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About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Olivier Messiaen
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie Mar. 10 - 12, 2011
© Joseph Horowitz

If there exists such a thing as a mainstream symphonic canon, it seems to have expired midway through the twentieth century. What might be the most recent symphonies to have acquired membership? Maybe Prokofiev's Fifth (1944) and Shostakovich's Tenth (1953). But these are pariahs from the Soviet time warp. Is there an American or European symphony from the same period that we hear with any frequency?

Well, yes. Oddly, surprisingly, it is Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, completed in 1948 and premiered (by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony) in early 1949. To be sure, Messiaen is not a brand-name composer. And his 10-movement, 80-minute Turangalîla is a "symphony" impossible to place. But here it is. Our major orchestras play it. Our major conductors conduct it.

The tantalizing strangeness of the work begins with the composer. The rigor and fervor of his music is that of a devout Roman Catholic. His life in spartan outline comprised study and teaching at the Paris Conservatory, which he entered in 1919 at the age of 11 and from which he retired in 1978. Messiaen's Paris retained a living tradition of religious music centered on the organ — and Messiaen's teachers included a high priest of that tradition, Marcel Dupré. Messiaen was himself an organist of genius, a composer for organ, and a composer for orchestra with the polychromatic Romantic organ in his ear. As a religious composer, he purveyed ideals of exalted, time-obliterating stasis; directional harmonies and sonata forms were not for him. The resulting contradictions — of pious serenity and ecstatic release; of monkish severity and luscious harmony and texture — define Messiaen and his scope of appeal. For card-carrying modernists and post-modernists, he can seem a congenially esoteric intellectual. For everyday secular audiences, he can seem a sorcerer, a sonic hedonist. And yet all his music is religious.

A few biographical details are outstandingly pertinent. Messiaen's life of dedicated pedagogy and composition was interrupted by World War II. He wound up a prisoner of war in Silesia. After the war, he fell in love with one of his students: the gifted pianist Yvonne Loriod. His wife, the violinist Claire Delbos, was long incapacitated by illness. She died in 1960. Messiaen married Loriod two years later.

In the Stalag VIIIA camp, Messiaen composed his best-known work: The Quartet for the End of Time, first performed for a freezing audience of 5,000 prisoners. If the austerity of this "homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse" evokes the dire circumstances of its composition, the Turangalîla Symphony registers the tidal ecstasies of Messiaen's discovery of Loriod. It is in fact part of a Messiaen trilogy inspired by the Tristan myth. "The whole work," Messiaen summarized, "is a song of love."

The title Turangalîla admits no such summary. Messiaen's exegesis speaks of "joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death." In any event, the word is Sanskrit — and the juxtaposition of East and West is one of many Turangalîla antitheses. Messiaen's symphony, which is also a non-symphony, is dissonant and tonal, brutal and lyrical, formal and sensual. Its sonic tapestries evoke India, Indonesia, and Walt Disney. Its birdcalls cite "the great musicians of the planet." Its rhythms derive from ancient Hindu practice. Its methodology invokes numerology and sinesthesia: Messiaen's brain linked sound with color.

The huge orchestra includes an electronic instrument resembling the quivering theremin once used by Hollywood composers for horror films. This is the ondes Martenot, invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928. Unlike the theremin, the ondes Martenot incorporates a keyboard: pitch can be controlled with precision — as can be volume, attack, and timbre. In Turangalîla, eerie electronic tones may luxuriously reinforce a song in the strings. Alternatively, electronic glissandi streak the sonic landscape -- or turn metallic, to complement the clangor of the orchestra's other keyboards: piano, vibraphone, xylophone, celesta, glockenspiel. This latter ensemble evokes the fragrant hammering of an Indonesian gamelan: an Eastern musical genre liberated from Western harmonic practice. At the same time, the piano is — like the ondes Martenot — a Turangalîla soloist; its dense cadenzas punctuate the structure and discourse. The symphony's eclecticism of style and sonority produces a layered sonic experience, a shifting musical kaleidoscope in which the piano, ondes Martenot, and glistening "gamelan" are distinctive ingredients.

The ten movements of the Turangalîla Symphony comprise a quasi-narrative. Of the two most prominent recurrent themes, the "statue" theme is unmistakably proclaimed, triple-forte, by trombones and tuba moments from the start. Messiaen likened this motif to "the heavy, terrifying brutality of old Mexican monuments." The symphony's second principal recurrent motif, by comparison, is lyrical and malleable. This is the "love" theme, introduced in movement two ("Love Song 1") and attaining a soaring apotheosis in movement eight ("The Development of Love").

