donated 65 marks out of their earnings from chores for him to buy a cello, a bow, and a rosin. Imagine that! Imagine what dire circumstance these war prisoners were in, what piddly earnings they had. What essential, sensible items would one spend those pitiful few dollars on? Probably a precious loaf of bread in the midst of starvation? An extra shirt for the fatally brutal winter? Well, it's a cello!!! A cello not because it could be burned to make a fire for warmth, but so that music could be played from it! Pasquier said that when the German soldiers escorted him back to the camp from the music store, the prisoners were elated and begged him to play for hours. He said, "Oh! They cried for joy. In my whole life, I have never seen such enthusiasm. They made me play until the curfew."
Art is that barest of thread which humankind hangs on to in times of total desperation. We may be lucky to not have to endure the extent of desperation and hopelessness as Messiaen and his fellow prisoners had. But we have our modern day despair, too. And even small day-to-day setbacks and disappointments erode us at our core bit by bit - we would not survive them if it wasn't for hope. We may have the luxury, or we are simply are not aware enough, to know how hope has kept us going. Or we take it for granted. But it is indeed just as essential for our survival as it was for those prisoners.