Morlot Conducts Messiaen

OLIVIER MESSIAEN Turangalîla Symphony
BORN: Avignon, December 10, 1908
DIED: Clichy, near Paris, April 27, 1992
WORK COMPOSED: 1948
FIRST PERFORMANCE: December 2, 1949, in Boston. Leonard Bernstein conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Yvonne Loriod was the piano soloist.

Today, more than two decades after his passing, Olivier Messiaen is widely recognized as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. A prolific creator and a profound influence on several generations of colleagues, Messiaen was above all a musical artist of exceptional originality.

Throughout his long career, which spanned the 1930s through the 1980s, the French composer abstained from the various styles and movements that attracted his colleagues. Instead, he followed his own sensibilities, fashioning a unique musical world built on bird calls, rhythms derived from an ancient Hindu treatise, scales and chords of his own invention, numerical symbols and a strongly felt correspondence between sound and color.

The singularity of Messiaen’s compositional language reflected, and expressed, a singular mind, one little concerned with humanistic modernity. Rather, Messiaen always felt strongly what he called “the attraction of the marvelous” — meaning the miraculous, the stupendous, the transcendent. Accordingly, he drew his inspiration from religious revelation, from the most vast and violent manifestations of nature, from the songs of birds, from myth and numerology.

Even the most patently human experience, that of romantic love, was conceived by Messiaen in mystical and mythic terms. Great love, according to the composer, is “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.” It is a love that Messiaen found expressed most vividly in the legend of Tristan and Isolde.

In the late 1940s, Messiaen wrote three compositions inspired by the notion of transcendent love as manifested in the Tristan myth. The most ambitious of these works, and one of the most remarkable of all Messiaen’s works, is the huge Turangalîla Symphony. The term “Turangalîla” is a composite of two sanskrit words and is rich in meanings. “Turanga” refers to time — or, more precisely, to the movement of time, “time that slips like sand through an hourglass or time that runs like a galloping horse,” in Messiaen’s poetic explanation. “Lîla” signifies love, life, movement, and the cosmic game of creation and destruction. Thus “Turangalîla” implies the temporal occurrence or rhythm of life, love, and death.

Messiaen called his work a symphony, but this designation must be understood in the most general sense of the term. Turangalîla Symphony offers no trace of the classical four-part symphonic structure. Instead it unfolds in 10 movements, which fall into several categories. One group, encompassing the movements Chant d’amour I and II, Jardin du sommeil d’amour and Développement d’amour, is devoted to expressing or contemplating love. A second type, Turangalîla 1, 2 and 3, reflects an opposite yet complimentary force: death and destruction. The fifth and tenth movements comprise another class, these being ecstatic scherzo-like movements that conclude each half of the score. Finally, there is an introduction that sets the whole work in motion.

The internal details of the Turangalîla Symphony are no more conventionally symphonic than are its broad formal outlines. Messiaen’s music offers little sense of the dynamic flow of ideas that traditionally characterizes symphonic composition. Rather, the composer uses contrast and juxtaposition as his primary method, moving abruptly between disparate themes or posing one large block of music against another. But while this work does not represent any familiar species of symphony, it does provide a summation of the compositional procedures Messiaen had developed during the first 20 years of his career: his use of bird songs and “color chords,” his unusual orchestration, his novel ideas concerning melody, harmony and rhythm.

Messiaen’s harmony merits particular discussion. It is unusual in being essentially inert — that is, it gives no sense of either tension and resolution, but creates a sound world that is beyond tension and resolution. It serves a coloristic rather than dynamic purpose, and although the composer did not identify specific visual hues in connection with the chords that appear in Turangalîla Symphony, as he did in some of his later scores, it is quite possible to hear the work’s harmonies as splashes of aural color.

Messiaen’s coloristic harmony is complemented by a style of orchestration for which the adjective “technicolor” is not too strong. For the most part, the composer treats the several sections of the orchestra — woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings — as distinct choirs, juxtaposing rather than blending their timbres in a way that might be compared to painting with primary colors. The percussion serve an especially important function, with glockenspiel, vibraphone and celesta used in a manner that sometimes resembles the music of Balinese gamelans.

