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The Turangalîla-Symphonie is a love song. The Turangalîla-Symphonie is a hymn to joy. Not the respectable, calmly euphoric joy of some good man of the 17th century, but joy as it may be conceived by someone who has glimpsed it only in the midst of sadness: in other words, a joy that is superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited. Love is present here in the same manner: this is a love that is fatal, irresistible, transcending everything, suppressing everything outside itself, a love such as is symbolised by the love potion of Tristan and Yseult.

Olivier Messiaen

So wrote Messiaen in a note introducing his revolutionary and revelatory symphony. Within these few sentences he reveals as much about himself as he does the work. We will explore more about that in due course. First though, let’s imagine, ourselves travelling back in time to 2 December 1949, when the work is given its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. Messiaen’s former pupil Yvonne Loriod is the piano soloist and Ginette Martenot is playing the ondes martenot – appropriately enough, as the instrument was invented by her brother Maurice Martenot in 1928. ‘Ondes’ means ‘waves’, and this early electronic instrument produces swooping waves of sound.

Serge Koussevitzky, the visionary conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had commissioned the piece in a bold gesture of faith. Not only was this Messiaen’s first major international commission, but it also came with few strictures limiting the length or instrumentation. When the commission was accepted, Messiaen added that he would need ‘a minimum of six months, a maximum of one year’.

That was in 1945. Three years later, he finally finished the work. The delay is hardly surprising considering that his planned symphony grew vastly in ambition, developing into a 10-movement piece lasting around 75 minutes. The result was a work on the scale of Mahler at his most expansive; one that blurred the boundaries of form, with its vast number of movements and hugely virtuoso piano part, not to mention the equally striking role of the ondes martenot. It was the latter’s first major outing in a symphonic work, though Messiaen had previously showcased it in his Fêtes des belles eaux for six ondes martenots, inspired by the fountains at the 1937 Paris Exposition.

Nicola Benedetti and Tom Service discuss the final performance of LSO's 2023 residency, Olivier Messiaen's "comic" Turangalîla.

Koussevitzky was thrilled with the result, and it was only physical frailty that led him to hand over the premiere to his protégé Bernstein. In a contemporary interview, he said: ‘My opinion is that this symphony is, after The Rite of Spring, the greatest composition composed in our century … I want to ask only the public to have more patience and to listen… This symphony is new in every way: in melodical line, in harmonical structure, in form. Therefore, have patience and listen…’.

It’s interesting that Koussevitzky offered such special pleading. For all we might decry the state of today’s world, ours is – culturally at least – a more pluralistic society in which multiple perspectives can coexist; one of the themes of this year’s Festival. Reading early reviews of the Turangalîla-Symphonie, it might seem odd to us now that the element that most discomfited its critics, besides its length, was the work’s overt emotionalism, a quality that was spiritually at odds with the hard-edged modernism of the time.

In this regard Messiaen was ahead of the curve. Within his music we find a constant drawing on cultures beyond the confines of the western classical tradition. This is embedded in the very name of this work, formed from the Sanskrit words ‘Turanga’ – which, explained the composer, denotes movement and rhythm, ‘time that runs, like a galloping horse’ and ‘that flows, like sand in an hourglass’; and ‘Lîla’, which means ‘play’, but in the sense of ‘the divine action on the cosmos, the play of creation, of destruction… of life and death’.

Turangalîla also stands apart from most of Messiaen’s output in being secular in impulse, forming the centre of a trilogy of pieces (along with vocal works Harawi and Cinq rechants) inspired by the Tristan myth – a medieval chivalric romance based on an ancient Celtic love story. Here, the focus was not a narrative in the Wagner mould (although he references Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the eighth movement), but a focus on the essential ‘love-death’ element, which he transforms in Turangalîla into a heady exploration of eternity and cosmic transcendence.

Returning now to that opening quote, Messiaen does indeed find joy in the midst of sadness, or to pick up on another of this Festival’s threads, hope in the face of adversity. The 1940s were a time of profound personal suffering: during the Second World War Messiaen was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp, where he wrote the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, and his wife Claire Delbos endured a long, debilitating illness leading to her eventual confinement to a mental hospital. But there’s joy, too, most potently in meeting Yvonne Loriod, his artistic soulmate, who would finally become his second wife in 1961, two years after the death of Delbos.

The composer is careful to steer us through the piece, much as he’d done a few years earlier in his remarkable piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, firstly by giving evocative titles to each of the 10 movements. ‘Turangalîla’ 1, 2 and 3 (movements 3, 7 and 9) are pagan-sounding and rhythmically strong-jawed, contrasting with four ‘amour’ movements (Nos 2, 4, 6 and 8), and the dancing, pulsing No 5 brings the first part of the work to a climactic close. The whole piece is bookended by an Introduction, which presents both the ‘Turanga’ and ‘Lîla’ elements, and a Final in which dancing energy and the love theme are pitted against one another, with the latter having the last word in a wildly voluptuous coda. All this is achieved using an orchestra with a particularly large percussion section (though without timpani), including vibraphone, glockenspiel and celesta.

So how to approach such an all-encompassing work? Many an intellectual has offered pathways through its vast vistas, its complexities and innovations; and it has proved an irresistible subject for PhD students the world over, whose various engagements have included explanations of its rhythmic innovation using algebra, to explorations of whether Messiaen’s inspiration from non-western sources could be regarded as cultural appropriation. But try leaving theory aside and, as Koussevitzky implored, simply listen: Turangalîla offers plenty of earworms along the way, whether a catchy rhythm or the briefest of melodies. There’s birdsong in there, too, and moments of madcap Tom-and-Jerryish energy. A different element might captivate each listener, and so it’s arguably less important to try to rationalise the genius that lies behind Messiaen’s creation than to treat it as an immersive experience. If at times during the process you feel yourself adrift in a sea of beauty, then that’s part of the work’s power, one that speaks as potently to us today as it has ever done.

Where can I buy tickets?

London Symphony Orchestra: Turangalîla is at Usher Hall on 18 August 2023.

© Harriet Smith

Harriet Smith is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She contributes regularly to Gramophone magazine and is former Editor of BBC Music Magazine and founding Editor of International Record Reviewand International Piano Quarterly. In her spare time, she enjoys tending her garden on the east Kent coast.