Hyperion Records

1946/8; commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky; first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Ginette Martenot (ondes martenot), Leonard Bernstein conducting, on 2 December 1949

'Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie' (CDA67816)
Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67816 
Movement 01: Introduction
Movement 02: Chant d'amour 1
Movement 03: Turangalīla 1
Movement 04: Chant d'amour 2
Movement 05: Joie du sang des étoiles
Movement 06: Jardin du sommeil d'amour
Movement 07: Turangalīla 2
Movement 08: Développement de l'amour
Movement 09: Turangalīla 3
Movement 10: Final

Messiaen’s first major international commission came from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On 25 June 1945 he wrote asking for a new work:
Dear Mr Messiaen,
It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the Board of Directors of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation have voted to ask you to accept a commission for a composition for symphony orchestra.
The commission is for one thousand dollars, to be paid upon completion of the manuscript …
You will be interested to know that among the composers who have already written for the Foundation are Béla Bartók, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky …

Messiaen didn’t answer for two months, due to a combination of postal delays and language problems, as he explained in his reply on 20 August:

Mon cher Maître,
I apologize for replying so late to your letter of 25 June. (It took a month for it to reach France; you addressed it to the Conservatoire and I was away, so it chased me for another fifteen days; and then I needed to find a translator, as I don’t speak any English.)
I accept with pleasure your commission … I am very touched by your gesture. And I want to make every effort to write a work that will be beautiful and of significant proportions. To succeed, I need time to dream about it, to love it, to perfect it, and to orchestrate it without rushing. That will require a minimum of six months, a maximum of one year. I am going to think about all this now, and will keep you up to date with my work.

Messiaen wrote this letter from his summer home at Petichet, south of Grenoble, while completing the song-cycle Harawi. He also had a pressing commission from Henry Barraud for a piece in memory of wartime deportees for a concert on 2 November 1945. The Chant des déportés was written quickly: on 22 September, a week after finishing Harawi, Messiaen noted that he should ‘give Barraud the score’ of his short commemorative piece. His thoughts could now turn to the Koussevitzky commission, and on 10 October Messiaen noted in his diary that he would ‘write a symphonic work for Koussevitzky’, though teaching and concerts meant that he couldn’t spend time on the new symphony until the following summer. The starting date given on the score is 17 July 1946, and on 14 August Messiaen noted in his diary that he should ‘write the third orchestral piece’, suggesting that two were already finished. The musicologist Klaus Schweizer elicited a valuable account of the order in which the movements were composed from Messiaen himself: ‘I first wrote movements I, IV, VI and X. Then the three rhythmic studies called “Turangalîla” 1, 2 and 3. Then No II. Then the large development that is No VIII. And I finished with No V.’

From this account we can see that Messiaen began by writing four movements that could have functioned as a standard symphonic structure: an opening movement introducing the main cyclic themes (I); a ‘scherzo and two trios’, still described as such in Messiaen’s note for the finished symphony (IV); an extended slow movement (VI), and a finale (X). But Messiaen clearly felt the need to write something less orthodox, and on an altogether grander scale. In his letter to Schweizer tracing the work’s subsequent evolution, Messiaen talks about the order of ‘composition’, and this word needs to be treated with caution. He was referring to composing in short score (his usual practice); the orchestration would come later. The first evidence of fully orchestrated music comes at the start of 1947. On 9 January Messiaen wrote that three movements were being copied ‘under the title Trois Tâla I–II–III’. Messiaen evidently wanted to hear how these sounded before proceeding further. But the word ‘Tâla’ offers considerable scope for confusion: Messiaen sometimes called the three ‘Turangalîla’ movements ‘Tâla’, and he even contemplated calling the entire work ‘Symphonie Tâla’, but the programme notes for the trial performances show that it was movements III, IV and V of the eventual symphony that were played, and a photocopied score headed Trois Tâla confirms this.

By March 1947 Koussevitzky had received a progress report from the composer and he told Time magazine that the new work was a symphony ‘which will have eight movements instead of the usual four’. Messiaen spent the summer of 1947 orchestrating some of the movements composed the previous year and on 23 September he visited Koussevitzky in Paris to play him the piece. Koussevitzky was delighted by what he heard, but Turangalîla was still some way from being finished. The number and order of movements was fluid—according to two plans in the back of Messiaen’s 1947 diary, it had grown from the eight movements quoted in Time to either nine or ten. By the start of the following year things became clearer—in the front of his 1948 diary, Messiaen wrote:

For the Symphony: do not forget the Koussevitzky dedication. Call the eighth movement ‘Développement de l’amour’. Call the three little Tâla: Turangalîla I, Turangalîla II, Turangalîla III. Call the two chants d’amour: Chant d’amour I, Chant d’amour II. Call the symphony Turangalîla-Symphonie. Put the big slow movement afterwards: No. 6.