The symphony's center of gravity — its longest, most "timeless" movement -- is number six: "The Garden of the Sleep of Love." "Two lovers are locked away," writes Messiaen. "A landscape has sprung for them… . Time passes, forgotten. The lovers are outside of time; let's not awaken them." The nocturnal languor of this episode is embellished by the ecstatic twitter of birds. It is a pantheistic epiphany uniting God, Nature, and man.

Movement five, preceding the "Garden of Love," is a rapturous dance: "Joy in the Blood of the Stars." Messiaen: "It's a frenetic dance of joy … The union of true lovers is for them a transformation … on a cosmic scale." The piano cadenza here elaborates the statue theme. Listeners familiar with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde will discover that Messiaen's sequence of frenzied and hypnotic Eros parallels the course of Wagner's second act duet.

Three of the Turangalîla movements are titled "Turangalîla." These comprise a dark underside: essays on death and destruction. "Turangalîla 3" (movement seven) confronts the lovers with a vision of the abyss. Messiaen here invokes poetry by the American writer who (like Wagner) galvanized many a French symbolist: "The Pit and the Pendulum" by Edgar Allan Poe. Messiaen cites "the double horror of the pendulum knife gradually approaching the prisoner's heart while the wall of red-hot iron closes in" and "the indescribable, inexpressible depth of the torture pit."

Musically and dramaturgically, the culminating tenth movement clinches the love theme.

A work as multifarious as the Turangalîla Symphony admits an array of listening options so diverse as to seem contradictory. Tristan and Tristan, Indonesia and India, Debussy and Dupré are all useful points of reference. Also pertinent is surrealism, as practiced by painters who unconventionally apply conventional means of representation. Messiaen's implicit discourse on love and death is and is not Wagnerian. In his Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (1985), Paul Griffiths comments:

[Turangalîla] sings of the most universal human experience, that of love, in a manner all its own. What is most remarkable about that manner, and quite outside the intellectual network of Messiaen's own time, is its freedom from the sexual guilt that Wagner had composed in Tristan und Isolde long before Freud gave it a scientific authority. In terms of idea, of course, this dazzling innocence is religious in its origins, possible for Messiaen because sexuality is wholly justified when it is offered in an adoration that is both human and divine: the "Joy of the Blood of the Stars" is the expression of the lovers' delirium on a cosmic scale, but it is also a vision of Christ's blood streaming in the firmament, and a vision not so much of an act of redemption as of a universe in a perpetual state of salvation.

Finally, there are — for many listeners — confounding issues of taste. Is Turangalîla over the top? For Griffiths, insofar as it eschews posturing, irony, and guilt the work's "vulgarity" offers "proof of Messiaen's innocence." Predictably, some of the Turangalîla's first Boston reviewers were less forgiving: New England aesthetic canons produced such commentaries as:

The clue to the possible fundamental emptiness of this work is the appalling melodic tawdriness of the three big cyclical themes heard throughout … . The first is a motto of six notes Gershwin would have thought better of; the second might make the grade as a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, and the third, a dance of joy, might be ascribed to Hindu Hillbillies, if there be such."

Equally predictable was that a more prescient American assessment was produced by the Francophile Virgil Thomson, whose Messiaen encomium in the New York Herald- Tribune of Sept. 23, 1945 (a few years preceding Turangalîla) retains pungency and pertinence:

"Atomic bomb of contemporary music" is the current Paris epithet for Olivier Messiaen. Whether France's thirty-seven-year-old boy wonder is capable of quite so vast a work of destruction as that unhappy engine I could not say. But certainly he has made a big noise in the world. And the particular kind of noise that his music makes does, I must say, make that of his chief contemporaries sound a bit old-fashioned.

What strikes one right off on hearing almost any of his pieces is the power these have of commanding attention. They do not sound familiar; their textures — rhythmic, harmonic, and instrumental -- are fresh and strong. And though a certain melodic banality may put one off no less than the pretentious mysticism of his titles may offend, 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 musical talent… .

The kind of content that he likes is the ecstatic, the cataclysmic, the terrifying, the unreal. That the imagery of this should be derived almost exclusively from religion is not surprising in a church organist … What is a little surprising in so scholarly a modernist … . is the literalness of his religious imagination. But there is no possibility of suspecting insincerity. His pictorial concept of religion, though a rare one among educated people, is too intense to be anything but real …

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.


