Composers Datebook®

A Messiaen premiere in a German prisoner of war camp

Composers Datebook for January 15, 2019


The modern French composer Olivier Messiaen played the piano part in one of the strangest premiere performances of the 20th century on today’s date in 1941. As the composer put it: “My Quartet for the End of Time was conceived and written during my captivity as a prisoner of war and received its world premiere at Stalag 8a in Görlitz, Silesia.”

One of the four performers was cellist Etienne Pasquier, who offered this recollection: “We were captured at Verdun. Our entire company was initially held in a large field near Nancy. Among our comrades was a clarinetist who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field as he was the only person there with an instrument.

And so Messiaen wrote a solo piece that was later to become the third movement of the Quartet. The clarinetist practiced in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. “You’ll manage,’ was Messiaen’s only reply.”

Pasquier reports that the performance was a great success, and led to the release of Messiaen and his three colleagues, as the Germans assumed—wrongly, it turns out—that the four musicians must have all been non-combatants.

Music Played in Today's Program

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) Quartet for the End of Time Tashi RCA/BMG 7835

On This Day


  • 1893 - English composer Ivor Novello (David Ivor Davies), in Cardiff;

  • 1909 - American composer Elie Siegmeister, in New York;

  • 1960 - American composer Aaron Jay Kernis, in Philadelphia;


  • 1775 - Italian composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini, age c. 74, in Milan;


  • 1732 - Handel: opera "Ezio" in London at the King's Theater in the Haymarket (Gregorian date: Jan. 26);

  • 1890 - Tchaikovsky: ballet, "Sleeping Beauty," at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg (Julian date: Jan. 3);

  • 1923 - Pierné: "Cydalise et le chèvre-pied," at the Paris Opéra;

  • 1924 - Prokofiev: "Chout" Symphonic Suite, Op. 21a, in Brussels, conducted by F. Ruhlmann;

  • 1941 - Messiaen: "Quartet for the End of Time," at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner of war camp in Görlitz (Silesia), with the composer at the piano and fellow-prisoners Jean Le Boulaure (violin), Henri Akoka (clarinet) and Etienne Pasquier (cello);

  • 1947 - Korngold: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, by the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Vladimir Golschmann, with Jascha Heifetz the soloist;

  • 1958 - Barber: opera "Vanessa" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Dimtri Mitropoulos conducting;

  • 1976 - Paul Chihara: "Missa Carminum" for a capella chorus, in Los Angeles;

  • 1994 - Zwilich: "Fantasy" for orchestra, by the Long Beach Symphony, JoAnn Falletta conducting;

  • 1998 - Danielpour: "Elegies," in Jacksonville, Fla., by mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and baritone Thomas Hampson, with the Jacksonville Symphony conducted by Roger Nierenberg;

  • 1998 - Christopher Rouse: "Der gerettete Alberich" (Alberich Redeemed) for percussion and orchestra, by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi, with Evelyn Glennie the percussion soloist;


  • 1785 - Likely date of the premiere performances of three of Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets (K. 387, 421, and 428), at Mozart's apartment in Vienna, with Haydn present and possibly with Mozart playing the viola.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®