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A Turangalîla-symphonie to Cherish

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The monophonic ondes Martenot has a “ribbon” for glissandi. One can also
shake the keyboard for bebung, and it uses a bunch of weird speakers.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “Music of the Senses,” an open-ended series of programs, this week offered a rare series of performances [reviews of the previous two HERE and HERE] (I heard the Friday afternoon performance) of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie, a work commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky in 1946 and premiered by the BSO under Koussevitzky’s young protégé Leonard Bernstein in 1949. Messiaen was a particularly apt choice of composer, not merely to celebrate the 75th-anniversary year of his symphony’s premiere but because he is one of the handful of composers who had the multi-sensory condition of synaesthesia: in simple terms, they experienced harmonies as visualized colors. Though he was given carte blanche to write a work of any style or length, with the instrumentation and dimensions of his own choosing, Turangalîla must have astounded and shocked the more staid Boston Brahmin audiences of the 1940s with its huge size (ten movements), gargantuan orchestral forces including numerous exotic instruments—particularly the early electronic instrument ondes Martenot, keyboard glockenspiel and celesta, and a sprawling percussion section modeled on the Javanese gamelan—constant instrumentally reproduced birdsong, and, of course, the recurring theme of love-making. Additionally, the highly virtuosic piano part, placed front and center, plays an integral role in all ten movements, making the work nearly a piano concerto. Though it would be hard to find a composer more different from Messiaen than Gustav Mahler, the latter’s dictum—“a symphony must encompass the world”—aligns with Messiaen’s aims in this, his only symphony. [I am delighted to refer readers to Mark DeVoto’s thoughts on Turangalîla with musical examples  HERE.]

The word Turangalîla is a compound of two Sanskrit words. Turanga is Time, running like a galloping horse, but also applying to rhythm; lîla signifies Play but in many contexts: love, divine action on the cosmos, the play of creation, destruction, and reconstruction, and the play of life and death. Messiaen found the word Turangalîla among a list of Indian rhythms recorded by a 13th-century scholar named Sharngadeva. The symphony is the middle work in what the composer called his “Tristan trilogy”, collectively representing his response to the Tristan and Isolde myth, especially as interpreted by Richard Wagner with the dominating themes of love and death. Writing of Messiaen at the time the Turangalîla-symphonie was being composed, the composer-critic Virgil Thomson declared, “Messiaen’s pieces are mostly quite long… and their textures are complex. In spite of this length and their complexity, their sounds are… nowhere muddy in color and always sonorous. Their shining brightness takes one back to Berlioz…” A glance at the massive score, however, will indicate that transparent textures must not be taken for granted: they require a gifted conductor with an acute ear and an orchestra of exceptional players. Music Director Andris Nelsons and the BSO certainly did some extensive and hard work, no doubt also inspired by the stellar playing of the pianist Yuja Wang and  ondist Cécile Lartigau, to realize such a fine performance.

The first movement, after an arresting opening, introduced us to two of the cyclic themes that recur throughout the symphony. The first, stated in accented fortissimo thirds by the trombones, evokes for the composer “some dread and fatal statue.” The starkly contrasted second theme, a soft and supple intertwining of two clarinets, created a tender, feminine, and in-drawing effect. Following the first of many piano cadenzas throughout the symphony (notably in movements IV, V, and VII), we encounter complex rhythmic stratification composed of ostinatos in each section of the orchestra. Without a score one does not hear most individual ostinatos except that of the first violins, which is at the forefront; rather one senses an indeterminate number of different rhythmic patterns. The passage struck me as the aural equivalent of a modern city’s “melting pot”, with many different cultures existing alongside and independently of one another. Having only experienced this passage previously on recordings with idealized microphone placement, I did not expect as vivid an effect in live performance, but Nelsons, the orchestra, and the soloists, happily, proved me wrong.

Highlights of the second movement (Love Song I) included the energetic, ecstatic theme shared by brass and strings, and the ondes Martenot singing an amorous theme over a mellow brass choir before integrating into the fabric with coloristic glissandos and trills. The opening of the third movement (Turangalîla I) injected some mystery using the peculiar combination of clarinet, vibraphone, and ondes Martenot. Although the average listener thinks of the fifth movement as the symphony’s scherzo due to its unflagging fast tempo, in fact, the fourth (Love Song II) more closely conforms to the literal meaning of the word (joke), beginning with a staccato birdsong sung simultaneously three octaves apart by the amusing combination of piccolo and bassoon. With the recurrence of the ondes Martenot’s amorous theme, the changed instrumentation provided a beautiful effect with woodwinds topping muted brass.

