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See This: Messiaen’s cosmic game of time and love

Seattle Symphony Orchestra's Ludovic Morlot conducts Messiaen's remarkable "Turangalîla" Symphony.
Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Ben VanHouten

Ludovic Morlot and the SSO.

Ludovic Morlot and the SSO. Photo: Ben VanHouten

There’s one program you shouldn't miss in the remainder of Seattle Symphony’s season, and it’s coming up this week: the “Turangalîla” Symphony  by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Inspired by his reinterpretation of a famous legend of illicit romantic desire, Messiaen draws on a vast spectrum of musical components, from oversexed harmonies to rhythmic patterns of mind-boggling complexity. As a whole, the “Turangalîla” experience is on a different order from the “normal” concert hall experience. It is music that resembles nothing else.

“Hearing ‘Turangalîla’ in a live performance for the first time was a revelation for me,” says Seattle Symphony’s music director, Ludovic Morlot, who will lead the orchestra in its first-ever interpretation of the piece. “I wanted to share that experience with our audiences.” He describes Messiaen’s score as “a blowing volcano of joy and life, with its roaring sonic lava at some moments and the most delicate colors you can imagine at others.”

Many of Messiaen's compositions take on grandly theological themes and focus on the cosmic and apocalyptic. A native of southeastern France and the son of an artistic family, Messiaen embraced a highly personal brand of Catholicism that set him out of sync in a secular age. His best known work, “Quartet for the End of Time,” is a chamber piece composed while he was a POW in Germany. 

But the intricacies of nature in this world likewise obsessed Messiaen and “Turangalîla” itself stands apart from his overtly theological works. The piece is one of a trilogy of compositions Messiaen wrote in the 1940s, inspired by the mythic tale of Tristan and Isolde’s overwhelming passion.

At the time, Messiaen was an enormously influential teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, where he’d fallen in love with the brilliant young pianist, Yvonne Loriod. Eventually, she became his second wife, but at the time he was already married and seems to have channeled his desire for Yvonne into a trilogy of works invoking the Tristan story.

See the video below for a sample of Messiaen’s interaction with students at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was a legendary teacher.

While the other two scores in the "Tristan Trilogy" set texts to music, “Turangalîla” – usually heard on its own, as in this week’s concerts – is purely orchestral. The composition draws on an enormous range of sounds: the rhythmic structures of Hindu music, the ancient sonorities of the Indonesian gamelan, the electronic ondes Martenot, bird song, world mythology and the color combinations he associated with particular harmonies to mention just a few. (The ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument revived by Radiohead, is similar in sound to the swooping horror-flick wails of the theremin.)

The “Turangalîla” Symphony enfolds references to the intense desire of Tristan and Isolde within a dazzling, multi-layered, at times orgiastic canvas. The Sanskrit title translates loosely to “The Game of Time” – if “game” is understood as the cosmic play of love and death (“lîla”), creation and destruction, that keeps the universe spinning through time (“turanga”).

Twentieth century composers have been criticized for turning their backs on their audiences in a Pied Piper-like quest for originality. The charge is they simply stopped caring about communicating. For Messiaen though, originality did not conflict with his belief in music as a vehicle to contemplate the beauty and awe of the created world – including the dance of erotic desire that lies at the center of the “Turangalîla” Symphony.

Though he pioneered some of the “cerebral” techniques used by prominent modernist composers, his scores recall the most ecstatic moments of Romanticism. He had faith in music’s capacity to reveal high-stakes truths and — though he disliked being compared to a mystic — his language conveys something close to a mystical liberation from the ego.

“It’s a potent and in essence spiritual work,” explains Morlot, “[addressing] the universal virtues of love, hope and truth that lie in the foundation of many religions” and striving to outline a path “to reach eternal love and joy beyond the limits of death.” At his greatest, Messiaen approaches a realm similar to late-period Beethoven or the jumbled ecstasies of free jazz.


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