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About this Piece

Composed: 1948
Length: c. 75 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, cornet, piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, chimes, Chinese cymbals, cymbals, maracas, snare drum, tabor, tambourine, tam-tam, temple blocks, triangle, wood block), celesta, ondes martenot, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 14, 1972, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

Virgil Thomson on the music of Olivier Messiaen:

“What strikes one right off on hearing almost any of [Messiaen’s] pieces is the power they have of commanding attention. They do not sound familiar; their textures – rhythmic, harmonic, instrumental – are fresh and strong… It is not possible to come in contact with any of his major productions without being aware that one is in the presence of a major talent. Liking it or not is of no matter; Messiaen’s music has a vibrancy that anybody who cares to can be aware of… 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… 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.

“The success of his accomplishment is due to the natural instinct for making music plus the simplicity and sincerity of his feelings… The faults of his taste are obvious; and the traps, of mystical program music, though less so, are well known to musicians, possibly even to himself. Nevertheless, the man is a great composer. One has only to hear his music beside that of any of the standard eclectic modernists to know that. Because his really vibrates, and theirs doesn’t.”

Thomson (1896-1989), the brilliantly waspish American composer-critic, wrote these words in the late 1940s, as part of a general essay on what Messiaen had written to that point – possibly including Turangalîla, although it is not specifically mentioned (it sounds as if it were). His irreverently enthusiastic reception of music he deeply admired might serve as a healthy antidote to the off-putting worshipfulness that has come to surround this most accessible – entertaining and sexy and original – composer who, as Thomson put it elsewhere, of Turangalîla and its successors, “shows the determination to produce somewhere in every piece an apotheosis destined at once to open up the heavens and to bring down the house.” Yet on another occasion – Thomson’s enthusiasms often proved short-lived – he blasted Turangalîla as coming “straight from the Hollywood cornfields.” Anything for a bit of controversy.

Pierre Boulez, in his Orientations, as ever makes telling points regarding the all-embracing nature of Messiaen's artistic outlook: “I should like to point out [Messiaen’s] boldness and calm courage in treating music as a worldwide, universal phenomenon and his refusal of any obligation to retain any characteristics simply because they were considered the property of some national group. He has opened windows not only on Europe, but on the whole world, on civilizations as remote in space as in time. He has thought of the distinguishing marks of any civilization not as barriers but as possible links. Living in a world so much inclined to exclusive nationalism that neighbors, by their very existence, were thought of primarily as enemies and aggressors, Messiaen has been willing to accept freely everything that could enrich him, broaden his vision, or increase his potential strength.”

Pride of place among the basic components of the “Messiaen style” – although no longer possible to discern readily, so thoroughly has it been absorbed into something completely original – is the influence of Debussy, initially by way of the older master’s Pelléas et Mélisande. The precocious ten-year-old Messiaen, a self-taught pianist with a phenomenal musical memory, received the score of Debussy’s opera as a gift: “A provincial teacher [of harmony, Jehan de Gibon] had placed a veritable bomb in the hands of a mere child,” the composer would recall in a 1980 interview. “It was love at first sight. I sang it, played it, sang it again. That was probably the most decisive influence I’ve received... so much so that even now I can analyze the whole score from memory for my pupils.” And it led to his first composition, a set of piano pieces with a Debussy-like title and stylistic orientation, Huit Préludes (1929).

Familiarity with the entire Debussy oeuvre led to a fascination with musical styles of the Far East, which had so powerfully appealed to the older composer. And to these were added early in Messiaen’s career elements of European music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance – of which he was both a student and practitioner, as composer and organist, long before the current fascination with pre-Baroque musical eras.

Not the least important addition to these varied interests and influences was his interest in the natural world, notably in birdsong, not as a Romantic observer-from-a-distance – in the manner of Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler – but as a sort of inquiring ornithologist. He utilized “the sovereign freedom of birdsong” (his words) as an integral part of his musical thinking from the early 1950s, shortly after the composition of Turangalîla, through the end of his life, in such creations as Catalogue des oiseaux (1958), Oiseaux exotiques (1956), and the opera dealing with the most renowned bird-lover of them all, Saint François d’Assise (1983).

The Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-48) is a work about love – human, physical, sexual love, the centerpiece of what the composer called “a trilogy on the myth of Tristan and Isolde,” whose other, much briefer components are the song cycle Harawi: Chants d’amour et de la mort (1945) and the choral Cinq rechants (1948).

Turangalîla was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in 1945, when the Russian-born American conductor Serge Koussevitzky invited Messiaen to teach composition at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The first performance was presented by the Boston Symphony in 1949, under the baton of Koussevitzky’s protégé, the 30-year-old Leonard Bernstein.

The title Turangalîla has its origin in two Sanskrit words, “Turanga,” time – as applied to movement and rhythm – and “Lîla,” play. It’s a good deal more involved than that, but let’s not get too bogged down. For a more complete account of the derivation and other matters germane to the Messiaen style, the reader is referred to the composer’s recently reprinted (in English) book My Musical Language. Messiaen found the word Turangalîla among a list of Indian rhythms recorded by a 13th-century scholar named Sharngadeva, whose compilation proved of inestimable value to the composer, vastly expanding his rhythmic vocabulary – and that of subsequent composers.

The orchestra for this vast ten-movement musical orgy (one trusts that the composer would not have taken exception to the description) is appropriately immense, with a spectacular array of percussion, including glockenspiel, celesta, and vibraphone, employed to create what has been referred to as a gamelan effect (i.e., of the typical Indonesian, “soft-percussion” music), a hugely demanding solo piano part – written for Yvonne Loriod, who would become the composer’s wife – and the eerie, theremin-like keening of the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument played either with a keyboard and/or by moving a ring along a metal ribbon to produce long sustained notes and otherworldly glissandos.

While this is hardly a symphony in the traditional sense, there are aspects of traditional symphonic form within its landscape: the fourth movement, for instance, might be regarded as a scherzo with two trios (although the fifth movement is the real scherzo of the piece) and the ninth is a set of variations of a sort that might be found in a symphonic finale – not that anyone will be tempted to think of Beethoven’s “Eroica.” And the composer describes the eighth movement as a “development section for the symphony as a whole,” although the listener would be hard put to discern this function, coming as it does so far along in the work.

Turangalîla is a depiction of the contrast, if you will, of carnal, passionate love and idealistic, tender love, centered in the romantic explosion of “Joie du sang des étoiles” – Joy of the Blood of the Stars – the sort of wildly imaginative title (Messiaen also called it an “African dance”) that has proven catnip to the composer’s devotees, anathema to his detractors. The movement’s theme, in thirds, blasted out by the trombones and first heard at the start of the symphony, is, according to the composer, his “statue theme… evoking the terrifying brutality of Mexican monuments.” He elaborates:

“Imagine a theatrical scene. Here are three characters on stage [personnages rhythmiques, he called them]; the first is active and has the leading role in the scene; the second is passive, acted upon by the first; the third witnesses the conflict without intervening, being only an observer and not stirring. In the same way three rhythmic groups are in action: the first augments (this is the attacking character); the second diminishes (this is the character who is attacked); the third never changes (this is the character who stands aside).”

One could go on endlessly, quoting the many dedicated, articulate commentators who have tried to describe this magnificent monster of a work, but no one has done it better than the composer himself: “It is a love song, a hymn to joy; love that is fatal, irresistible, transcending everything, suppressing everything outside; joy that is superhuman, overwhelming, blinding, unlimited” – words that might have come from and were surely inspired by, that most love-obsessed musical work of them all, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic/columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and for periodicals in Europe and the United States. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor/annotator for the Salzburg Festival.