Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly

Piano- Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Ondes Martenot- Takashi Harada

recorded at the Grotezaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in 1992

This “symphony” (referred to by Wikipedia as a “large-scale piece of orchestral music”), was written from 1946-1948, and, like the other not-actually-a-symphony 20th century work I listened to recently, this piece is ALSO a commission from Serge Koussevitsky (thru an organization). Koussevitsky commissioned Turangalîla for the Boston Symphony and the premiere was conducted by Leonard Bernstein. There were no specifications as to style, duration, or any other requirements of the piece to be written. Koussevitsky fell ill and could not conduct the premiere, so Bernstein stepped in. Yvonne Loriod was the piano soloist (who later married Messiaen, and also performed the premiere of Bartók’s second piano concerto after having learned it in only 8 days), and the ondes Martenot was played by Ginette Martenot, sister of the inventor Maurice Martenot, and student of Arthur Honegger).

As I continue speaking about its background, I must say I had some issues with this piece. When asked about its ten movements and the structure of the piece, Messiaen said only “it’s a love song.”

The Wikipedia article nicely explains four themes, each with a different purpose and feelings and symbolism: the statue theme, flower theme, the love theme, and one chord progression having something to do with alchemy. Each of these are almost treated as characters, and there is this mythology of lovers as the narrative of the piece, using these themes and variations on them to represent the story of these two. It was inspired by but apparently only very loosely based on Messiaen’s fascination with the story of Tristan and Isolde.

It sounds super complicated, and it is. My issue with it is mainly here. It over promises and under delivers. And it’s a monstrous work. Coming in at around the same length as last week’s Mahler symphony, but in ten movements that are supposed to be coherent and give a narrative.

When I first listened to this piece, a few things stood out:

1. It’s long

2. The “whistle piano” as a coworker called it, the ondes Martenot, which has a unique sound that I’m still not super fond of. It has a timbre that easily overpowers (or at least is very easily heard prominently over) the rest of the orchestra. It took some time to get used to, but after having listened to it so many times, I must say I don’t know that I can think of another instrument that would work in its place and stand out as uniquely as that thing.

3. I don’t get much of the narrative of the love song. I can hear the moments of bliss, repose, or terror in the piece, but not as one contiguous story. I’ll talk about this more later.

There are ten movements, and I’m not going to analyze them in depth one by one, mainly because it would take a long time, and because all that basic info is already on Wikipedia (it’s what I read and I wouldn’t have picked up on all of it on my own anyway.)

Mvt 1: Introduction, un peu vif- we get two themes introduced here after a harrowing introduction from the strings. I must say this intro is gripping. You’ll know the statue theme. It’s a brass bit, played along with a piano trill, cymbal crashes, followed by a screaming glissando in strings and Martenot. The flower theme is more subtle and is followed briefly by ethereal piano. The movement back-and-forths between these two ideas, with other tiddly bits like a cadenza on piano and some orchestral ostinatos. The entire thing is kind of dreadful, not to mean it sounds bad, but is kind of terrifying sounding. As the first time I’d ever heard the OM, it makes the piece sound science-fictiony, and with the reference to the theme as the “statue” theme, I can’t get the idea of the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey out of my head. The statue theme is oppressive and dreadful. This movement does a nice job of giving us an introduction to what this piece will be like, introducing some themes and setting the aural landscape.

2. Chant d’amour 1: Modéré, lourd- I like this movement, one of the more pleasant ones. The fast, almost jazzy theme played by the trumpets is supposed to be “passionate”, and then there is a “soft and gentle” theme by the ondes and strings. Bassoon and flute play a bit here with piano and lots of percussion, and we get to bassoon and flute later. These same themes repeat a few times and develop a bit more, all in Messiaen’s unique textural and harmonic language. Tons of percussion.

3. Turangalîla 1: Presque lent, rêveur- three themes here: a pretty serene one in clarinet, then frightening low brass with clinky clankety percussion, then something starting on oboe and moving to flute and strings over blippy piano. This is the first Turangalîla of the piece, which is a term borrowed from Sanskrit words for… Something confusing. “Song of ‘love, life, passion, time existence’” or something hard to translate. There’s a woodblock in this movement, among other unpitched percussion. Not a huge fan of this movement. It is one of the less enjoyable to me.

