Chicagoist

From A Nazi POW Camp To The Adler Planetarium
Alexander Hough

As we told you earlier, the Adler Planetarium is moving the stargazing out to Wheaton this evening, but you’ll see more of the universe indoors at Adler’s Sky Theater, with projections of stars accompanying a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” by the Fifth House Ensemble.

Messiaen composed the bulk of “Quartet” as a prisoner in a Nazi POW camp in 1940. For the sake of full disclosure, it’s worth pointing out that Stalag VIII A wasn’t exactly Auschwitz. Not that it was Camp North Star, either, but it was notoriously staffed by folks rather lacking in their National Socialist bonafides; supposedly one guard advised Jewish French inmates not to escape because their treatment in the camp was so much better than it would be in Vichy France. The germ for “Quartet” was Messiaen’s new piece, “Abyss of the Birds,” performed by Henri Akoka in the apparently idle moments following their capture and which became the third movement. The other seven movements were written under the care of the Nazi overseers. Messiaen was relieved of his forced work so he could compose, and a guard was stationed by the door to keep him from being disturbed. The premiere in January 1941, performed by Messiaen on piano, Akoka, and two other inmates, violinist Jean le Boulaire and √Čtienne Pasquier, was listened to by prisoners and guards alike (the guards, of course, got the front row seats).

Like most of Messiaen’s music, “Quartet” is explicitly religious. The composer’s inscription on the score alludes to Revelations: “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.'” Messiaen never let down his religious fervor, playing organ for his Paris church every Sunday until he died in 1992.

His music is anything but what you’re used to hearing in church, though. While not atonal, Messiaen’s work is highly dissonant, underscoring his glorification of all of God’s creation, although he still saw divine magic in the major triad. Messiaen’s wide-open musical language applied to rhythm, too, a reaction against the march of war that had been a near constant presence in Europe since his birth in 1908. Hearing this music while watching the cosmos swirl about in a beautiful form given by nature rather than man will be particularly appropriate.

Tonight’s performance begins at 7:00 p.m., but arrive at 6:00 p.m. to hear some speakers and drink from a cash bar. And in the meantime, check out Gil Shaham, Paul Meyer, Jian Wang, and Myung-Whun Chung play the piece (you’ll have to cycle through the remaining movements).

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Fifth House Ensemble

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