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ClassicsOnline Home » MESSIAEN: Turangalila Symphony / L'ascension
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
'A theological musician', 'a composer of music and rhythmist' as he liked to describe himself, Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon on 10th December, 1908. His father, Pierre, was an English teacher and the author of a French translation of the works of Shakespeare. His mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage, left among her other works a touching account of motherhood in L'âme en Bourgeon, which she wrote while awaiting the composer's birth. Starting at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven, he stayed until 1930, returning in 1941 as a member of the teaching staff, leaving only on reaching retirement age. Hence he spent almost half a century in that venerable institution. He had such outstanding teachers as Maurice Emmanuel (history of music, Greek metrics specialist), Paul Dukas (composition) and Marcel Dupré (organ), he formed several generations of composers (Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis the most radical) and musicians.
Granted tenure of the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ at La Trinité at the age of 22, Messiaen at first concentrated on composing for his instrument, already in a genuinely personal idiom. So in the 1930s he shone as an organist-composer, and the first performance of the four meditations of L'ascension in 1934 was the peak of Messiaen's learning period. In 1935, as a musician, he was moving into his phase of youthful maturity with La Nativité du Seigneur, whose coherent rhythmic system was added to the melodic-harmonic one already in place, and a year later with the formation of the Jeune France group, together with Yves Baudrier, André Jolivet and Daniel Lesur, he was pledging himself to 'a spirit of utter sincerity […] a return to the human'. At the same time, his private life had been enriched by his marriage to the violinist Claire Delbos and the birth of his only child, Pascal.
The war interrupted the cycle of academic life in Paris, the years spent in teaching or in the organ-loft, with summer stays in the Dauphiné devoted to composition. Mobilised as a private soldier, Messiaen was taken prisoner near Nancy and sent to Stalag VIIIA in Silesia, where he spent about a year. In these difficult, extraordinary conditions, he composed the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, another milestone in his evolution, as for the first time it gave a significant place to birdsong. It was first performed on 15th January 1941, in front of five thousand prisoners in Siberian temperatures. 'I've never had such an attentive, understanding audience.'
Set free in Spring 1941, he returned to the Conservatoire to teach harmony, then gathered around himself the elite of musical youth for private lessons in analysis, which are still talked about. There he met the pianist Yvonne Loriod, whom he married in 1962, two years after the death of Claire following a long illness. His growing passion for the young pianist then their impossible love, were the source of major works, not only for piano – beginning with Visions de l'Amen for two pianos (1943) and the immense cycle of Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jésus (1944) – but also for voice or orchestra: Harawi (1945) for voice and piano, the monumental Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-48) and the Cinq Rechants (1948) for twelve mixed voices, reflecting the three phases of the legend of Tristan and Yseult.
'Write me the work you want to, in the style you want, as long as you want, with the instrumental formation you want…' With such specifications, in 1945 Sergey Koussevitzky had persuaded Messiaen to accept one of the first commissions as a composer. Written between July 1946 and November 1948, the Turangalîla-Symphony, which Harry Halbreich compared to 'an enormous chain of mountains' (Olivier Messiaen, Harry Halbreich, 1980) dominates Messiaen's orchestral production, with its ten movements, 2683 bars and its colourful, augmented orchestra of more than a hundred players.
The title, points out Messiaen, is pronounced 'Too-rahn-ger-lee-lah' and comes from the Sanskrit. Its implications are richly varied: 'Lîlâ literally means a game, but game in the sense of divine workings in the cosmos, the game of creation, destruction and reconstruction, the game of life and death. Lîlâ is also Love'. Turanga is 'time that flies like a galloping horse, time that runs out like sand from an hour-glass. Turanga is movement and rhythm. Hence Turangalîla means altogether: song of love, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death'.
As in Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jésus, the work is unified by four recurring generative themes. Messiaen tells us: 'Apart from numerous themes relating to each of the ten movements, the symphony includes four recurring themes which can be heard almost anywhere in the work. The first one, in heavy thirds, almost always played fortissimo by trombones with the heavy, terrifying brutality of old Mexican monuments… has always suggested to me some terrible, deadly statue. I call it statue theme. The second, given to the gentle clarinets, a pianissimo nuance, has two voices like a pair of matching eyes […] Here a flower image is the most apt [flower theme]. The third of these themes is the most important of all, the love theme. The fourth is a simple succession of chords: rather than a theme, it is a pretext for various background music [chord theme…]'.
('Moderate, somewhat animated'). The first of the four sections, having set the tempo, brings in on three occasions the statue theme heralded by an ondes Martenot glissando, then, after an 'almost animated' episode elaborated by descending scales leading to a fall in fourths and a decrescendo, there leaps forth the sweetness of the flower theme. Endowed with complex polyrhythmics, the third section unveils the first piano cadenza before the concluding section goes back to fourths and the statue theme…
Love Song 1 ('Moderate, heavy/Passionate, somewhat animated'). This Love Song is based upon alternating refrains and couplets, with copious development. Its taut rhythmic structure and the passion of the theme – an embryonic form of the love theme – are set against the first refrain's gentle chords and the atonal nature of the first couplet. Amid the sparkling colours, for example 'the effect of a huge piece of silk tearing' produced by the ondes Martenot's glissandi allied to the strings' descending chords in the second couplet – what is to become the love theme gradually takes shape.
