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Messiaen: Turangalîlá-Symphonie

Messiaen: Turangalîlá-Symphonie

“Turangalîlá is a Sanskrit word, … very rich in meanings. Lîlá 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. Lîlá is also Love. Turanga is time that flies like a galloping horse, time that runs out like sand from an hourglass. Turanga is movement and rhythm. Hence Turangalîlá means altogether: song of love, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death,” writes the composer about the title of what he thinks is “a vast polyphony of time, of rhythm”.

The sequence of ten movements does not have a linear plot; instead, it is a succession of surrealistic meditations on love and death. The work has three “protagonists”: the symphonic orchestra, the solo piano and the ondes Martenot.

The orchestra is the scene for the most important musical events, which are coloured by the improvisatory, birdsong-like effects of the piano. The ondes Martenot, a special electronic instrument invented by Maurice Martenot in 1929, participates in the proceedings like a divine figure thanks to its extraordinary range of voice, continuous glissando, and a tone that cuts through the largest orchestras, yet has human characteristics.

The monumental symphony, which lasts almost 90 minutes and requires a vast ensemble, was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and his orchestra, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. (They had commissioned Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra a year earlier.) Actually, the piece, which was written between 1946 and 1948, was presented at its December 1949 Boston world premiere not by Koussevitzky, but by a young colleague, Leonard Bernstein.

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