The symphony was composed between 1946 and 1948 as a commission by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein conducted the first performance on December 2, 1949. It is scored for a very large orchestra, which includes an exceptional number and variety of keyboard and percussion instruments. The keyboard department includes a piano part of soloistic proportions, glockenspiel, celesta and vibraphone, all of whose combined sounds reproduce approximately the effect of a Balinese gamelan ensemble. Additional percussion instruments include triangle, temple blocks, wood block, cymbals, Turkish cymbal, Chinese cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, maracas, tubular bells, bass drum, side (snare) drum, and Tambourin provençal. (Surprisingly, there are no timpani.) Another special tone color in the Turangalîla Symphony comes from the ondes Martenot, an electronic keyboard with a strange, mystical sound invented by Maurice Martenot in 1920. It uses an oscillator to produce pitches, one at a time. Messiaen wrote that “everyone is aware of it in those moments of paroxysm, when it dominates the fortissimo with its expressive and high-pitched voice. But it is also used in the serious and in the sweetly lyric passages for velvety glissandos, for tone color, and for echo themes.”

Messiaen explained the meaning of “turangalîla” as a combination of two Sanskrit words: turanga, meaning time which flows, movement or rhythm; and lîla, meaning a kind of cosmic love involving acts of creation, destruction and reconstruction, the play of life and death. The composer thus saw his symphony as “a song of love, a hymn to joy,” a concept enlarged by his biographer Robert Sherlaw Johnson to mean “a superhuman and abandoned joy, a fatal, irresistible love, transcending all and suppressing all outside of itself. Johnson also sees the symphony as “a vast musical painting, affording glimpses of a surrealistic dream world where love and death, pain and ecstasy or the sensuous world of lovers and the horrors of Edgar Allan Poe come together in stark contrast.”

The score is laid out in ten movements. An Introduction and Finale frame three interlocking series: two movements entitled “Chant d’amour” (Hymn of Love), three entitled “Turangalila”, and three additional movements each with a separate title. The huge structure is pervaded by four main motifs, which Messiaen called “cyclic themes.” Superimposition of rhythmic and melodic ideas, as well as dynamic contrasts of tone colors, textures and rhythms form the essential compositional elements of the Turangalîla Symphony.

I. Introduction

In the first movement two of the four “cyclic themes” are presented: 1) the Statue Theme (ponderous, slowly moving trombone chords played fortissismo — these evoke for the composer the image of awesome old Mexican monuments) and 2) the “Flower Theme (brief clarinet arabesques played pianissimo — smooth, curved, like the petals of a flower). A piano cadenza leads into a second section, in which various rhythmic and textural layers are superimposed to form a complex sound world. The movement concludes with a reiteration of the Statue Theme.

II. Chant d’amour 1 (Love Song 1)

This movement is laid out as a series of four refrains alternating with other, harmonically and melodically related material. The refrain is a two-part affair consisting of radically contrasting elements: (1) a vigorous, almost ecstatic presentation by the upper-range strings and woodwinds, reinforced by trumpets; (2) a quiet, smoothly lyrical passage played by the strings and ondes Martenot; this is the third of the four cycle themes, the Love Theme. The third and fourth refrains consist of only the first element.

III. Turangalîla 1

The first of the three Turangalîla movements opens with chamber music — a solo clarinet in dialog with the ones Martenot (the theme follows exactly the rhythm, though not the pitches, of the famous bassoon opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), with discreet punctuations from the glockenspiel, vibraphone, double bass and piano, all to be played, Messiaen instructs, in a “dreamy” (réveur) manner. Trombones and bassoons, in stentorian tones, hurl forth the second theme to the gamelan-inspired accompaniment of piano, celesta, glockenspiel and vibraphone. The sinuous third theme, still to the pseudo-gamelan accompaniment, is given to the solo oboe, then flute. The texture becomes enormously complex, but suddenly breaks off for a final passage of “dreamy” music derived from the sinuous third theme.

IV. Chant d’amour 2 (Love Song 2)

This movement begins as a scherzo for piccolo and bassoon playing four octaves apart. Percussion, notably the wood block and later the piano, join in. A bridge passage leads into the first trio (full orchestra), which followed immediately by a second trio (seven solo violins and a cello). The two trios are then superimposed, with simulated birdsong played by the piano. Another bridge passage leads to the superimposition of the trios, the scherzo idea and the Statue Theme. Messiaen informs us that “all the elements of the piece are heard simultaneously in a complex scaffolding of ten superimposed musical entities.” Following a cadenza for the piano comes the coda, wherein we hear the Flower Theme pianissimo and the Statue Theme fortissimo. “Note the conclusion,” says Messiaen — “a fanlike effect in the vibraphone and piano over a tranquil and unctuous base of the three trombones pianissimo.”

