It was during the 1700s that the secular began overtaking the sacred as the type of music most likely to be written down, distributed, and listened to. This displacement accelerated in subsequent centuries, to the point where the overwhelming body of music composed and listened to, including what we know as classical music, became decidedly secular. It had long ceased serving or being regarded primarily as a tool for worship and religious contemplation, having instead become a medium for personal expression and entertainment.

Not so, though, for the revered and deeply religious French composer Olivier Messiaen, born in Avignon in 1908 who spent sixty years as organist at Paris’ La Trinité church, before his death in 1992. With most of his seventy or so works having a pronounced spiritual intent, it may seem surprising that during the mid1940s Messiaen devoted three years to a trilogy of compositions exploring the subject of love and death, and the opposition between them. Though as his biographer Robert Sherlaw Johnson points out, these works are no less spiritual on that account. For although Messiaen abandons Christian symbolism in them, ‘the concept of the Love-Death is nevertheless central to Christianity, in the sense that all true acts of love involve sacrifice, whether it be the love of God for Man through the sacrifice of the cross, or the love of man for God or for his fellow men, or the love of a man and a woman for each other.’ Sequentially the second, the Turangalîla Symphony is easily the most extensive of the trilogy, lasting for around seventy-five minutes and requiring substantial forces for its performance. It was completed in 1948 in response to a commission from Serge Koussevitsky on behalf of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was first performed by them under the young Leonard Bernstein in December of the following year. In this work, as Johnson records, Messiaen turned principally to the myth of Tristan and Isolde, and especially to Wagner’s version of the story, in which the symbolism of the Love-Death plays such a large part. As Messiaen expressed it in a sleeve note to the work’s first recording: ‘True love is a fatal, irresistible love, transcending everything outside itself, a love such as is symbolised by the love potion of Tristan and Isolde.’ The name Turangalîla is a combination of two Sanskrit words. Turang signifies time passing as well as rhythm and movement, while lîla is literally play or amusement in an active, cosmic sense, while it can also mean love. Thus, Turangalîla becomes a song of love, a hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death.

According to Laurence Davies, this quite extraordinary work breaks completely from the Westernised idea of symphonic form, not simply by giving it a special oriental locale, but also by employing non-Western instruments and making full use of the authentic rhythmic ostinato, extended pedal points, and other devices of the East. This Eastern effect is also heightened by the use of both tuned and non-tuned percussion, and a group of keyboard instruments including piano, vibraphone and glockenspiel, which together form a small orchestra within the larger one, with sonority and functions similar to those of the Balinese gamelan. Also present is the French invention of the 1920s, the electrophonic ondes-martenot, which often dominates the orchestra with its sliding, expressive voice. The symphony is laid out across ten movements, comprising an introduction followed by three disconnected but stylistically related groups each of three movements. The introduction sets out the two main themes, the ‘statue’ or masculine one, for brass, and the ‘flower’ or feminine one, for woodwind. In writing about his symphony, the composer also pointed to two other cyclic themes which reappear throughout, as well as various subordinate ones specific to each movement. Considering its format, it has been queried whether the work qualifies as a symphony at all: arguably an irrelevant question for a work considered by many to be one of the greatest musical compositions of the entire twentieth century.

By Rex Burgess.