“Messiaen is a full-fledged romantic. Form is nothing to him, content everything, and the kind of content he likes is the convulsive, the ecstatic, the cataclysmic, the terrifying, the unreal.”
Virgil Thomson

Photo of Olivier Messiaen wearing a purple scarf
Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen, French composer
Birth data: 10 December 1908, 23:00. Avignon, France.

There are two Sagittarian composers who stand out for me. One is Beethoven. The other is French composer Olivier Messiaen. Sagittarius is the eternal optimist, always looking to transform the hardships of life into, if not a joy, a cause for enrichment and Messiaen is no exception. In fact, he is a super-Sagittarian, with Jupiter, the ruler of that sign rising, and with Mercury, the chart ruler conjunct the sun in Sagittarius!

In many ways he exemplifies the higher manifestation of Sagittarius, with not only a love of the outdoors, but also a fascination with other cultures, a profound religious faith along with his famed ability as a brilliant teacher.

His music reflects all of these interests. He loved bird song and spent hours in nature transcribing their songs into musical notation. Many of his pieces are celebrations of bird song: “Oiseaux Exotiques” (Exotic Birds), “Reveil des oiseaux” (Dawn Chorus), “Catalogue des oiseaux” (Catalogue of Birds).

His fascination with other cultures turns around his interest in the rhythms of the Hindu musical tradition. And his religious beliefs are the inspiration for numerous pieces including his opera “St Francis of Assisi”, his choral piece “Trois petits Liturgies de la Présence Divine” (Three Little Liturgies on the Divine Presence), and “L’Apparition de l’église éternelle” (The Apparition of the Eternal Church) for organ among many others.

His musical sensibilities come from moon conjunct Neptune in Cancer and this would have led him to a traditional musical style if it wasn’t for an opposition from Uranus in Capricorn. Uranus is independent, individual and this is what opened him up to create his own unique musical language. Any composition by Messiaen can be instantly identified, so unique is his musical voice.

Looking at the fifth harmonic of his birth chart, the harmonic of the engineer or the bricoleur shows the sun conjunct moon suggesting that Messiaen was striving to integrate his masculine and feminine natures through his creative work, with a Uranus inconjunct giving his musical structures a wayward quality. This led one of his critics to declare that ‘Messiaen doesn’t compose, he juxtaposes’ and in fact in many of his pieces, section follows section with no attempt at linking.

His seventh harmonic chart shows his inspiration with the moon and Chiron in a grand trine with Mercury and Uranus. He could never have been a traditionalist with this set up. However, with the birth time we have for him of 23:00 hours, we shouldn’t rely too much on the position of the moon. The placement of Chiron however suggests that composing for him was a process of self-healing.

Then at the eleventh harmonic there is a conjunction of the sun and Venus. I call the eleventh the Sufi harmonic, the yearning for the divine. The scales and the melodies he generates from them are an attempt to emulate this yearning.

Messiaen was born into a literary family. His mother was a surrealist poet and his father was a teacher of English who translated Shakespeare into French. But I want to skip forward to the 1940’s, around the second world war and two pieces in particular which stand out among his best-loved.

He was drafted into the French army where he served as a medical orderly. He was captured at Verdun in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-B, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). During his internment he was lucky to have the help of a sympathetic guard, Carl-Albert Brüll, who provided him with music paper and pencils and also the presence of three other professional musicians, a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist. The result was a piece called “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (Quartet for the End of Time) using these three instrumentalists plus Messiaen himself on piano. This piece was premiered in the camp on 15th January 1941, in what we imagine must have been freezing cold conditions.

The title of the piece has two meanings. The end of time refers to a quote from the Book of Revelations in the New Testament where the angel declares ‘that there should be time no longer’ (Revelation 10:6). It also refers to the end of musical time. Time is no longer divided into regular rhythms. Sometimes it is symmetrical, rhythms are non-retrogradable as Messiaen puts it (meaning they sound the same played forwards or backwards). Sometimes the passage of time slows to a crawl so that we lose any sense of its passing.

The movements reflect Messiaen’s devotion to the Christian faith with ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ (Praise to the Eternity of Jesus) and ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ (Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets) as well as his interest in birds with ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ (Abyss of Birds).

Quartet for the end of time (Quatuor pour la fin du temps) by Olivier Messiaen
Premiere: 15 January 1941, 17:00 (estimated). Stalag VIII B, Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland)
Mercury 27 Capricorn 51
opposite Chiron 28 Cancer 39
trine Neptune 27 Virgo 37 and Chariklo 29 Virgo 57

We have the date of the first performance in the POW camp and I’ve chosen for the chart an arbitrary time of 5pm – the end of the working day, and before nightfall. Mercury in Capricorn is in an exact trine with Neptune in Virgo which is backed by a conjunction with the centaur Chariklo. Mercury is also exactly opposite Chiron in Cancer.

It is almost impossible to imagine the depth of communication that Messiaen’s music reached on that freezing night, the bond of communion that it generated, what it must have meant to the people, guards and inmates, in the audience.

“Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” Messiaen is reported to have said later.

Mercury trine to Neptune in Virgo speaks with a transcendental, timeless voice, for Neptunian time is eternal. Neptune is also backed by the centaur, Chariklo, Chiron’s wife, the selfless nurse,  concerned only with the wellbeing of her crippled husband, representing the necessity to find transcendence through the endurance of intolerable circumstances. And then Chiron opposite Mercury, finding healing in the most horrendous of circumstances.

An exquisite performance here: with Antje Weithaas, Violin / Sol Gabetta, Cello / Sabine Meyer, Clarinet / Bertrand, Chamayou, Piano.

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Later that year Messiaen was released and returned to Paris thanks to the intervention of his former teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, Marcel Dupré. He returned to his wife, Claire Delbos and a job at the conservatoire. But his wife’s health had begun to deteriorate and when a routine operation went wrong, she developed total amnesia and remained institutionalised for the rest of her life.

Meanwhile, Messiaen had fallen in love with one of his students, a brilliant pianist, Yvonne Loriod. The intensity of Messiaen’s passion for her must have been profound given his Mars conjunct Venus in Scorpio but as a devout Catholic and a married man, he could only express his love for her in music. Scorpio not only has a reputation for passion, it also has an uncanny ability to freeze feelings. In Messiaen’s case, the enforced celibacy was transformed into a cycle of pieces inspired by the myth of Tristan and Isolde – where love and death are intertwined and achieve an apotheosis, a revelation of the divine.

The best-known piece in Messiaen’s Tristan cycle is the Turangalîla Symphony, a piece for orchestra in ten movements, with a wickedly difficult solo part for piano (played by Loriod at the premiere) and a part for an early electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot (played by Loriod’s sister, Jeanne).

Messiaen describes the piece as “a love song, a hymn to joy; love that is fatal, irresistible, transcending everything, suppressing everything outside; joy that is superhuman, overwhelming, blinding, unlimited.”

Turangalîla Symphony, by Olivier Messiaen
Premiere: 2 December 1949, 20:00 (estimated). Boston, Massachusetts
Pholus 26 Capricorn 46
conjunct Venus 27 Capricorn 07
Chariklo 09 Sagittarius 40
conjunct Sun 10 Sagittarius 32
Nessus 11 Taurus 18
conjunct moon 11 Taurus 41

 

When we look at the chart of the premiere that took place in Boston, MA, conducted by Leonard Bernstein we can see the influence of three centaurs taking the piece to another, mythological level. We can see Chariklo, exactly conjunct the sun in expansive Sagittarius, having transformed the suffering of years into a transcendent vision; Nessus the seducer, exactly conjunct the moon in sensual Taurus; and Pholus the intoxicator in Capricorn conjunct Venus and Jupiter.

It is this Jupiter-Venus conjunction that gives Turangalîla its special quality. Jupiter acts as an amplifier, it boosts the energy of whatever planet it contacts, in this case it’s Venus, the planet of love. Love becomes expansive, all-consuming, the yearning for transcendental perfection, the realization of an ideal as befits Capricorn. And when Pholus is added to this already powerful mix, we have the narrative of mystical love, divine intoxication, edging on debauchery.

In Greek mythology, Pholus was the guardian of the sacred legacy of the centaurs, a flask of wine which had been gifted by the god Dionysus, the god of sensuality and abandon. When the flask was opened by Hercules, its fumes spread outside Pholus’ cave leading to a riot of crazed centaurs in which many of them, including Pholus himself, were killed by Hercules’ poisoned arrows.

Messiaen’s innate surrealism is allowed full reign in this piece (his mother was a surrealist poet). Movements have evocative names, ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ (Joy of the Blood of the Stars) being the most memorable, and ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ (Garden of the Sleep of Love). The three Turangalîla movements generate a weird, hallucinatory atmosphere, the feeling of a liminal world between sleep and waking.

The symphony is a riot of musical colour with chthonic browns and purples from the brass, sparkling ritualistic percussion and the otherworldly neon swooping and keening of the Ondes. In fact, Messiaen was a synaesthete, he saw colours when he heard sounds and he wrote these colours into his music. (Note to self to check out the connection between synaesthesia and the 15th harmonic.)

Reactions to the piece have been various. Composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez, one of Messiaen’s star pupils described Turangalîla as ‘brothel music’ (musique de bordel). American composer and journalist Virgil Thomson said it was ‘straight from the Hollywood corn fields’. The symphony also has the effect of inspiring journalists and other writers to search their word-horde for the most exuberant language in an effort to communicate the ethos of this musical extravaganza.

While snobs and purists may take offence the orgiastic excess of this piece, it continues to delight concert-goers and is a fantastic experience if you can get to hear it live.

Turangalîla Symphony, performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, Yuja Wang – piano solo, Cynthia Millar – Ondes Martenot.

Ben Belinsky

May 2021

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