Charged to produce some thought pieces for the Intelligencer during this quiet period, I remembered the 70th anniversary of the world premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s , 90-minute, ten-movement Turangalîla, a work commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Turangalîla. The name “Turangalîla,” which may be partially Sanskrit, is supposed to mean a love song, but it is also a girl’s name, and this large-scale orchestral work is supposed to symbolize, or even depict, various thoughts and various acts of love. The title includes the word “symphony” but it is also a piano concerto, with an elaborate additional part for Onde Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments. A 31-year-old Leonard Bernstein led the premiere of Turangalîla in Symphony Hall on December 2nd 1949— from all reports, very ably. The piano soloist, Yvonne Loriod, later married Messiaen after the death of his first wife; Ginette Martenot, sister of the inventor, played the namesake keyboard.
Turangalîla presents an eccentric, not to say schizophrenic, blend of hyperbolic titles and performance indications, Bartók-like crunch percussiveness, bird calls from every continent, Indian and Javanese melodic patterns, and unabashed Debussy-Ravel harmony and heterophony, all rolled into one extravagant mass of sound. The result may have seemed too hyper-French for making headway among American audiences, who even today often have trouble comprehending La mer, although the Hollywood sound of Daphnis et Chloé has had good success. Turangalîla was subsequently performed several times in Europe and three recordings were issued; but the first recording to appear in America, with the Toronto Symphony directed by Seiji Ozawa, did not arrive until 1967.
The work represents Messiaen’s style with all the stops pulled out (an appropriate metaphor even for a French organist). It features an orchestrally athletic and violent language like the “Jeu du rapt” in Le sacre du printemps or the “Jeux de vagues” in La mer, often completely atonal, but most often combining an atonal layer with a smeared post-Ravelian tonal harmony. A favorite sonority is a triad with major and minor thirds jammed next to each other; this is integrated into a close-position chordal texture in which the uppermost line is doubled in the bass, a ballroom sonority which we know from Puccini and driven to extremes in this work. But the caramel electronics of Martenot and the shimmering strings of Mantovani and Melachrino were as nothing compared to Messiaen, who has mobilized bad taste into an indispensable element of structure — seemingly an impossible feat, but in this work an entirely successful one. The sixth movement, “Garden of the Sleep of Love,” begins with this chordal succession which can be regarded as characteristic; it is guided by a melody (Onde Martenot solo doubling first violin) that one can recognize from the first bars of Tristan und Isolde. (F-sharp major is a recurring key in this work, as it is in half a dozen other large-scale pieces by Messiaen, who does seem to have favored it.)
It is fascinating to read what the critics said about Turangalîla. (One who wasn’t a critic, but rather a horn player in the orchestra, revealed his own thoughts about the piece by playing “The Star Spangled Banner” in the middle of the performance, and nobody noticed; my organ teacher Frank Taylor recounted this story in 1956.) Cyrus Durgin of the Globe wrote a short column showing that he was plainly baffled by the music, which he found nonsensical even though it had some attractive moments. He did say perceptively one point that the music sounded like 125 different compositions. Olin Downes, writing in the New York Times a week later, when the orchestra took the new work to New York, wrote at greater length but not much more insight; one couldn’t even guess from either review what Turangalîla even remotely resembled musically. Durgin spoke of the “walloping away at a large number of percussion instruments. […] and some of the more extreme pages do have a suggestion of a tool and die works with a rush order.” Downes was correct when he wrote that “there is really very little growth in this music, aside from gadgetary manipulations, which are not the same thing.” Both reviews, referring to the composer’s program essay, mentioned “non-reversible rhythms” and “asymmetric augmentations,” which add to the percussive complexity but which most listeners find impossible to hear individually. Stravinsky, writing some 15 years later, regretted “the attempt to stretch small and inelastic patterns into large ones,” and that “what Turangalîla needed….was a very cold douche of the most intensive self-consciousness.” One of my Francophile students, listening to the record, may have come nearer the mark when he said, “This is like Ravel on drugs.” It turns out the composer had tried out three of the movements a year or two earlier in Paris under the title of Trois Talas; the public reacted with fury; Pierre Boulez, a star pupil of Messiaen but then a young Turk, accused his teacher in print of writing “bordello music.”
Turangalîla may be 70 years old now, but it hasn’t faded even after several decades of memorably silly commentary and unperceptive analysis, an appreciable proportion of which comes from Messiaen himself. Turangalîla may not be the most important piece of music composed anywhere since Le sacre du printemps, as Koussevitzky supposedly said, but it remains breathtakingly pretentious, in a way that is fully refreshing even though exhausting. And, we may note that it first took life with our own orchestra.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.