Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Music of Messiaen: Part 8, Turangalîla Symphony

There are a few works by Messiaen that could be regarded as symphonies, such as L'Ascension, "Quatre Méditations symphoniques pour orchestre" or, if you accept the very unusual orchestration, perhaps even Couleurs de la cité céleste or Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. But the only work that he called a "symphony" right there in the title is the Turangalîla-symphonie composed between 1946 and 48 on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Turangalîla is a symphony like no other, a syncretic work that has so many facets and aspects that it can take a long time to really become comfortable with it. That is to say, it rewards repeated listening! At times it sounds like George Gershwin on a bad acid trip, at other times it sounds like a profound meditation on the depths of human experience: love, hate, life and death. And everything in between. It is a big and very bold piece, about an hour and twenty minutes long for large orchestra of over one hundred players of whom ten or so are percussionists. There are two important soloists, one on piano and one on ondes Martenot, one of the earliest electronic instruments. There are ten movements:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chant d'amour 1 (Song of love)
  3. Turangalîla 1
  4. Chant d'amour 2
  5. Joie du sang des étoiles (Joy of the blood of the stars)
  6. Jardin du sommeil d'amour (Garden of love's sleep)
  7. Turangalîla 2
  8. Développement de l'amour (Development of love)
  9. Turangalîla 3
  10. Final
There is a very fine recording of the new, revised version that Messiaen prepared not long before his death. The conductor is Myung-Whun Chung with the Orchestre de l'Opera Bastille and the two soloists most closely associated with the work, Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod, piano and her sister, Jeanne Loriod, ondes Martenot. The recording was made in 1991, the year before Messiaen's death and under his supervision and comes with extensive notes by the composer:


It is particularly useful that Messiaen provides examples of the four main themes of the work:


It is well worth reading Messiaen's notes though they may not reveal as much as you may hope! For example, apart from mention of many of the techniques we have discussed, such as "non-retrogradable" rhythms, he also mentions something he calls "rhythmic characters" in which there are three elements: one is active, taking the leading role, another is passive, reacting to the first, and the third is apart and remains the same. This technique, which he uses in a number of other pieces as well, is never explained more clearly except to say that one character may augment, the other may diminish and the third stays the same. One can imagine how this might work, but further explication would require close study of the score, which, for now at least, I do not have.

The Turangalîla Symphony is one of Messiaen's most popular works, partly due to the fact that it is one of the few orchestral pieces by him that can fit into a normal orchestral program. It has, over the sixty-seven years since its composition, become one of the classics of 20th century music, a piece that can be listened to and enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of it, and one that is, at the same time, an influence and inspiration to other composers. Esa-Pekka Salonen, as guest artist with the New York Philhamonic this season, has chosen presenting this work as his major project other than conducting his own music.

I said that the orchestra is large: it includes triple winds and a large string body with 16 first and second violins and the other sections to match. The extensive percussion includes glockenspiel, celesta, vibraphone, triangle, temple blocks, Turkish cymbal, normal cymbals, Chinese cymbal, tam-tam, Basque drum, maracas, side drum, Provençal tabor, bass drum and tubular bells. And out front, of course, the solo piano and ondes Martenot. If you hear something that sounds like the sound-track to an old Star Trek episode, that's probably the ondes Martenot.

The title of the work is the combination of two Sanskrit words. Turanga means, loosely, movement and rhythm, while Lîla signifies divine action on the cosmos, creation and destruction and love.

There are very simple and lyrical sections, such as we find in the Garden of love's sleep, and enormously complex sections with many layers of interlocking rhythms; there are chorale-like chants and wild orgiastic dances. It is safe to say, I think, that this work can stand alongside The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky as one of the great works of the century, bold, challenging and ultimately rewarding.

Luckily we have a good version of the complete work on YouTube of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung (even if the camera work may make you a bit dizzy):


6 comments:

Ken Fasano said...

Turangalila is one of those masterworks that cannot be understood in one listening, or even over several decades. My ears are confused by what seems to be a mixture of styles. Perhaps Messiaen did not intend this - although Turangalila does fall just a few years after the Quartet for the End of Time and a few years before Modes de Valeurs. For me, it's his use of major chords with added sixth. To Messiaen, that might have been a sweet harmony. To me it sounds like big band jazz - so sometimes Turangalila sounds like Tommy Dorsey's cosmic music, or as you say, Gershwin on acid.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think this is also true of some other of Messiaen's larger works. How long does it take to really come to grips with the Catalogue d'oiseaux for example? But the thing about Messiaen is, despite the syncretic style, that his music is always appealing. You want to keep listening!

Marc Puckett said...

Yes indeed someone was being properly 'creative' with the cameras, gosh.

As a percussionist this has to be one of those events you look forward to.

Are there any male performers of the ondes Martenot?

Ended the day yesterday listening to this, after having listened in the afternoon to Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach (first time really, all 160 minutes of it)-- as interesting as the Glass is (and I even found one or two parts to be quite lovely or moving), I'd save this and not that from the wreck. Read your post from 2012 on Canadian opera, ahem, which tangentially refers to EOB.

Bryan Townsend said...

I only have seen female ondes Martenot performers, but perhaps I just haven't seen the right clips. Sounds like a good excuse to write an essay for the Guardian! "Shocking bias against male ondes Martenot players revealed!"

I have yet to listen to Einstein on the Beach, though I have heard excerpts.

Marc Puckett said...

Please, please, do it, write it up for the Guardian. Perhaps a nudge to NL at Slipped Disc? (But alas-- for the joke, anyway-- there are plenty of male ondes Martenot players. Two of the three! ondes M. players in this Radiohead song: [https://youtu.be/chE1_g3GAWw].)

There was a writer of crime novels going on about 'liberating' the oppressed plebs by disavowing opera and embracing rap over there yesterday; apparently now that poor Brian Sewell is dead there's opportunity! in the land again.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, then we should do a piece bemoaning the lack of male harp players!