Cécile Lartigau, plays ondes Martenot (Winslow Townson photos above and below)

Joy of the Blood of the Stars is the proto-psychedelic name of the fifth movement, likely the one that most arouses positive and negative feelings about Turangalîla and Messiaen’s music generally. This unabashed celebration of carnal love inspired the Messiaen authority Paul Griffiths to write, “… here the embarrassment has its origins not in the transfer of religious meditation into the concert hall but in the inrush of eroticism, now quite denuded of the Christian dress with which it was presented [in Messiaen’s earlier works]. But the resulting vulgarity is itself proof of Messiaen’s innocence, for there is absolutely no irony to it, no sense of posturing. Nor is there any guilt. Like the temple sculptors of India, Messiaen celebrates the erotic not as an obverse to the spiritual but as a companion in the shedding of the ego.” The piano and ondes Martenot parts are designed to be ostentatiously showy, and Wang and Lartigau held nothing back. Such wildly exuberant music, of course, requires a conductor to have the courage of his convictions. Nelsons entered fully into its spirit though, perhaps owing to the adrenaline rush, this was the only place where he allowed the balances to fall slightly below ideal. Though Wang has a huge tone at her command, at times the brass covered her completely, allowing neither pitches nor the piano’s percussion to be heard. Fortunately, when the main theme modulated to a higher register, her brilliant, martellato chords were audible and electrifying. Wang’s trademark envelope-pushing concert attire, which revealed a good deal of her thigh, seemed especially fitting for this movement.

The natural sequel to the preceding erotic frenzy is Garden of the Slumber of Love, the sixth movement, something of a post-coital dream with the most lush and beautiful music in the symphony. Voluptuous harmonies in the luminous key of F-sharp major (Messiaen’s favorite) in the muted strings revealed the third cyclic theme—“love theme”—played by the subdued ondes Martenot and first violins, with birdsong supplied by the piano and arabesques in flute and clarinet weaving dreamily around the melody. Though Wang’s birds were overly intrusive at times, this movement held us spellbound—broken temporarily by the wailing of an infant unaccountably allowed into the hall by ushers. (The program booklet respectfully requested that noise be kept to a minimum as Deutsche Grammophon is recording the series of Turangalîla performances for future release.) A long upward progression and diminuendo ended the movement with special magic, described by Messiaen as “the aerial height of ideal and tender love.”

The imposing eighth movement, “Development of Love,” indeed provides development of the central consideration of love but also musical development, with the cyclic and other themes from previous movements reappearing as before as well as in altered form. The composer referred to “the peak of the symphony” here, musically symbolizing the transcending of Tristan and Isolde by Tristan-Isolde, a concept at once beautiful and fearsome: eternal lovers unable ever to detach themselves as the “love potion” has united them into a single being forever. The assembled artists made this the arrestingly dramatic climax Messiaen intended, ending decisively with a sforzando percussion chord of tam-tam, bass drum, and the bottom three notes of the piano keyboard.

While the penultimate movement, Turangalîla III, comprises a set of melodic variations mostly among wind instruments, percussion, and piano, the exploration of ever-changing rhythmic patterns becomes the composer’s primary purpose. Nelsons’s steady beat and attention to textural clarity and balances allowed this to emerge clearly. Interestingly, the harmony centered around tritones (aka augmented fourths), the interval of maximum instability.

The finale’s joyous opening fanfares, however, placed us back in stable tonality and diatonic harmony. This movement is a close relative of the ecstatic fifth movement, but whereas that movement was in the more earthbound key of D-flat major, the finale’s F-sharp major—uniting the musical material of Joy of the Blood of the Stars with the tonality of Garden of the Slumber of Love—perhaps symbolizes the union of carnal and celestial love. The BSO under Nelsons and, especially, Wang and Lartigau again delivered a powerful adrenaline rush, surging with vitality and euphoria, until at length a grand ritard ushered in the final fortissimo iteration of the “love theme” led by the ondes Martenot. The brilliant coda featured a slightly altered version of the finale’s first theme and culminated in a très long final chord—taking Messiaen at his word (something which doesn’t always happen)—during which Nelsons built an earth-shaking crescendo.

I am grateful that these wonderful performances will yield a recording of this still-too-infrequently performed work. Despite its small number of performances here, it is part of the Boston Symphony’s heritage, but more importantly, it offers valuable insights into Messiaen’s own development; Turangalîla-symphonie, composed at a transitional time in his career, shows many of the myriad older and concurrent influences on his music, points to the ways in which his musical language would change in the 1950s and later, and indicates how he would influence composers of succeeding generations. Assuming there are future programs in the “Music of the Senses” series to come, these will be concerts to cherish.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Sorry to have missed this concert, memories still clear of this performance of Turangalila I attended in 1969 in London , it was a Proms concert so we stood for the duration in that cordoned off cheap student ticket area!

    Messiaen, Turangalila Symphony
    BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Groves with John Ogdon (Piano) and Jeanne Loriod (Ondes Martenot)
    Albert Hall, Wednesday 6 August 1969

    Comment by Martin Snow — April 14, 2024 at 2:36 pm

  2. I heard the performance on Thursday evening. This is the fourth time in the last five years or so. First in LA, then NYC, then Toronto, and now the BSO. I am becoming a groupie. I will look for this on orchestral musical schedules every summer when the new seasons are posted. My brother, living in Koln, Germany asked how it went and that he would like to hear it rather than perform it. He played trombone for the Koln Symphony and said it was a fun piece. That does not begin to explain it. I was reduced to almost crying several times. I cannot explain where this piece takes me.

    Comment by Stephen W Beck — April 15, 2024 at 10:59 am

  3. Several attendees told me afterwards that they had heard the piece in several venues, in fact, followed it from each setting. This review reads like a seminar course on Messiaen’s Turangalila, for which I offer a heartfelt vote of thanks to Geoffrey Wieting

    Comment by Norton — April 21, 2024 at 4:47 pm

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