|No. 246 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast246|
This week’s Blog and Podcast is the first of a pair of “single work:” podcasts, picking up an old podcasrt arc from a couple of years ago. It also serves as tribute to this week’s featured composer, who died 25 years ago.
Post World War II was a turbulent time for classical music. If it ever existed, the linear narrative of music from Bach through Brahms had broken down. In 1949, the year Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie premiered in Boston, Richard Strauss died, the school for new music in Darmstadt, Germany, celebrated Schoenberg’s 75th birthday with performances of his works, and Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music appeared, in which he wrote that new music had “taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world.” This didn’t mean that audiences were eager to embrace new music…
Turangalîla is one of the most epic symphonic works of the 20th century. An example of “world music” long before that term had currency, it combines the Tristan myth, Eastern mysticism, Hindu and Greek rhythms, Indian scales, African dance, Indonesian drumming, and Poe-inspired Gothicism, while laying out Messiaen’s lifelong signatures, including birdsong, piercing woodwind choirs, and mystical blocks of sound. Few symphonic works are more challenging, yet more viscerally thrilling.
Messiaen faced much personal tragedy during and after WWII – his capture and internment in a German Stalag, and the increasingly debilitating mental illness of his wife, Claire Delbos. Among his first students at the Paris Conservatoire was Yvonne Loriod, a brilliant pianist who was his inspiration for the Turangalîla-Symphonie and became his second wife after Delbos’ death. It was in this context that, in 1945, Serge Koussevitsky commissioned the work.
The Turangalîla-Symphonie focuses essentially on love: its euphoria, terror, and link with death. The title of the symphony itself suggests the interwining of love and death, combining two Sanskrit words, “turanga” (“the passage of time, movement, and rhythm”) and “lîla” (“the play of creation, destruction, life and death, also love”). It was Messiaen’s first large orchestral piece and notable for inclusion of prominent solo parts for piano and ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument known for its otherworldly sound.
While a symphony in name, Turangalîla bears little relation to a traditional symphony, unfolding in 10 movements - some harshly dissonant, others unabashedly sensual. It retains elements of classical form, but inaugurates a counter-tradition of stasis, repetition, and mosaic-like color patterns.
The premiere of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra received mostly negative reviews. Koussevitsky had a different view, proclaiming the Turangalîla-Symphonie “the greatest composition composed in our century” after Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. If performances and recordings are any indicator, Koussevitsky’s judgment came closest to the mark.
The recording featured in this week’s podcast is a vintage recording by a young Seiji Ozawa during his tenure as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony. (We have to note the close relationship between Ozawa, Messiaen and Leonard Bernstein, which gives much credence to the performance). Although there have been recordings specifically identified as having benefited from Messiaen’s personal supervision, the presence of Messiaen’s wife and sister in law (Yvonne Loriod is the pianist and her sister, Jeanne Loriod, plays the ondes Martenot) very likely mean that Messiaen was in Toronto during the sessions. There have been numerous accounts of Turangalîla since Ozawa's pioneering effort in 1967 (the first really viable version of the stereo era), but none have surpassed Ozawa for the ideal balance of elemental power and discipline; the majestic energy and terrifying ethereality can be best described as explosive.
I think you will love this music too!