4. Chant d’amour 2: Bien Modéré- I enjoy the beginning of this movement, where the bassoon and flutes play a trinkety, almost clumsy but nice scherzo, and it’s not even that bad when the piano joins in. Wikipedia says this movement has nine sections, and there is some music heard earlier that shows up here too. Needless to say, for me, this is when the piece starts to get a little complicated for me. When there are ten movements and each of them has such a complicated structure it gets hard to follow. Prior to now, the others followed some sort of binary or ternary form (at least in my head), but this movement clocks in at more than minutes (one of a few longer mvmts) and doesn’t have any structure related to the love story that I can identify. Don’t get me wrong, sections of the music have their charm, especially the passage about 3:20 into this mvt. I just don’t follow the story. It wanders.

5. Joie du Sang des Étoiles- this movement may be one of the easiest to enjoy at first listen. It’s very cheery and fun. It also ends dramatically and feels satisfactorily like the end of the first half of the piece. My coworker and I agree that it sounds almost holiday-celebratory-ish, almost like a 21st century Christmas jingle Messiaen (or Bernstein) would write. The ondes sounds like a soprano sax (unless that’s a very bright, high, intense English Horn) here, and this movement’s “dance” is based on a fast version of the state theme, but without all of its fear. Another crazy piano cadenza precedes a huge crescendo at the end that becomes almost unbearably glorious.

6. Jardin du Sommeil d’amour: Très modéré, tres tendre- slow, ethereal, quiet, soothing, and long. 11 minutes here of tinkering, quietly dancing piano with mostly ondes and strings. I also understand how this piece fits into the love story. “Birdsongs played by the piano,” and “the lovers enclosed in live’s sleep. A landscape comes out of them…” in Messiaen’s words.

7. Turangalîla 2: un peu vif, bien modéré- described as “completely atonal” with piano “intended to invoke terror.” It feels that way, and Messiaen’s penchant for percussion returns here. Thankfully this movement isn’t too long. It’s very lively and the piano at first sounds almost happy, but it gets frenetic and violent as these short four minutes continue. It is in stark contrast to the previous movement.

8. Développement d’amour: Bien modéré- Messiaen used the word “development” to describe both the development of emotions and of the piece. This is technically the ‘development’ section of the piece, and mind you, it comes around an hour in. The other long movement here, at 11 minutes. Despite that description, it is described as “terrible” for the lovers, as a struggle with the emotions and intoxicated by their passion. The love theme shows up, and there are beautiful orchestral moments in this piece, but they are always punctuated by stark moments of violence and/or loud terror. This is one of the more sonically interesting movements while still not being overly complicated or obscurely intricate. It has some very satisfying passages.

9. Turangalîla 3: Bien modéré- the third and final of the three. More percussion here after a woodwind introduction. This one sounds a bit ominous, with chimes and other percussion. Again, I don’t understand this one very much musically. The piano takes an important role in the latter half, but still just … Very atonal and noisy…

10. Final: Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie- this is another of the more enjoyable movements for me. It’s exciting and more…. Traditional in its harmonies and rhythms. An exciting fanfare leads into a variation of the love theme. This movement has tons of energy, and plays with a lot of the ideas and material from the other 65 minutes in a logical and enjoyable way. It is also in sonata form. The end of this movement finishes the piece with a chord reminiscent of the end of movement five, but even brighter and more intense and shimmering. As Messiaen says, “glory and joy are without end.” This movement is indeed satisfying (once you come to grips with Messiaen’s musical language and ends the piece in an appropriate and fulfilling energy.

That all being said, I must now give my background to the piece.

I had heard of this as a great 20th century masterpiece, one of the most modern and successful of symphonies, but had only heard of this composer a few times in reference to some of his piano pieces. Before I started this blog, I at least had a to-do list of the more common symphonies I wanted to familiarize myself with, and this name kept popping up in lots of discussions. I listened to it once, not even all the way through, and couldn’t get into it. I left it at that.

I had also been on somewhat of a romantic kick, with large-scale Rachmaninoff and Mahler symphonies. When I had the chance to attend the Mahler symphony, I thought it was a good chance to take on the challenge of enjoying something I wasn’t super familiar with or inclined to love. And I got there, sort of. I certainly enjoy it much more than I did at the beginning. The only difference with Mahler is that one at least has a much greater familiarity with the sonic language. I

I decided to take on something entirely different from the previous works, and see if I could come to something approaching appreciation.