V. Joie du sang des étoiles (Joy of the Blood of the Stars)

This is the most rhythmically stable and the most tonal (much of it is in clearly defined D-flat major) movement in the symphony. Messiaen calls it “a frenetic dance of joy. To understand the excesses of this piece, one must remember that the union of true lovers is for them a transformation on a cosmic scale.” The composer reminds us of Juliet’s words, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” and Tristan’s to Isolde: “If the whole world were here with us, I would not see anyone but you.” Messiaen refers to this music as an “African dance,” which hurtles along in relentless, rapid triple meter to create an almost hypnotic effect. Musically, the movement is based on a single theme, that of the Statue, which the orchestra develops in a thousand sparkling, glistening, dazzling colors.

VI. Jardin du sommeil d’amour (Garden of Love’s Sleep)

This is the symphony’s longest movement. It is the “slow” movement, and stands in total contrast to what just preceded it. Messiaen describes it as “a single expansive phrase on the love theme,” played by the ondes and muted strings. The piano evokes birdsong while solo flute and clarinet trace gentle arabesques. The music is quiet throughout, rarely rising above piano. The composer depicts the scene in these poetic terms: “The two lovers are enclosed in love’s sleep. A landscape issues forth from them. … It is a garden filled with shadow and light, of new plants and flowers, of bright and melodious birds. … Time flows forgotten. The lovers are outside time; let us not waken them.”

VII. Turangalîla 2

This movement is made up of several short sections: a piano cadenza; a passage in which the ondes descends while the trombones and tuba ascend, producing what Messiaen calls “a fan closing in on itself”; a construct for six pieces of percussion alone; a perky theme for the solo cello played against a background of glistening keyboard instruments and woodwinds; recurrence of the “fan” music; a densely scored passage for full orchestra; solo piano plus a brief statement of the Statue Theme; final appearance of the “fan.” According to the composer, this movement depicts the horrors of Poe’s tale “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

VIII. Developpement de l’amour (Development of Love)

The fourth cyclic theme, the Chords Theme, is heard most clearly at the beginning and end of this movement. Messiaen calls this “a simple chain of chords. More than a theme, it is a pretext for different sound strata. … This Chords Theme embodies the formula of the alchemists’ doctrine: ‘dissociate and coagulate.’” The movement’s title has a dual meaning: the furtherance of love for an inseparable couple, and musical development of all four motifs that unify the symphony: Statue, Flower, Chords and especially the Love Theme, which Messiaen presents in what he calls “three great explosions, [which] show us Tristan and Isolde transcended by Tristan-Isolde, the peak of the whole symphony. The final tam-tam stroke stirs echoing vibrations in the caves of oracles; one hears resonances from the languages of the beyond, and the Statue Theme bends over the abyss … ”

IX. Turangalîla 3

This is a short but fascinating movement. It opens with the chamber music textures of Turangalila I, led by the solo clarinet. Next, recalling Turangailia 2, we hear six untuned pieces of percussion, which are soon joined by the keyboard group (piano, celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone), which begins to develop the opening clarinet melody. The texture becomes more complex when woodwinds are added. Winds drop out temporarily for us to hear thirteen solo strings superimposed on the percussion, both groups lined up in a complex rhythmic layering. Harmony and rhythm become one. To this is added the keyboard group, and eventually the woodwinds, each group playing its own material yet combined in a way to produce a glowing, magical sound world.

X. Finale

The final movement is a rapturous, almost delirious dance of joy in the key of F-sharp major, which to Messiaen was the most luminescent (lumineuse) of keys. A huge crescendo leads into the final presentation of the Love Theme, now proclaimed by the full orchestra in unison, fortississimo. Across the span of ten contrasting movements and nearly eighty minutes of music we have encountered cumulative superimposition, non-retrogradable rhythms, rhythmic modes, cyclic themes, canons, asymmetric augmentation, diminution, and much more. The technical details need concern only musical theorists; listeners are invited to let the music wash over them in a panoply of sensuous colors and textures, which provide a soaring, mystic vision of cosmic love.

Robert Markow [ii-15]


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