Revisit: Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie

performed by Yvonne Loriod, Jeanne Loriod, and the Orchestre de la Bastille under Myung-Whun Chung, or as below with Roger Muraro, Valérie-Hartmann Claverie, and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, also under Chung

(cover image by Kai Oberhauser)

I asked earlier this year in this article what your grief would sound like. What about love? What would love sound like if you had to write it?

It’s funny how you can look back on something from many years ago and it’s kind of like a time machine: you remember how you felt about it, maybe what was going on at that point in your life, what your thoughts were toward it, or how you interpreted it, all of that stuff.

As the title of this article states, I made my first attempt at writing about Messiaen’s massive 1948 work when this blog was still quite young. In fact, it was the 32nd piece of music I posted about, before Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Ravel, Grieg, Mendelssohn, many of the standard composers saw the light of the day on the blog. It was the end of 2013, now coming up on five years ago, and I really couldn’t stomach much from the 20th century, or more accurately past the First World War.

Someone somewhere online, I think, suggested Messiaen’s work as a more… Romantic? delicate? sensual? expressive? modern piece, something maybe to cut my teeth on modern music, and really, it didn’t work. I listened to the piece mindlessly, now what I feel may have been a less than superb recording, and save some very interesting passages, just never really did get terribly excited about the thing as a whole.

Messiaen began work on the piece as a commission from the Boston Symphony, or more specifically from the ever-present Serge Koussivitzky for the Boston Symphony. It was premiered on December 2, 1949 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein with the Boston Symphony.

If you’re at all familiar with Messiaen’s output, you’ll know that his works are quite religious. Pieces of his like Apparition de l’église éternelle, Visions de l’Amen, Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, and others are of a highly religious nature. Aside from his interest in birdsong and religion, one fo his other interests was in the Tristan and Isolde myth. This had apparently been lingering for some time, and conveniently the commission from Koussevitzky had no requirements for basically any details of the piece, so the composer was free to do with it basically whatever he wanted.

I find it darn near oversimplified and almost dismissive the statement that Messiaen made about the work, from Wikipedia, after the praise it’s given:

It is considered a 20th-century masterpiece and a typical performance runs around 80 minutes in length. When asked about the meaning of the work’s duration in its ten movements and the reason for the use of the ondes Martenot, Messiaen simply replied, “It’s a love song.”

The ondes Martenot is assuredly the most unfamiliar instrument in the ensemble, and if you want a really clear idea of what this thing is, you can watch Cynthia Millar introduce it below:

(the excerpt ends at around 2:20)

Aside from that thing and a large orchestra, the piece also incorporates a prominent piano soloist with a demanding part, and very many percussionists. It is in ten movements and lasts about 80 minutes, so we’re really talking big piece.

The ten movements (and the piece as a whole) didn’t have a name until much later in the work’s gestation. Thankfully, programmatic elements really aren’t terribly important here. If you know the story of Tristan and Isolde, you get the idea. If you don’t, as the composer said, “It’s a love song.” Regarding the word Turangalîla, Wiki says:

[Messiaen] derived the title from two Sanskrit words, turanga and lîla, which roughly translate into English as “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death”, and described the joy of Turangalîla as “superhuman, overflowing, dazzling and abandoned.”

That’s a lot to chew on, isn’t it?

In any case, the titles of the ten movements may prove to be at least slightly more insightful. Again, from Wiki:

  1. Introduction. Modéré, un peu vif
  2. Chant d’amour (Love song) 1. Modéré, lourd
  3. Turangalîla 1. Presque lent, rêveur
  4. Chant d’amour 2. Bien modéré
  5. Joie du Sang des Étoiles (Joy of the Blood of the Stars). Vif, passionné avec joie
  6. Jardin du Sommeil d’amour (Garden of Love’s Sleep). Très modéré, très tendre
  7. Turangalîla 2. Un peu vif, bien modéré
  8. Développement d’amour (Development of Love). Bien modéré
  9. Turangalîla 3. Bien modéré
  10. Final. Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie

So we’ve got both programmatic titles and musical markings. Of these, movements 4, 6 and 8 are all over 11 minutes, the two latter over 12. All of the others are under 9, with the shortest being around 4-5 minutes.

If you want to just… keep reading the Wikipedia article, the Cyclic Themes and Structure sections really do a bang-up job at describing what’s going on in this work, so I shan’t reproduce it all here.

In that Cyclic Themes section, though, it describes how aside from themes or content specific to each movement, there are four overarching themes for the piece as a whole. Wiki says

In the score the themes are numbered, but in later writings [Messiaen] gave them names to make them easier to identify, without intending the names to have any other, literary meaning.

So there’s the statue theme, the flower theme, the love theme, and the final one which doesn’t get a name. I think it’s interesting that the composer didn’t intend them to have any “literary meaning” when, for most people, if you’ve gone through the trouble of coining these terms… they should have some meaning, shouldn’t they?

In any case, my own, totally not professional opinion, would be sort of to think of this work as a kind of cosmic love story. The first movement begins by introducing the first two of the aforementioned four themes, sort of like what we’d expect from a sonata-form first movement.

As the piece progresses, though, we get three Turangalîla movements, two ‘love songs’, and you’ll notice it’s not until the eighth movement that we get the “Development of love.” This means we’re literally more than 50 minutes into the work before we get to this development section. Then we have the final Turangalîla and the finale.

The recording of the piece I listened to years ago seemed to feature a way-more-than-prominent ondes Martenot, to the point that it drowned (and/or screeched) out so much of the rest of the ensemble when it would appear. Chung’s recording with the Orchestre de la Bastille was apparently highly praised by the composer himself, and presents a much softer-sounding tapestry.

However, for my ear, it’s still a little pesky. Messiaen, no matter what you may think of his development of the themes, or the almost unwieldy bigness of the work and the ensemble, creates some exceptionally supple sounds, rich, brilliantly colorful writing for the orchestra, but then there’s this thing, a very clearly electronic instrument, that really no matter what, doesn’t jive with the rest of the ensemble’s sound. I appreciate that it’s supposed to stand out and be unique. I get that, and so I really can’t think of an acoustic instrument that would be a suitable replacement…

That being said, this wasn’t the first time Messiaen used the instrument, so whatever.

In the end, though, with all of these themes, the proliferation of symbolism, programmatic titles, development of ideas and concepts, and on and on and on, does this sound like love to you? It’s a great big monster of a work, no doubt, and has some fascinating textures and colors, as well as the overall idea of struggle and victory.

As Wiki said, it’s considered a 20th century masterpiece, and I’m not (necessarily) arguing it shouldn’t be considered so. On extremely rare occasions, I’ll put it on and listen, more to marvel at rather than really enjoy it. For me, it has its glimmering moments, some highlights, but overall, I just don’t find the entire piece compelling in the same way I do, say, a Mahler or Bruckner piece of the same length, one that feels like it’s over in a flash. Turangalîla has never felt that way to me, but I don’t mean to bash it (even if Boulez did).

How do you feel about it? Does it sound like love to you? What does? I’d love to hear what you think.

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