It was at just this moment that the first trial performances took place. On 14 February (public dress rehearsal) and 15 February (concert), the Trois Tâla were played at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, conducted by André Cluytens. The programme note did not mention that the three pieces were part of a larger work, but news of the performance reached the USA when Jacques de Menasce wrote in the ‘Current Chronicle’ of Musical America that ‘this work is based on Hindu materials, as indicated by the title, and is a successful example of Messiaen’s preoccupations with exotic rhythms and sonorities’.

The summer of 1948 was spent finishing Turangalîla. On 26 July, Messiaen noted that the ‘Symphony was finished today’, though he continued to make revisions throughout the autumn, eventually writing in his diary: ‘9 December: Symphony finished and good from all points of view. I wrote a letter to Koussevitzky on 11 December.’

One sad consequence of Messiaen taking three years to complete Turangalîla became clear when he travelled to Tanglewood in the summer of 1949: Serge Koussevitzky was now too frail to conduct the premiere, and he had given the task to his brilliant protégé, Leonard Bernstein. This was Messiaen’s first visit to the USA. He had been invited to teach a composition class at Tanglewood, and on 29 July he was able to play the whole of Turangalîla for Koussevitzky and Bernstein. Messiaen returned to France at the end of August but soon crossed the Atlantic again, spending the last ten days of November in Boston at the intensive rehearsals for the first performance of the symphony.

The premiere took place in Symphony Hall, Boston, on Friday 2 December 1949 (it was repeated the next day), with Yvonne Loriod as the piano soloist, Ginette Martenot as the ondes martenot soloist and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Press reaction was a mixture of bafflement and ridicule. In the Boston Globe, Cyrus Durgin called it ‘the longest and most futile music within memory’, while Rudolph Elie, writing for the Boston Herald, was troubled by ‘the appalling melodic tawdriness of the three big cyclical themes heard throughout … The first is a motto of six notes Gershwin would have thought better of … the third, a dance of joy, might be ascribed to Hindu Hillbillies, if there be such’.

Koussevitzky was thrilled with his latest commission, as he told Olin Downes during an NBC broadcast on 28 November that included half an hour of Bernstein’s rehearsal. In his inimitable English, Koussevitzky declared: ‘My opinion is this symphony is after Le sacre du printemps the greatest composition composed in our century … I want to ask only the public to have more patience and to listen the symphony … This symphony is new in every way: in melodical line, in harmonical structure, in form. Therefore, have patience and listen with your own interest if you really love the music.’

Following the Boston performances, the same musicians gave the New York premiere in Carnegie Hall on 10 December. W G Rogers began his review by quoting some hostile audience reactions before coming to a more positive verdict of his own: ‘“I wouldn’t give a nickel for the whole blamed thing,” said an angry Carnegie Hall employee who had to stay through it. “If only it was bad enough to start a riot,” a member of the audience complained. Most of the audience, however, clearly found it good enough for generous applause … To this listener, the symphony seemed like one of the most radical extensions of orchestral range, color and expressivity contrived by any modern composer.’

It was not only critics who expressed doubts: so did some of America’s musical elite. On 23 January 1950 Aaron Copland wrote to Irving Fine about ‘the Messiaen Monster’, providing a clue to why Bernstein never returned to it: ‘The Messiaen Monster produced various reactions—more illuminating as to the person reacting than as to the piece itself. Kouss[evitzky] was mad for it;—L[eonard] B[ernstein] cold, in spite of a brilliant job of conducting … It wasn’t my dish of tea—tho I can see its attractions for others.’

Six decades and hundreds of performances later, Turangalîla is established as one of the most astonishing classics of the twentieth century. And there’s one unexpected reflection of its lasting popularity: in Matt Groening’s animated sci-fi sitcom Futurama, the female captain of the Planet Express Ship—athletic, one-eyed, often unlucky in love—is called Turanga Leela.

