Little Kindnesses and Courageous Acts

CW: WWII atrocities in Europe, many committed against Jews

I read a book last week.

This is not unusual for the vast majority of you reading this, I’m sure. But as somebody who typically has an attention span of ~8000 words, pushing myself to read more books is a deliberate choice that I have to make to forgo longform essays. It makes sense, then, that the book I not only read, but bought essentially on sight at a bookstore, is about something fundamentally important to me.

The first time I heard the seventh and eighth movements of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, I was fifteen years old. It was an assigned listening excerpt for my music history class, and I was holed up in the music library, catching up on listening assignments. (Back in the olden days, of course, without the wealth of streaming media we have today, listening to a particular work of music required going to a specific place.) I don’t recall what exactly I was listening to before this, but I was not a fan and was itching to get my listening over with so I could go back to playing some RPG on the school computers.

And then it hit.

I was already contemplating switching my major from performance to composition, and the Quartet spoke directly to the kind of musical language I thought was missing from so much of what we had covered in music history to that point. My own compositional philosophy is decidedly secondary here, but this work, more than any other external work, pushed me to more aggressively pursue composition, and before I realized years later that it wasn’t my life’s work, I wrote a choral piece setting a mirrored, but similar, passage in Revelation as the one that Messiaen based the Quartet upon.
Just from a musical perspective alone, I think it’s worth a listen for anybody who fancies themselves a lover of Western art music. (It’s one of the three classical pieces I’ve listened to more than any other.) But its significance is perhaps understated by a discussion solely of its musical merits (the modes of limited transposition, the ideas behind creating and breaking rhythmic symmetry) because such a discussion ignores the circumstances in which it was created.
The Quartet for the End of Time was composed and premiered in a prisoner-of-war camp in present-day Poland in the winter of 1940-41. I remember hearing this story for the first time in class, a few days after I’d listened to the work for the first time (and then spent multiple days trying to track down a CD in my local library system that I could check out and then burn a copy of). As my music history courses served to replace my core history requirements, my understanding of injustice, resistance, and (most of all) war was ill-formed at best, and the picture that formed in my mind was of some idealized Christmas-morning concert, performed on the only instruments that the camp had to offer, found stashed in some corner, with other prisoners huddled together, moved by the flowing solos in the faint winter sunlight.
Fast forward a dozen years, and to a wildly better informed version of myself, not only about the history but the true cost of war and the dynamics of oppression, and a thin paperback on the Staff Picks wall titled “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet” was going to jump out at me no matter what.
The book itself is exhaustively researched, with direct interviews with the two (at the time) surviving premiere performers as well as Messiaen’s widow, among many others. It dispels a number of myths that Messiaen himself perpetuated about the premiere in the POW camp (for example, the ubiquitous anecdote that the cellist, Etienne Pasquier, had to make do with a three-stringed cello), and it confirms a number of other things about the Quartet and its performers. And while it is not the primary objective of the book, it gives a useful look into Stalag VIII A, the POW camp at which Messiaen was held captive, and some of the realities on the ground for all of the prisoners as well as the performers (one of whom was Jewish—I’ll get to him in a minute).
One thing jumped out at 2018-me, though, that I know 2006-me would not have picked up on. A guard at the POW camp, identified as Karl-Albert Brüll, was noted repeatedly for providing substantial aid to the four performers, including moving Messiaen off of menial chore duty so he had time to compose and making sure that Pasquier had a proper cello bought for him to play after they found out that he was a famous cellist. Here’s his general introduction in the book, the first of a series of neutral-to-positive mentions:
“A lawyer by profession, Hauptmann Karl-Albert Brüll . . . was employed as a guard. ‘Brüll was a German Nationalist, but an anti-Nazi. As early as 1940, he [stated] that Germany would lose the war.’ . . . Brüll apparently helped many other Jews in the camp, advising them not to attempt to escape, for if they were caught he said, they might risk being deported.”
Here’s a series of quotes, earlier in the same chapter, offered without any connecting comment:
“The Germans had respect for music and musicians. They loved music very deeply, and so musicians were given a relatively free ride.”
“The Germans, wanting to have a good image, delegated certain officers to look after the musicians. They set up a rehearsal hall for us and gave us instruments. . . . The Germans didn’t take instruments away; on the contrary, they gave them to us. They wanted us to arrange concerts for the German officers and for the prisoners. ‘We’re taking care of the prisoners,’ they’d say. You have no choice but to collaborate.”
“The best example of of the way the Nazis used musicians as tools of propaganda is the camp of Thereseinstadt, conceived by . . . one of the devisers of the Final Solution, as a ‘transit ghetto’ for Jews heading for the death camps. Artists were gathered in this ghetto to convince Red Cross delegations that Jews were being well treated.”
And finally, the last of the mentions of Brüll in the book:
“One more associate from Stalag VIII A sought out Messiaen’s company after the war—Hauptmann Karl-Albert Brüll. After the war, Brüll resumed his law career in Görlitz. In 1968, [a letter was written] on Brüll’s behalf asking if the composer would be available to meet him sometime in Paris. As it turned out, [that meeting] never occurred. [Another former Stalag VIII A prisoner] obtained Messiaen’s address and took Brüll to visit him. But the concierge said that Messiaen did not wish to receive them.”
The book does not focus on the motivations of rank-and-file guards and their ultimate complicity, or lack thereof, in the atrocities of the Germans before and during WWII. But perhaps to draw the distinction more clearly, I will summarize the story of clarinetist Henri Akoka, the one Jewish performer at the premiere mentioned above, after the premiere on January 15, 1941.
As per the 1929 version of the Geneva Convention, Germany agreed to send prisoners of war of African birth to warmer climates, which meant Akoka, who was born in Algeria, was sent to southern France soon after the premiere. When the prisoners were reassembled to be sent back to Stalag VIII A in April 1941, Akoka escaped by jumping from a moving train with his clarinet. He managed to make his way back to his family in Paris, where he met his mother and father briefly before illegally exiting the German-occupied portion of France to the south and reuniting with his recording orchestra in Marseilles (which he had left in 1939 to play in a military orchestra). He never saw his father again—his father, a WWI veteran theoretically exempt from anti-Semitic German laws, was arrested in December 1941 in place of Henri’s brother, who had been active in the French Resistance. Their father was gassed in 1942 at Auschwitz. The Akoka family did not learn of his actual fate until 1978, three years after Henri’s death from cancer.
It can be difficult, in the moment, to tell when the situation calls for little kindnesses or acts of courageous defiance. And truly, the benefit of hindsight is easy to ignore when faced with events, and horrors, larger than any one person.
But in light of what can be reasonably termed as “atrocities”, whether new ones in the news or familiar ones that we’ve been ignoring for years, it feels like an abdication to lean away from courage, from defiance, from acts. Acts that may not necessarily involve extralegal actions, but might be as simple as calling somebody else’s beliefs out. And whether or not you think, as I do, that war is a per se atrocity that holds very little in store other than mass suffering, there are plenty of other atrocities to go around as it is.
Some of our social constructs today (and perhaps one political party in particular) seems to be wrapped slightly tighter in these atrocities than the other is. But none of us are completely dissociated from them. And if we are serious about allyship, that allyship matters most when it is predicated on acts of defiance. (Some might argue that that is the only kind of worthwhile allyship.)
The little kindnesses are not unimportant. The book touches on the fact that Brüll treated prisoners fairly and did look after Jewish prisoners at Stalag VIII A until the end of the war in 1945.
But little kindnesses do not themselves defeat injustice or create progress. 

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