Spring Symphonies: 23/60 Messiaen: Turangalîla

The blog moves from a work by Leonard Bernstein to a work that Bernstein premiered in 1949 in Boston (though it should have been Serge Koussevitsky) leading the Boston Symphony in the work that the orchestra had commissioned.  Messiaen was told he could  write whatever he liked.  The result is a vast piece for huge (100+) orchestra including a virtuoso pianist and ondes martenot (an early amplified electronic instrument) player and a immense percussion section requiring up to 11 players. 

It is like nothing else written before (or since in my experience) it has huge sensuous qualities and vast thematic and rhythmical delight - the backstory covers everything between bird song, Eastern mysticism and terrifying Mexican gods.  But it is essentially a reaction to a cruel war, liberation and a new musical order.

Why listen to it?  For me it’s not the most moving of Messiaen’s works but it is, surprisingly the most accessible and most popular. Its vast canvas is full of interest as you listen carefully to it and the pacing of the movement and their structure is pleasingly symphonic once you get your head round some of the themes and mottos.  There have been many great recordings too - conductors seem to love it - and pianists do too.  It can be enjoyed at many levels. I’m not sure whether this brief guide will muddy the waters or help - it is a bit of a jungle of notes out there and any trail or path might lead to a dead end.  But please enjoy the wide vistas, atmospheric, Tristanesque love music and the beautiful birds. 

1. Introduction. Modéré, un peu vif
First movement explodes with a euphonious combination of instruments and we learn very quickly that when Messiaen deploys the whole orchestra that there’s a lot that goes on at once and at volume.  And yet sometimes as here there are still episodes just for piano which lift the pressure of all that noise.  The harsh bass notes from the ondes give one a sense of it’s versatility - it can be a very stressful sound at times, more tense music follows with repeating patterns against distance shifting strings and woodwind chords.  And this is what it is going to be like on and off for the next 60 minutes .  Clangerous fanfares ring out but in a moment of decisive scoring and maybe even some humour its struck dead with a drum 

2. Chant d’amour (Love song) 1. Modéré, lourd 
There are mixed moods in this movement (probably true for them all at one level or another) but the sheer variety and concentration of Messiaen’s ideas is impressive from a wandering flute amongst a vision of slithering things to trumpets and the rude interruption by a tortuous scale of seemingly endless obstinate notes.

3. Turangalîla 1. Presque lent, rêveur
This movement has a perfectly calm and quiet but luminous chamber atmosphere.  The clarinet solo has haunting vulnerability only to be matched by a pantechnicon of bass - smokey strings and echoing Ondes.  The music changes its mood from introspective to aggressive and it ends as quietly as it has begun

4. Chant d’amour 2. Bien modéré
I find this the toughest movement of the lot to see through or indeed to imagine what story it tells.  There’s great deal of variety in it from birdsong to an almost laughable, disconcerting acceleration building to a false climax.  I like the brass writing and the way that the piano comes to dance and pirouette in the face of the leviathan of the orchestral power.  It enflames the spirits and passions and yet takes us no further on I fear.

5. Joie du Sang des Étoiles (Joy of the Blood of the Stars). Vif, passionné avec joie:
This is the most immediately lyrical of all the movements in this work.  It swings along in celebratory mood and great dance of some sort - distended and overblown but absolutely glorious.  The oNdes is given it’s head and the piano part is both wonderfully decorative and part of the rhythmic backbone. I love the momentum behind this piece - its one of those moments in music where you might feel completely helpless about your control of time.  The piano interrupts and the great motto appears again.  If you listen to one movement of Messiaen in your life this should be it.

6. Jardin du Sommeil d’amour (Garden of Love’s Sleep).Très modéré, très tendre:
This is a quiet movement full of a delicate nuance and peace.  There’s more birdsong from the piano.  It is a garden and if lover’s sleep here it is a paradise away from the cares of the world - which is how it should be and in 1949 it was I think a laudable thing to present to the world.  It simple suspends itself in one’s mind for long enough to put us into a hypnotic start

7. Turangalîla 2. Un peu vif, bien modéré
More birdsong from the piano - and a better ornithologist than I would be able to tell you what birds we have represented here.  Its a prelude to some further and rather discordant pointillism but there’s an undercurrent of tension there in the pedal notes.  The piano part burbles, erupts, flickers and shines but the motto theme interrupts to suggest some bizarre chase and after a brief encounter the movement finishes with a quick alarm call like a flurry of a little birds spying a cat.

8. Développement d’amour (Development of Love)
This takes the softer theme we’ve heard in the Jardin du Sommeil d’amour and fixes in a more imposing environment - there’s something slightly incongruous here.  The lovers from before are imposing or imposed upon.  There are some gorgeous, slight touches (especially in the silences) and some grand gestures in full orchestra - it pushes some familiar themes and mottos as far as they can be taken. And it ends in a kind of stasis - falling its over declamations. The piano users in the final section having seemingly overcome all comers.  The final section is almost comically triumphant with dazzling demands of the pianist too.  The heavy motto is a violent afterword - with its echo an essential part of any recording!

9. Turangalîla 3. Bien modéré
The third and final Turangalîla movement pecks away - it’s quite trippy and fills the gap for an essentially rhythmically led movement with the percussion doing lots of the work.  It is essentially a theme and variation movement.  The rich exoticism of percussion has never seemed to me to be used with such skill until much later in the century.  The whole thing has a feeling of greta atmosphere - in the manner of Debussy and Ravel but at the same time it’s quite restrained compared to other movements.  

10. Final. Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie
The final movement speeds the themes and throws the whole ecstatic lot around the orchestra like a fantastical game of pass the parcel.  The scoring is brilliant and euphoric.  One can feel for Messiaen freed from the shackles of war time.  The canvas he paints is vast and must be a hoot to conduct.  The final bars are, I think, in the composer’s mind Heavenly and it that’s your vision then go with it.  For me there is something akin to the expansive and inextinguishable nature of Nielsen’s music of 50 years before Turangalîla here and that indomitability is infectious - so to me this is the triumph of the human spirit and a tribute to Messiaen’s faith in both Heaven and earth.

So dive in if you dare - the whole piece makes for a wild car or train journey.  Here’s a vital and youthful performance form the Proms in 2012 which blew my socks off :-)



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