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Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie, premiered by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949, is one of the most epic symphonic works of the 20th century. An example of “world music” long before that term had currency, it combines the Tristan myth, Eastern mysticism, Hindu and Greek rhythms, Indian scales, African dance, Indonesian drumming, and Poe-inspired Gothicism, while laying out Messiaen’s lifelong signatures, including birdsong, piercing woodwind choirs, and mystical blocks of sound. Scored for a huge orchestra—including multiple percussionists, an electronic keyboard instrument, and a virtuosic piano solo—it unfolds in 10 movements, some harshly dissonant, others unabashedly sensual. It retains elements of classical form, but inaugurates a counter-tradition of stasis, repetition, and mosaic-like color patterns. The subject is love: its euphoria, terror, and link with death. Few symphonic works are more challenging, yet more viscerally thrilling.


Symphonic Extravaganza

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie is an elaborate “world music” hybrid written long before that term obtained currency. Like Berlioz’s Requiem and the eighth symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, it is massive and monumental, requiring an uncompromising commitment from players and audience. In addition to a gigantic orchestra full of exotic percussion, it includes an electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot (a relative of the theremin, which Miklós Rózsa unveiled in Hitchcock’s Spellbound), and a virtuosic piano part.

The Turangalîla-symphonie is an elaborate “world music” hybrid written long before that term obtained currency.

Unlike Messiaen’s overtly religious works, such as Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine, Turangalîla is secular and fleshy, depicting desire, death, and the extremities of love. Messiaen said that it encapsulates “a love that is fatal, irresistible, and which, as a rule, leads to death; a love which, to some extent, invokes death, for it transcends the body—even the limits of the mind—and extends on a cosmic scale.” The title, based on two Sanskrit words, is resistant to translation, but Messiaen tried anyway: “Turangalîla means all at the same time song of love, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death.”

Convoluted Mythology

Messiaen’s works often come with otherworldly titles and explications. He called the fifth movement of Turangalîla “Joy of the Blood of the Stars”; in a note that accompanied his orchestral work Des canyons aux étoiles, he stated that the canyons in Utah were “landscapes like those we’ll probably see after death, if we then have the chance to visit other planets.” It is easy to make fun of such commentary, and the convoluted specificity of Messiaen’s visionary musings has not helped his cause among intellectuals. The music, however, makes us believe it all, at least while we’re listening. In any case, Messiaen’s dazzling color and near painful ecstasy cannot be bound by words, even if he (like Wagner, Scriabin, and others who were taken with their own mythologies) issues a torrent of them.

Turangalîla is sometimes fiercely dissonant, but more often euphorically lyrical. The second, fourth, and eighth movements (all depictions of amorous love) contain some of the most passionate music Messiaen ever wrote—orgiastic “explosions,” as he called them. The work has many of his signatures—birdsong (sung mainly by the piano), piercing wind sonorities, meditative blocks of sound, and a complex layering of textures—but it also has an uninhibited theatricality. It unfolds according to its own vast and eccentric scheme, renouncing classical symphonic structures, but its constantly resurfacing themes and colors make it relatively easy to absorb. The slow music, especially the sixth-movement adagio, “Garden of Love’s Sleep,” has a hypnotic sensuality; the fast sections are delirious churnings of joy and energy. The fifth and 10th movements, which break the symphony into two parts, end with a thrilling diatonic chord that rises in crescendo until it reaches the heavens. It is one of the most spine-tingling endings in 20th-century music, and we get to hear it twice.

The Turangalîla-symphonie was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Serge Koussevitzky, and was one of several major works by composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, and Bartók (including the Concerto for Orchestra, premiered by the BSO five years earlier) that would not exist were it not for this enterprising Russian maestro. Koussevitzky had an uncanny ability to smell a masterpiece in the making and was undaunted by length or personnel requirements. Because of illness, he was unable to premiere Messiaen’s symphony himself, and passed the baton to 31-year-old Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the first performance of Turangalîla in 1949. Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife-to-be, played the difficult piano part. The piece baffled some and thrilled others; it still occasions both cheers and walkouts. Koussevitzky called it “the greatest composition in our century” after Le sacre du printemps. Critics had a different view. Virgil Thomson snapped that the piece came “straight from the Hollywood cornfields,” and Rudolph Elie at the Boston Herald denounced its “appalling melodic tawdriness.”

Gustavo Dudamel
Monday, February 23 at 8 PM
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

The rapturous love music, exotic birdsong, and raucous, ecstatic dances at the heart of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie are unlike anything in music. Turangalîla is a fusion of two Sanskrit words that, according to Messiaen, mean at once “love song,” “hymn to joy,” “time,” “movement,” “rhythm,” “life,” and “death.” With classical influences that range from Debussy to Villa Lobos and Indian rhythms serving as inspiration, Messiaen’s musical language is unique. The sumptuous, beautiful music is scored for an array of percussion, the electronic ondes Martenot, brass, winds, and a virtuoso solo piano part.

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