Star Wars at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg? Not quite, but the first movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony truly reminded me of the battle between good and evil, laser swords drawn, and the eery, spacey soundtrack of Episode VII. It was even more impressive yesterday evening, when performed live by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel with Yuja Wang at the piano and Cynthia Miller on a device called “Ondes Martenot” (Martenot Waves) than on my recording of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly. This music is very powerful and has had a lasting impression on me, especially in its many subtle tones.
Tristan and Isolde revisited
Messiaen wrote this piece between 1946 and 1948 and revised it in 1990. Since I have covered Messiaen’s background in an earlier post, let’s proceed immediately to the piece itself. It was the result of a commission by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was first performed in Boston on December 2, 1949 under Leonard Bernstein. Messiaen wrote it at a time when he was fascinated by themes of romantic love and death.
The name of the work directly refers to this as the Sanskrit words “Turanga” and “lîla” refer to the the passage of time and the play of creation, destruction, life and death respectively. The symphony is part of trilogy inspired by the Tristan and Isolde legend. The other two are “Harawi”, a song-cycle, and “Cinq Rechants”, for twelve unaccompanied voices.
Here is how Oxford Music Online describes the reception of the piece: “Reactions to it were divided. Its rapturous love music, exultant dances, scintillating coloring and extraordinary images appealed to many; others were appalled by what they considered its vulgarity.” Interestingly, Pierre Boulez, who passed away just a few days ago and who was one of Messiaen’s enthusiastic pupils, was dismissive of the new piece, and Boulez’ polemic remarks cast a shadow on the friendship between master and pupil.
Love on a cosmic scale
The Turangalîla Symphony has ten movements and goes well beyond the classical concept of a symphony as we know it from the Vienna Classics. Four main themes can be recognized: the Statue theme and the Flower theme, both introduced in the first movement, the Love theme appearing several times, and a specific chain of chords. I deem it futile to discuss each movement in detail as I do not think it will lead us very far. However, if you listen carefully, you will recognize the themes and I will point out a few land marks:
- Mvt. 5 Joie du Sang des Étoiles: A quick, joyful part, the Statue theme played fast by the horns and trombones, illustrating according to Messiaen the union of two lovers seen as a transformation on a cosmic scale, an idea that we will revisit when I will present Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde”.
- Mvt. 6 Jardin du Sommeil d’amour: The Love theme, performed by the Ondes Martenot and the strings, accompanied by idealized birdsong, as we have seen it in Messiaen’s piece “Chronochromie“. Messiaen has entrusted the idealized birdsong to the piano. A peaceful part, illustrating according to Messiaen, the two lovers’ sleep.
- Mvt. 8 Développement d’amour: the two lovers realize they are trapped in a passion of infinite dimensions. Parts of the introduction are repeated, the chords theme, the Flower theme and the Love theme shine through the sound landscape.
- Mvt. 10 Final: two variations of the Love theme, performed first by the brass, than by the entire orchestra while the Ondes Martenot are played in their highest registers.
What strikes me are the many dimensions this piece has. There is so much to discover, so many unusual sound combinations to enjoy and to revel in. Arnold Schönberg would have been proud!
Yuja Wang challenged by the orchestra
If the Turangalîla Symphony did not give Yuja Wang the opportunity to prove her amazing talent as a solo pianist, it let her demonstrate how accomplished a team player she is. The piece, lacking longer melodious parts, has few musical landmarks to guide the pianist, and at times the pianist, in charge of the more subtle tones, has to compete against the complete orchestra with the brass playing fortissimo (at full volume). A challenging task that Yuja Wang did master very well.
Special praise goes to Cynthia Miller at her fascinating electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot. I caught a glimpse of this device before the musicians came in: it’s a kind of early synthesizer and… well it looked battered. I kept wondering whether it would last through the 70 minutes! However Cynthia Miller seemed totally at ease, fully focused on what she was doing and yes, Messiaen kept her busy: playing the keyboard, producing long, eery, modulated sounds by changing the oscillating frequency of the vacuum tubes, turning knobs and dials here and there – I couldn’t look anywhere else. Well, occasionally I did look at that beautiful Venezuelan cellist sitting just opposite to me!
As for the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, they performed well, though not necessarily with enthusiasm. But then again the Turangîla Symphony does not easily ignite passion, neither among the musicians nor among the audience. A piece for the connoisseur!
© Charles Thibo
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