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Finding God, Love And The Meaning Of Life In Messiaen's 'Turangalîla-Symphonie'

Composer Olivier Messiaen in 1983, at the organ at the Trinité church in Paris where he held the post of organist for over 60 years.
Francois Lochon
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Composer Olivier Messiaen in 1983, at the organ at the Trinité church in Paris where he held the post of organist for over 60 years.

Conductors, like most music lovers, keep discovering music that is new to them. My own latest discovery is the Turangalîla-Symphonie, a mind-blowing 75-minute orchestral piece by Olivier Messiaen, written in the 1940s. It's a rare treat for me to be able to work on a piece from the middle of the 20th century that I have never even heard performed live.

I'll admit, the Turangalîla-Symphonie has been on the Baltimore Symphony musicians' wish list since I became music director in 2007 – and clearly for much longer, because this week marks the BSO premiere of the work.

Messiaen is a composer whose orchestral music is not often performed. I don't think it's entirely because his music is thorny or avant-garde, but because of a much more pragmatic reason that has to do with logistics.

Turangalîla is scored for a very large orchestra, plus solo instruments. But his last completed work, Éclairs sur l'au-delà ("Lightning Over the Beyond"), from 1992, is 70 minutes long and requires 128 players, including 10 percussionists. Equally epic is Des canyons aux étoiles ("From Canyons to the Stars"), which doesn't require hundreds of players, but is over 100 minutes long. His single opera, St. Francis of Assisi, requires a 10-part, 150-voice chorus, seven main solo roles and an orchestra of 110, including not one but five of the odd early electronic instrument called the ondes martenot.

The instrument, which also plays a key role in the Turangalîla-Symphonie, was invented by a French musician in the late 1920s. It was soon picked up by a number of composers, including Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Edgard Varèse. The slithery sound can be ethereal, but in Turangalîla it often sings like a goddess, very much in keeping with Messiaen's philosophy of spirituality being woven into every aspect of life.

For any music I conduct, it's essential that I discover a real sense of who the composer is. Olivier Messiaen, it's safe to say, was a unique guy from the start.

With a poet mother and a Shakespeare professor for a father, Messiaen was destined for a distinctive and eclectic life. From his toy theater productions of Shakespeare plays when he was 8 years old, to composing music and learning the piano around the same age, Messiaen followed his own strong and innate sense of self. In 1919 the family moved to Paris, where Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 11. There he studied with a wide variety of teachers, including the famed organist Marcel Dupré.

Messiaen turned out to be an important organist himself. At age 22, he became the organist at the church Sainte-Trinité in Paris, a position he held for over 60 years until he died in 1992. Messiaen's compositions for the instrument constitute the largest contribution to the repertoire since Johann Sebastian Bach.

Moderation, it seems, was not a big part of Messiaen's DNA. Another of his passions was birds. Beginning as a teenager, he collected thousands of bird calls and songs. His research was so intense that he became an expert ornithologist and was able to identify almost any bird he heard. Several of his compositions are devoted entirely to birdsong, and most of his other works include references to the songs of birds.

But the single most important driving force in Messiaen's musical creations was his devout Catholic faith, which he also discovered at an early age. Even under appalling conditions, Messiaen's faith was steadfast. The most often told story is how he composed and premiered his best known work, Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) while in a prisoner of war camp in the winter of 1940.

Messiaen's music exudes a kind of spiritual ecstasy. "I am convinced that joy exists," he once said, "convinced that the invisible exists more than the visible, and that joy is beyond sorrow, and beauty is beyond horror."

Messiaen seems to always be reaching towards an eternal light. He loved God in terms that were sensual, almost sexual. Human love and divine love were not opposites for him, but stages in a progression. In Turangalîla we can feel this spiritual ecstasy, especially in the fifth movement, called "Joie du Sang des Étoiles" (Joy of the Blood of the Stars) and in the finale. The repetitions, the kaleidoscopic colors and fevered dances carry us to an almost drug-induced frenzy.

There is a distinct Eastern flavor to much of Turangalîla. Messiaen heard Balinese gamelan music at the Exposition Coloniale in Paris in 1931 and became obsessed with music from the East, particularly Indian music. He used pentatonic and octatonic scales, evoking the sound world of the Far East. But it was the Hindu rhythmic structures called talas that really drew him in. Talas are complex systems of rhythm created in Indian music using the power of math.

The word "tala" literally means to clap, but it also refers to any kind of musical meter — it doesn't have to be regular — and in a larger context, tala refers to the cycle of life. Messiaen avoided regular meter, feeling it was too artificial. He pointed out that in nature things are not at all regular. For example, the branches of a tree and the waves of the sea are not even patterns. In Turangalîla, his eclectic interests and influences result in repetitions, sudden shifts of tempo and overlapping ideas. Combined with the otherworldly sound of the ondes martenot, he creates a totally distinctive musical vocabulary.

"Turangalîa" is a combination of Sanskrit words, and according to Messiaen, its meaning is almost untranslatable. "Lîla" literally means "play," but also refers to a sense of divine intervention in the universe. "Lîla" also means "love." "Turanga" is movement and rhythm, but also the passage of time. "Turangalîa," Messiaen once wrote, "means, all at the same time, song of love, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death." As you can tell, nothing is simple with Messiaen!

In the end, Messiaen's music for me is almost more of a philosophy than a compositional process. It's driven by rigorous methodology, of course, but the impetus emanates from an approach to life based on faith and love.

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