Turangalîla 1 (Almost slow, dreamy/Quite moderate) is constructed in three sections around four different themes succeeding each other and superimposed. 'This huge river of sound with multiple strata' (Halbreich) concludes with a gentle, dreamlike coda.
(Quite moderate/Very moderate, lovingly). Developed, like the first, in nine sections, it is complex in form – a variant of a scherzo with two trios. The first trio – on ondes Martenot and strings – gives out in a resounding A major a sonorous, lyrical melody belonging to the love theme, whilst the second one – given to just five violins and cello – restores a definite, if short-lived, calm. Then comes one of the work's most complex sections, where we find a musical synthesis via thematic juxtaposition, bringing together birdsong and the various thematic motifs, crowned by the powerful entry of the statue theme played on the low brass. A second great piano cadenza leads to a coda revealing in turn the flower theme, the statue theme, then the main melody from the first Trio. To finish, a radiant A major.
Joy in the Blood of the Stars (Passionately animated, joyfully / More and more passionate and joyful). Messiaen explains: 'It's along, frenetic dance of joy […] The union of true lovers is for them a transformation, and a transformation on a cosmic scale', a vast form in triple time, with its central development crowned by a coda. The main theme, born of the statue theme, returns like a refrain, whilst the orchestral climax, with its extraordinary heights, finds its match in the piano's third unrestrained cadenza, based on the statue theme.
Garden of the Sleep of Love (Very moderate, very tender). 'This piece provides an utter contrast with the last one. The two lovers are locked away in the sleep of love. A landscape has sprung from them. The garden surrounding them is called Tristan, the garden which surrounds them is called Yseult. […] Time passes, forgotten. The lovers are outside of time: let's not waken them…')
Turangalîla 2. The shortest yet the most dramatic of the ten movements offers the lovers a vision of the abyss. Messiaen suggests that the piano's harsh cadenza which opens this eminently atonal section gradually gives way to the nightmarish atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe's famous tale, The Pit and the Pendulum.
Development of Love. The title plays on the ambiguity between 'the growing passion which increases to infinity' and 'musical development. In a work of ten movements, a few partial developments do not suffice, it needed a whole movement made up of development: here it is.' (Messiaen). Here the love theme appears transfigured in all its glory, framed by the chord theme and the statue theme at the introduction and coda.
Turangalîla 3 (Very moderate). The additions of layers of sound superimposed on each other so as to achieve an ever-increasing density create this slow crescendo of irresistible power, strangely poetic, with sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic refinement.
Finale (Moderate, almost animated, with great joy). In sonata form with two themes, the first being quite new and the second a variation of the love theme, this incandescent movement rejects all intellectualism, the better to celebrate the love theme. In conclusion, 'the melody hangs suspended, in a state of luminous expectation – and this grand gesture towards an ending which does not exist (Glory and Joy are without end) beckons in the Coda'.
Composed between May and July 1932 and orchestrated in July the following year, L'ascension is the most important work of Messiaen's youth and is still one of the most played. Taking their inspiration from Scripture, the four pieces of 'true music, […] spiritual [and] speaking of every subject whilst never ceasing to speak of God,' are not at all the movements of a symphony. These four 'meditations' with varying instrumental formations follow an ascending tonal plan (E, F, F# and A) with modal colour already identifiable as Messiaen's. It was first heard in Paris in 1934, conducted by Robert Siohan.
Majesty of Christ seeking his glory from his Father 'Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee' – John, XVII, 1.
'Christ's exaltation, begun on the Cross, continued in the Resurrection, is only complete on the day of the Ascension' comments Messiaen. Written for brass supported by woodwind, this hieratic chorale reveals a melodic motif in 12/8 on brilliant trumpets.
Serene alleluias of a soul seeking Heaven 'O God, we believe that your only Son ascended unto heaven. Grant us to dwell there ourselves in spirit' – Prayer for the Ascension Mass.
Written in the main for woodwind – supported by horns, a trumpet, a cymbal and discrete strings – this is a peaceful contemplation, alternating three refrains and two couplets, evocative of plain chant alleluias.
Alleluia on the trumpet, Alleluia on the cymbal. 'The Lord is gone up to the sound of the trumpet… Clap your hands, ye nations, praise God with shouts of joy!' – Psalm 47.
This piece, the only one of the four in which we hear the full orchestra, is a genuine ABA scherzo – rare in Messiaen's work.
Prayer of Christ ascending unto his Father 'Father, I have made known thy name unto men… I am now no longer in the world; but they are in the world and I am going unto thee…' – Christ's sacerdotal prayer – from John's XVII, 6-11.
'Christ uttered these words in the upper chamber, and in advance, thus abolishing notions of time and place… Here it is a matter of the risen Lord's entrance, in the 'inaccessible light' of the Father, more than the physical ascension into the heavens'. (Messiaeo) Restricted to strings alone, this immense movement with ascending dynamics, bereft of both rhythmic and harmonic ornamentation, culminates in a final glorious fortissimo.
Translation: Wil Gowans
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MESSIAEN: Turangalila Symphony / L'ascension