“Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered World War II. He was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). … after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard (Carl-Albert Brüll, 1902-1989), Messiaen wrote … [The] quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on 15 January 1941.
The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” Brüll provided paper and isolation for composing, and he also helped acquire … instruments. By forging papers with a stamp made from a potato, Brüll even helped the performers to be liberated shortly after the performance….
Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, KJV): “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….”
–excerpted from Wikipedia entry, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps”