How Olivier Messiaen became part of the Vichy myth

A comprehensive review of the first week of the Aldeburgh Festival by Richard Fairman in the FT revolves around the new production of Owen Wingrave, which is described, quite correctly, as "one of Britten’s most outspoken anti-war works". Among the other works grouped with Owen Wingrave is Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen, which was given a stunning performance by the Festival's artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. In his review Richard Fairman identifies the Messiaen work as being "written in the thick of another war in 1943". Which, again, is perfectly correct; but bracketing Owen Wingrave with Visions de l'Amen can also be interpreted as implying that the Messiaen work shares some of the anti-war context of Britten's opera. Because this implication is a recurring theme in contextualising Messiaen's music, it deserves closer examination.

In a January 2012 post I asked the question Is Olivier Messiaen part of the Vichy myth? By the Vichy myth I meant the now debunked folklore that there was almost unanimous resistance among the French population to the Nazis and its puppet Vichy regime. In the post I explained how in 2008 my exploration of the Vichy path had taken me to the Île d'Yeu where the Vichy leader Marshal Pétain was imprisoned and died, and how the rather equivocal account I wrote then of Olivier Messiaen's connections with the Vichy regime had stayed in my mind. That 2012 post continued to attract a steady flow of readers which recently turned into a flood. Which prompted me to revisit the question of Messiaen's relationship with the Vichy regime. Several readers responded very helpfully to my continued Messiaen musings, and the information that has come to light is worth sharing, as it is not readily available elsewhere in English.

In November 2013 the book La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation, edited by two distinguished academicss, Myriam Chimènes and Yannick Simon, was published in France, and, at the time of writing this book is not available in an English edition*. One of the chapters is a contribution by Yves Balmer and Christopher Brent Murray titled Olivier Messiaen et la reconstruction de sa carrière sous l'Occupation: Le vide de l'année 1941. The two authors are both musicologists, and their carefully researched reconstruction of Messiaen's movements in 1941 contradicts the composer's own account; which leads them to conclude he redacted history to cast himself in a more favourable political light.

There is now widespread acceptance of the version of events given in La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation. But, in fairness to Messiaen, it should be explained that there are two sides to the argument. Allegations that when Messiaen was released from the Görlitz prisoner of war camp in 1941, he accepted a post at the Paris Conservatory replacing André Bloch, a professor of harmony who had been dismissed in acquiescence to the Vichy regime's anti-Semitic laws, predate the publication of La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation by many years. But counter evidence has been produced showing that Bloch had reached retirement age, and had not been dismissed as a Jew. But, despite this lack of clarity, there is compelling evidence that Messiaen falsified his CV to read that he had been released from Görlitz in 1942, which suggests he wished to hide the André Bloch episode. This redacted version became the basis for the first generation of 'authorised' Messiaen biographies, and the redacted version remains in circulation today, as can be seen here.

My Messiaen path eventually led to Christine Jolivet Erlih; who is the daughter of the distinguished French composer André Jolivet, and the second wife of the French born violinist Devy Erlih. Messiaen and Jolivet were contemporaries, and together with Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur and Yves Baudrier they formed the influential Groupe Jeune France that came together in 1936. When I contacted Mme Jolivet Erlih she told me she attended the symposium preceeding the publication of La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation, at which contributors summarised their findings. During the symposium it was reported that Messiaen had expunged from his official biography potentially damaging details of his activities in 1941. Mme Jolivet Erlih also told me how, when researching her father's archives, she uncovered that following Messiaen's release from the Görlitz camp, he travelled directly to Vichy - the seat of the collaborationist government - before returning to Paris. This detour is not described in official biographies, and, to my knowledge, has not been shared in the public domain before this post.

From this new evidence we have to conclude that there is compelling evidence that Messiaen's extra-musical wartime activities have become part of the Vichy myth. In my original post I asked does any of this matter seventy years later? My view is these revelations do matter: because the accepted version of Messiaen's activities in the period 1941-43 is now generally accepted to be inaccurate, although there is debate as to the degree of inaccuracy. Of course the music is most important; but The Quartet for the End of Time is celebrated as much for its context as its music, and that contextualisation extends to other works of the same period, including Visions de l'Amen. Messiaen folk lore, which must now be questioned, describes the premiere of Visions de l'Amen as taking place in "a semi-secret art gallery concert in Nazi-occupied Paris"to which"neither undesirable Germans nor known collaborators were admitted". Another reason why this matters is the "dizzying vision of religious ecstasy" described in the FT review of Visiuons de l'Amen. Possible links between the Roman Catholic Church and the political right matter a lot, both in historical and contemporary contexts.

Given recent research findings, it is not unreasonable to question the quasi-pacifist contexts perpetuated in Messiaen biographies and reviews. But we must beware of sensational allegations of the 'Messiaen was a Nazi collaborator' kind. Survival was the first priority in Nazi occupied Paris, and survival inevitably demanded compromise. This post can do no more than draw attention to new research in France that demands to be made available in English, and I would welcome clarification and correction from fluent French speakers of my interpretation of complex and sensitive matters. These revelations do not detract from the stature of Messiaen's music, or from Richard Fairman's conclusion that Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich's Visions de l'Amen was the stunning highlight of the Aldeburgh Festival opening weekend. But as Christine Jolivet Erlih very wisely said in correspondence with me: "I think that it is now time to give clear information to let people know that Messiaen is among the "great personalities" who have also their own weaknesses."

* Some of the text of La musique à Paris sous l'Occupation is available on Google Books. But, as is standard Google practice, part of the Messiaen chapter is omitted to comply with copyright requirements.

** Header image is watercolour by the Vendéean painter Henry Simon. The story of my discovery of that painting is told in Aquarelle for the end of time.

*** My thanks go to Christine Jolivet Erlih for her generous co-operation. But conclusions reached in this post are mine alone.

Any copyrighted material is included for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter


Pliable said…
Review of a newly published - in India - and relevant book:
Unknown said…

You must have missed the UK publication in 2012.
Meijerr said…
The Görlitz camp surely was a Prisoner of War camp, not a concentration camp. That fact also has consequences for the contextualization of the Quatuor pour le fin du temps.
Pliable said…
Meijerr's point is perfectly correct. It was careless of me to use the folklore 'concentration camp' description of Görlitz; now corrected.
Philip Amos said…
"But, counterevidence has been produced showing that Bloch had reached retirement age, and had not been dismissed as a Jew...".

This refers, I think, to a review by musicologist Leslie Sprout of a book on French music during the War. What Sprout writes is that the Director of the Conservatoire, Claude Delvincourt, "...tried to mitigate the situation by asking Block to retire rather than firing him as Delvincourt was required to do by law."

This seems to me a touch casuistic going on weaselly. It rather seems to rest in part on an assumption that faculty at the Conservatoire had to or were expected to retire at 65, an age Bloch had passed, and an anachronistic notion. Just what Sprout means by "Bloch had reached retirement age by that time...", I'm at a loss to know. Faure retired at 75 owing to deafness. Isidor Philipp resigned at 71 and continued to teach at other schools.

And Messiaen taught at the Conservatoire from 1941 until 1978, when he retired at 70. Bloch was removed from the Conservatoire because he was Jewish. Whether he was fired or whether, as I accept was the case, Delvincourt tried to put a prettier façade on the business of purging the school of Jews by persuading Bloch to retire seems to me of no consequence.

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