The Turangalîla-Symphonie is the central pillar in Messiaen’s trilogy of works inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde (framed by Harawi and the Cinq Rechants). The composer’s programme note for the Boston premiere gives short descriptions of each movement, and of the work’s recurring themes:

I. Introduction: Here are heard the first two cyclic themes—the first, in heavy thirds on the trombones; the second, in tender arabesques, on the clarinets.
II. Chant d’amour 1: This movement is a refrain, evoking two violently contrasted aspects of love: passionately carnal love, and tender and idealistic love.
III. Turangalîla 1: A nostalgic theme on the ondes martenot; a weightier theme on the trombones; slow song-like melody for the oboe. Rhythmic play on three planes for the maracas, wood-block and bass drum.
IV. Chant d’amour 2: A scherzo with two trios. In the restatement, the scherzo and two trios appear simultaneously, making a musical scaffolding in three tiers.
V. Joie du sang des étoiles: This is the climax of sensual passion expressed in a long and frenzied dance of joy. The development contains a reversible rhythmic canon between trumpets and trombones, while the piano adds its vehement brilliance to the movement’s wild clamour.
VI. Jardin du sommeil d’amour: Here appears the third cyclic theme: that of love. It is a long slow melody for ondes martenot and the strings, decorated by the vibraphone, the glockenspiel and the bird-song of the piano. Tender, idealistic and ethereal love.
VII. Turangalîla 2: Rhythmic pattern for the percussion, together with ‘rhythmic chromaticism’ of the time-values.
VIII. Développement de l’amour: This movement develops the three cyclic themes.
IX. Turangalîla 3: A rhythmic mode, using a ‘rhythmic chromaticism’ of 17 note-values: it uses five percussion instruments, wood-block, cymbal, maracas, tambourin provençal and tam-tam. Each percussive sound is reinforced by a string chord which is a realisation of its particular resonance, thus uniting the quantitative and phonetic lines.
X. Final: Here are two themes: (1) a joyful fanfare of trumpets and horns; (2) the ‘love’ theme. The coda is based on the love-theme.

Messiaen described Turangalîla to Claude Samuel as ‘the most melodic, the warmest, the most dynamic and the most coloured’ of his works. Elsewhere, he raised an intriguing question of genre: according to the composer, the piano solo part is of such importance and requires such virtuosity, that ‘one could say the Turangalîla-Symphonie is almost a concerto for piano and orchestra.’ Alongside this, Messiaen called Turangalîla ‘a song of love, a hymn to joy. It’s also a vast counterpoint of rhythms’. What he does not do is attempt to explain the work in symphonic terms, but perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, since Messiaen’s handling of form in Turangalîla is anything but conventional. The only movement with any obvious connection to sonata form is the fifth, which is a kind of sonata-scherzo. While this movement is preceded by a relatively straightforward scherzo and trio, and followed by a slow movement that serves as a rapturous meditation on love, much of the rest of the work has no obvious symphonic reference points. And by writing an entire movement (VIII) that is devoted to ‘development’, Messiaen is further extending the conventions of what might be thought of as ‘symphonic’, especially as his concern in the ‘Développement de l’amour’ is more to do with emotional and expressive—rather than motivic—development, especially with its climactic revelation, using a near-quotation, of a direct link with the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

In terms of the musical argument of Turangalîla, Messiaen adds a further dimension with his employment of so-called ‘personnages rythmiques’ (‘rhythmic characters’). Messiaen coined this term to describe the expansion and contraction of rhythmic motifs in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and, by extension, to identify distinctive rhythmic groups in his own music. He employs the technique quite extensively in Turangalîla. Where this much-used terminology by Messiaen originated is less clear, but it is intriguing to speculate on whether the composer was aware of Joan Miró’s painting from 1934 entitled Personnages rythmiques—a depiction of playful, evolving figures derived from animal and human forms.

In terms of its orchestration, the omissions in Turangalîla are almost as surprising as the additional instruments of Messiaen’s psychedelic gamelan, though the absence of timpani and harps may be the last thing we notice in this super-charged and surreal sound world. Solo piano and ondes martenot mix with a vast array of tuned and untuned percussion, as well as strings, woodwind and brass, to produce music with a kind of erotic opulence that is like nothing else in Messiaen.

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2012

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Details for CDA67816 track 2
Chant d'amour 1
Recording date
24 June 2011
Recording venue
Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon & Gunnar Herleif Nilsen
Hyperion usage
  1. Messiaen: Turangalīla-Symphonie (CDA67816)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: August 2012
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