Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Turangalîla or bust

"You never know what is enough," declared Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "unless you know what is more than enough." Whether Olivier Messiaen was familiar with Blake is anybody's guess, but this over-the-top aesthetic would have suited him to perfection. Certainly it applies to his Turangalîla Symphony, which I heard at Carnegie Hall on Sunday night, in a sizzling performance by the Yale Philharmonia and pianist Wei-Yi Yang. The piece, like many of Messiaen's compositions, is a genre-busting whopper: nearly 80 minutes of music, with a rainbow palette and wild-and-crazy rhythmic displacements that make Stravinsky sound positively sedate. There's also the ondes Martenot, a Jazz Age electronic keyboard whose swooping glissandi evoke both the typewriter-and-klaxon instrumentation of the Futurists and "Good Vibrations." Oh, and let's not forget the formidable percussion battery, which you can learn about in this excellent video. The composer even specified the configuration of percussionists, in a diagram that resembles some sort of tricky French polymer:

The result, divided into ten sections, is a hymn to God. That is no surprise: Messiaen may have been the most devout of the great modernists, who played organ every Sunday at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris. Alex Ross quotes a great bit from Aaron Copland about the organist's less-than-conventional offerings: "Visited Messiaen in the organ loft at Trinité. Heard him improvise at noon. Everything from the 'devil' in the bass, to Radio City Music Hall harmonies in the treble. Why the Church allows it during service is a mystery." Diabolical tritones, sugary sixths--they all fit the bill, since Messiaen's Catholicism was as unorthodox as his harmonic theories. He was a musical pantheist, who saw the Creator's fingerprints everywhere but also imagined a world enveloped in sound. "The tonic triad, the dominant, the ninth chord are not theories," he wrote, "but phenomena that manifest themselves spontaneously around us and that we cannot deny." (Tell that to Pierre Boulez!)

Anyway, the performance was raucous, sprawling, jubilant, insistently physical--which is to say, also a hymn to earthly love. (The title is pidgin Sanskrit, a kitchen-sink formulation that the composer translated as "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death.") Messiaen lashes together his unruly creation with a handful of melodic motifs. The most memorable, perhaps, is the sawtooth figure above, which he called the "statue theme." Scored initially for trombones and tuba, it's one menacing fanfare. Yet it keeps resurfacing throughout the symphony, often shouldering its way into more gentle passages with huge sunburst unisons. The piece proceeds from climax to climax, sometimes a little mercilessly. You want to catch your breath before the next jouissance. Yet there are also delicate, floating interludes--Messiaen's version of the pastoral, or possibly afterglow, depending on your metaphor--the most notable of which is the sixth movement, "Jardin du sommeil d'amour." The shimmering string washes and tiptoeing commentary from the piano suggest Ives, particularly the diaphanous textures of The Unanswered Question. But the mood, compounded of sweetness and metaphysical awe, is Messiaen's alone.

I love how you describe Messiaen with all the right words in this post! :)
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?