For listeners new to Messiaen, the Turangalîla Symphony can seem a confounding work. I have observed that people often leave after the fifth or sixth movement. But Messiaen's soundworld of ecstasy and contemplation abounds in both spiritual and earthly delights. And Messiaen's Catholicism is not spiritual in any dogmatic sense. He seeks possibilities of belief and possibilities of love. Even the title "Turangalîla" is subject to many different interpretations.

Our Turangalîla performances incorporate an introduction that I hope will enlighten newcomers to Messiaen, and also enrich the understanding of those already in the know. The eminent French composer Tristan Murail, who takes part as our ondes Martenot soloist, will have an opportunity to illustrate this amazing electronic instrument. Cédric Tiberghien, our wonderful piano soloist, will demonstrate aspects of Messiaen's singular piano style.

To support the narrative dimension of Messiaen's 10-movement symphony, we have incorporated super-titles. Finally, as Turangalîla is music vivid with color, we have engaged the distinguished lighting designer Paul Bartlett to create color washes for these performances. Messiaen once said: "When I hear music, and also when I read a score, I see internally, with the mind's eye, colors that move with the music." Some of his later works even specify "color values" for certain harmonic constructions. Our color washes do not attempt to recreate Messiaen's own "color mythology"; rather, they are offered as an atmospheric complement to the musical experience.


What is the significance of the "Turangalîla"-Symphony in Messiaen's output?

It's his first really big orchestral piece. Also, from a technical point of view, in terms of rhythm, orchestration, and timbre it's a step forward for him.

Tell us about the ondes Martenot. You play it; you compose for it.

Messiaen wrote a piece for six ondes Martenot for the Paris Exposition of 1937 -- so he already was familiar with the instrument at that time. He was fascinated by the sound — you can hold tones forever, as on the organ. What may be new with Turangalîla is the integration of the ondes Martenot into the orchestration. It changes the colors of the orchestra. Especially magical, for instance, is the end of movement four, where the ondes Martenot doubles the solo violin. For Messiaen, the ondes Martenot is a supernatural voice. And it can be as loud as you want. Balancing it with the orchestra can be a challenge.

You studied with Messiaen. Can you say something about the musical content of the "Turangalîla"-Symphony?

The "statue" theme in the trombones is a useful starting point. For me, it evokes the Easter Island statues. Very strong and primitive. And Messiaen was a strong believer. He was at the same time attached to other aspects of life. He loved good food, for instance. Technically, he is one of the very few composers who can integrate atonal dissonance and tonality; the harmonic complexity of his style is startling. Personally, as a composer, in Turangalîla I am most interested in the three "Turangalîla" movements — these have really bizarre and incredible sounds. Messiaen was a paradoxical personality.


The piano part is huge, and hugely difficult. At the same time, the piano occupies a special role within the orchestra — it provides clarity, light, sparks. The way Messiaen combines the piano with certain percussive instruments — like the glockenspiel and vibraphone in the "gamelan" ensemble — achieves a kind of alchemy that's unique. Even though there are cadenzas, it's not at all like a concerto.

To what extent do you feel instructed by the example of Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen's wife, who performed and recorded this music?

She was an amazing performer, a great lady of the piano in France. What I feel I've learned from her recordings is that the most important thing is to express yourself. In "The Garden of the Sleep of Love," for instance, where the piano imitates birdcalls her playing is very free, rhythmically. I love the freedom she brings to this movement.

Do you have favorite movements in the "Turangalîla"-Symphony?

Of course. "The Garden of the Sleep of Love" is a complete dream. And it brings out the connection to Tristan und Isolde. I'm a big Tristan lover, it speaks intimately to me. This faith that Messiaen had in love — some people might find it naïve to think of love so much in terms of happiness and joy. But he expresses a kind of endless optimism that I admire a lot.

What are the relevant differences between Messiaen and Wagner?

They're both looking for a high level of spirituality. Wagner is darker, more anguished. Messiaen brings a special color to love. It's a little like being drunk, when a white world becomes red or green or blue. For me, the eighth movement of the Turangalîla-Symphony, "The Development of Love," is the Liebestod movement — the build-up and climax are Wagnerian.

Have you frequently performed the "Turangalîla"-Symphony? Do you find that it's a piece susceptible to different interpretations?

I've played it maybe ten times. Yes, there are different ways to interpret it. If you make it Wagnerian, this takes more time. It's difficult sometimes for orchestras to grasp that this is Romantic music, not 20th-century music with no heart. It has to be played as if you're playing Tristan. It's true that the complete opposite is entirely possible — to perform it in an analytical way, to think of it purely in terms of energy and rhythm and color. But I think that would be a pity. It's such a moving piece of music. It's a love song, a love symphony.