In the past week or so, I’ve given it about ten listens. That’s about twelve hours of playtime. After the first few, I got the feeling that this could be a piece I would really love if I gave it enough chances. I have learned that some music that I found very difficult to listen to in the past, with some concerted effort, I have come to love, at first intellectually, but then (very) emotionally. The best classical example I can think of is Scriabin, whose piano sonatas I did not understand or appreciate, but really wanted to like… It was a challenge, more intellectually than emotionally. But as I listened, it was like that world opened up and it became beautiful.

This is not quite there for me, at least not yet. I appreciate certain passages of it for the beautiful music that they are, but as a whole, it can be a bit taxing to listen to. Messiaen undoubtedly creates a world of his own here, with contrasting ideas and opposite emotions juxtaposed together even in the same movement. There’s much variation in texture, orchestration, harmony and rhythm.

But then again, that is the hard part about it: it is very much Messiaen’s world, and it’s a bit hard to get in there. I can’t follow his story, and even with nine or ten listens under my belt, I don’t feel like I get it completely. Then again, I am not a huge fan of 20th century classical music, and this man did a lot to further it. Pierre Boulez studied under him, and was apparently on of the earliest to work with serialism. I give myself credit for getting this far with it.

I also feel like Messiaen was so enamored with this work that he couldn’t edit himself or keep the piece pared down. I quote the following exactly from Wikipedia on how the piece came to exist as it does now: “The composer’s initial plan was for a symphony in the conventional four movements, which eventually became numbers 1, 4, 6, and 10. Next, he added the three Turangalîla movements, which he originally called tâlas, a reference to the use of rhythm in Indian classical music. Numbers 2 and 8 came next, and finally the 5th movement was inserted.[4] Early on, Messiaen authorized separate performance of movements 3, 4, and 5, as Three tâlas (not to be confused with the original use of the term for the three Turangalîla movements), but later came to disapprove of the performance of extracts.” I can relate to being verbose. The one thing I feel I CAN do with it is understand it on my terms, which, arguably is the purpose of art. Nothing will mean the same thing to any two people, and even the strictest most literal forms of symbolism are still destined to be interpreted by the viewer or listener or reader.

What I do get loud and clear from this piece is the following:

1. It seems to me this piece is to be enjoyed abstractly, not directly. Perhaps I am just not a lover of such modern forms of music (yet), but there is very little in this piece that grabs me and pulls me along and flies me away on melodies and sonic waves like Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky or even Mozart. It’s not listening for absolute music, for the enjoyment of the listening alone, but for the feelings those sounds represent… While the music itself may not seem beautiful at first, perhaps it is just Messiaen’s (or anyone else’s) literate representation of what “joy” or “fear” sound like, rather than interpreting those emotions into something that sounds more traditionally musical. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all, but it does in my head. Just as Monet’s or Van Gogh’s works were stunningly beautiful in a very recognizable, relatable traditional way, and Picasso or Mondrian or whoever are not using literal images to express an idea, but rather raw ideas or emotion to express (or rather evoke) emotion. This is also arguably a very deep process, but also by nature a very subjective one. One cannot say Picasso’s paintings were ‘wrong’ because his tree didn’t ‘look’ like a tree should. That’s the idea, I suppose.

2. That being said, the way I can appreciate this is to view it as a collection of human emotions. I won’t put anyone through another play by play of the piece, but the obvious emotions (those that coincide with the love song idea) like love and passion and excitement and fear and peace and tranquility are there, as are the less obvious (to me) like anger, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety and more are all represented, although somewhat disconnected due to a lack of any coherent narrative to tie them together.

Without the constraints of being confined to experiencing the piece within the context of a love story, I can find more enjoyment of the piece listening to it on my own terms, with some lack of continuity that Messiaen’s narrative would offer. As American music critic Michael Walsh said, “It’s a holy terror, but a hell of a good time.”

This is the piece that made yesterday’s Mozart Monday feel so refreshing and simple, and it was a good departure. It’s not one of my favorites, but certainly has its moments. We will be back to our regularly-scheduled programming next week (another romantic piece), with our first (real) concerto coming up. Breaking away from symphonies. Stay tuned for our next post.

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