Is Olivier Messiaen part of the Vichy myth?
The relationship betwen music and totalitarian regimes is a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path and the collaborationist Vichy regime in France has featured in a number of these paths. Until recently what had really happened in Vichy France during the Second World War was obscured by assiduously cultivated folklore. Central to this is the myth that the entire population of France was opposed to the Nazis and that everyone was an active member of the resistance. Only in recent years has the truth been uncovered about les années noires, a truth that includes the Vichy policy of deporting Jews to deathcamps without Nazi coercion.
After the Franco-German armistice in 1940 the 84 year old Marshal Pétain became Chief of State of Vichy France and presided over a regime that had a strong following in the Catholic Church. In August 1945 Pétain was found guilty of treason, and was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of his age and First World War record. He served his life sentence imprisoned on the Île d'Yeu off the Atlantic coast of France, dying there in 1951, aged 95. In 2008 my exploration of the Vichy path took me to the Île d'Yeu and the rather equivocal account I wrote then of Olivier Messiaen's connections with the Vichy regime has stayed in my mind. That is Messiaen in the photo above and my words about him are repeated below:
When France fell to the Germans in May 1940 captured French troops were sent to detention camps. Among them was the composer Olivier Messiaen, who was born on 10th December 1908 in Avignon. Messiaen was held first in a transit camp in France, then in Stalag VIII-A, near Dresden in Germany, where his Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time) was famously given its first performance in January 1941. But, later that year Messiaen, as a soldier of the defeated French army rather than a designated 'undesirable', was released. He returned to Nazi occupied Paris where he became profesor of harmony at the Conservatoire. Messiaen, who was a devout Catholic, actually worked for the cultural arm of the Vichy government for several months. He composed a patriotic cantata for schoolchildren on the theme of Joan of Arc, the score of which is lost. Messiaen's diaries make no mention of the liberation of Paris by Allied troops in August 1944, despite the fact that he was living in the city.Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a masterpiece irrespective of its context. But there is no doubt that the Quartet's concentration camp context has helped its popularity. Which is why the context of other works composed by Messiaen in the period between his appointment as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire in autumn 1941 and the liberation of Paris by the Allies in August 1944 is also important. Among the works Messiaen composed in this period are Visions de l'Amen, Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine and Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus.
Even before Messiaen started teaching in Paris two Vichy anti-Jewish statutes had been enacted which impacted directly on the Conservatoire. (Vichy law applied in Paris and the occupied north while giving precedence to German law). Among other measures the Vichy statutes banned Jews from influential professions including teaching, the media, broadcasting and the arts, and limited Jews to comprising no more than two percent of other public service professions and three percent of students in higher education. The arrest and deportation of Jews by the French police was a regular occurence in the years 1942 and 1943. In Paris in one day alone, July 17 1942, a sweep by 4,500 French police arrested 12,884 foreign Jews, including women and children as young as three, and held them for several days in a stadium in the city before deportation.
In 1943 deportations spread to include French Jews and the Vichy government handed over the Jewish former prime minister Léon Blum to the Germans. On June 28 1944 there were massacres of Jews in a number of French cities following the assassination of the Vichy propoganda minister in Paris. In total 75,721 Jews were deported from France in the Second World War, the majority were sent to Auschwitz and less than 2,000 survived.
These were hardly events that would go unnoticed in the Conservatoire and elsewhere in Paris. Which raises the question, have the Messiaen biographies been influenced by the Vichy myth? Respected Messiaen biographer Nigel Simeone thinks not and supplies robust evidence that the composer was "distanced" and "disinterested" from politics. But until recently the Vichy myth told us that everyone in wartime France was distanced and disinterested from politics. Messiaen certainly mixed with collaborators and Nigel Simeone confirms that Messiaen's publisher René Dommange was a supporter of the Vichy regime, while other sources report Dommange as actively collaborating with the Nazis.
Was a degree of acquiescence inevitable in occupied France? (Pierre Boulez and others were also active in Paris during the German occupation). Did Messiaen have little choice but to keep his head down at the Conservatory and refine his fortuitous mix of spiritual orthodoxy and technical innovation? Does a composer's music exist in isolation from its context? Was Pablo Casals right when he said a musician's attitude to life is more important than music? Does any of this matter seventy years later? Important questions that are very difficult to answer and I have a feeling we have not reached the end of this path. Meanwhile, I am on the road with Messiaen here and in search of his birthplace here.
* Sources include Memory, the Holocaust and French Justice edited by Richard J. Golsan (ISBN 0874517419)
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