Two instruments enjoy special status. One is the piano. Given a featured role in numerous passages, the instrument contributes virtuoso cadenzas, melodic phrases based on bird songs, and a rich array of chords, arpeggios and other figures. More exotic is the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument invented in 1928 by the French engineer Maurice Martenot. Played on a keyboard or with a slide mechanism that permits swooping glissando effects, its tone is high-pitched and ethereal. It can penetrate the most thickly scored orchestral climaxes, raising the level of sonic frenzy to an altogether higher degree, or else croon sweetly in lyrical passages.

The ten movements of Turangalîla Symphony contain no detailed programmatic references and offer no dramatic continuity. Instead, they present a series of highly unusual — one might even say surreal — aural meditations on love and death.

Introduction: Along with much else, the opening movement introduces two of the symphony’s major themes. The first, which follows a busy prefatory passage, consists of a weighty, wide-stepping figure for the brass. Messiaen likened its character to “some terrible and fatal statue,” pagan and merciless, and it is usually referred to as the “statue theme.” If, as the composer suggested, this subject represents a certain kind of masculine posture, the second important idea, given out by a pair of clarinets alone, conveys an aspect of femininity. Messiaen designated this the “flower” theme, alluding not only to its gentle demeanor but to the way its melodic lines seem to curl in on themselves, like closing petals. Following the exposition of these two themes and a good deal of connecting material, there is a glittering piano cadenza and an extended passage, composed of many layers of rhythmic counterpoint, that achieves a quite frenetic level of activity.

Chant d’amour I: The first of the score’s “love songs” considers two aspects of erotic attachment — one strong, passionate, and sometimes terrifying, the other soft and tender — in alternating passages. In the lyrical passages, strings and ondes martenot sound portions of a love theme that will be more fully revealed in the sixth movement.

Turangalîla I: Messiaen juxtaposes a pair of starkly contrasting ideas: a sensuous theme introduced at the outset by clarinets and ondes martenot, and a portentous subject heard in the orchestra’s low register. As the movement progresses, these are extended and combined in counterpoint.

Chant d’amour II: The composer might have called this movement a dance of love, rather than a song, considering the lively syncopations of its initial theme. Messiaen compliments this main idea with other materials, including reminiscences of the “flower” and “statue” themes, as well as another piano cadenza. As in the previous movement, there is a progressive accumulation of sonority as different musical events are superimposed on each other.

Joie du sang des étoiles: This movement’s title, which means “Joy of the Blood of the Stars,” suggests cosmic ecstasy, and that is what Messiaen conveys in this huge scherzo.

Jardin du sommeil d’amour: Following the Dionysian outburst of the fifth movement, the sixth offers repose. This “Garden of Love’s Sleep” is filled with perfumed melody (the symphony’s love theme), bird songs and a tropical languor. Few composers can write music so slow and sweet that it seems audacious. Messiaen does so here.

Turangalîla II: Messiaen again effects a complete change of mood, presenting music of agony an death. He said that he had Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum” in mind while writing this movement.

Developement d’amour: The “development of love” indicated by the title has a double meaning, since Messiaen here thematically develops his symbolic melodies: the “statue,” “flower” and love themes. Extension of the latter idea results in a delirious climax.

Turangalîla III: A chant-like theme introduced by clarinet and supporting instruments is embellished in a series of increasingly complex variations.

Final: The symphony ends with another ecstatic effusion. As seems inevitable, an apotheosis of the love theme crowns the movement and the work as a whole.

One cannot leave a discussion of Turangalîla Symphony without some consideration of its aesthetics. This is not easy, for Messiaen’s music generally, and this work especially, defies nearly all accepted canons of musical propriety and good taste. Messiaen, to a degree quite unmatched in history, was unashamed of grandiloquence, lavish sonority and the inflation of transparent musical ideas through reiteration and sheer volume. Harmonies that could sound embarrassing in a Hollywood film score troubled him not at all, and he allowed the ondes martenot to wail with abandon.

Yet these qualities cannot be dismissed as mere kitsch or naiveté. Messiaen used them too consistently and with too much conviction, forcing us to accept them as legitimate expressions of heightened emotion. Indeed, it is the immoderate quality of Turangalîla Symphony — its extreme rapture, extreme violence and extreme lushness — that gives it authenticity. Had Messiaen tempered its tone even a little, the work might seem merely vulgar and trite. William Blake declared that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. By that reckoning, Olivier Messiaen was a wise composer indeed.

© Paul Schiavo

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