Olivier Messiaen, MESSIAEN: Turangalila Symphony / L’ascension

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Olivier Messiaen's interests ranged widely, but he did not dabble. He acquired a passion for the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that produces an ectoplasmic wail, and used it as an essential tool. He got interested in the rhythmic structure of Indian music, and that, too, soon found its way into the warp and woof of his idiom, mingling with medieval isorhythms and the techniques of Balinese gamelan.

The epic culmination of many of Messiaen’s lifelong obsessions.

In other composers, such an assortment of influences has often yielded pallid pastiche, but Messiaen plunged them all into the refining fire of his personality and drew out a musical language that was seamlessly his. Many technical and religious elements come together in the vast “Turangalila Symphony,” in which the glockenspiel tintinnabulates mightily in intricate raga-like rhythms. The merest motifs are inflated into Heaven-storming themes by dint of repetition and massive, tectonic crescendos. The chords are vaguely recognizable, but rather than taking their place in traditional musical grammar, they are set down next to each other, chunks of the tonal system that have been knocked out of place and idiosyncratically reassembled.