World premières can sometimes have rather unusual settings. But would you believe a prisoner-of-war camp?

Seventy years ago, when the Second World War was at the height of its fury, a strange thing happened on a freezing cold winter night at a German POW camp in Stalag 8a in Görlitz, Silesia (today Zgorzelec, Poland). A quartet was played for the first time ever, on 15 January 1941, to a rapt audience of about four hundred fellow prisoners and prison guards.

The composer? Fellow prisoner and Frenchman Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992).

Shortly after his capture at Verdun, while in transit to the POW camp, Messiaen met another prisoner, Algerian-born Jew Henri Akoka, a clarinettist, who somehow had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen immediately began to write a work for him, as he was the only person there with an instrument at the time. The solo work (Abîme des oiseaux) gradually evolved into the third movement of what he would later call le Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time).

Akoka practised in an open field, with another prisoner Étienne Pasquier (a cellist who would later be one of the performers at the première) holding up his music as an impromptu music stand.

Akoka protested bitterly about the technical difficulty of the work. “You’ll manage” was Messiaen’s reply every time.

The discovery of a violinist Jean le Boulaire also among the ranks of prisoners now meant that Messiaen had a trio to write for. With himself at the piano, he had a quartet! A motley crew of instruments, but it would have to do.

The composition of the work was helped by the fact that one of the guards, Karl-Albert Brüll, loved music. As soon as he realised that a composer of the stature of Messiaen was one of his “guests”, he had him well-stocked with pencils, erasers, and notepaper. He was interned in an empty barrack so that he could work undisturbed, and a guard posted outside to discourage intruders.

Brüll more than proved his love of music. Through some sleight-of-hand, he arranged for Messiaen’s release shortly after the première. However, when he tried to meet Messiaen again after the war, the composer refused. Messiaen had a change of heart and tried to make amends, but Brüll had died by then.

The premiered piece, in eight movements, seems to have been very well-received, by Messiaen’s own account. “Never was I listened to with as much attention and comprehension”, he would later recall.

The inspiration for the work apparently came to Messiaen from a passage in the book of Revelation (Rev 10: 1-2, 5-7).

Why “End of Time”? Apart from the obvious biblical reference, it has a musical connotation as well. Messiaen had seen enough of war to want his music rhythms drummed out mechanically, repetitively, like a military drumbeat. In this work, rhythm is elastic; it expands, contracts, stops and starts. It is therefore the “end” of “time” in musical terms, a divorce of rhythm from meter.

In historical terms too, Messiaen is probably alluding to the “end of a time”, of an era, and a leap into the unknown. The war had shattered everything in its wake. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Nothing but his deep steadfast faith in God. This work is the response of a man torn asunder by the inhumanity he has witnessed, but yet who somehow still believes in a God of redemption and love. A man who does not envisage meeting that God in one dramatic encounter in the afterlife, but who sees Him in the mundane moments of daily life, in the here-and-now.

Messiaen’s obsession with birdsong is seen here as well, with the clarinet personifying a blackbird, the violin a nightingale, in places. Perhaps the bird references are a metaphor for his yearning for his own freedom.

Seventy years on, Quatuor still shows us how the human spirit can soar far higher than anything life can throw at us.