Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Musical Explanation 3/15: Mahler 3 and Messiaen's Turangalila: Two Visions of Ecstasy

Mahler already speaks to us a little more fustily than he did a generation ago - to program a Mahler Symphony in our day is barely more daring than programming Brahms or Tchaikovsky. He holds few terrors for orchestras or conductors, and it's been a good fifty years since he challenged any preconceived notion of what concert music should be. In an era that routinely sees jazz and rock performed in Carnagie Hall and the Philharmonie and the Concertgebouw, what offense can symphonies containing century-old Bohemian street music give? In an era too ironic and pessimistic even for Mahler's cynical neurosis, perhaps the still more nihlist and ironic music of Shostakovich speaks to our volatile times more than anything else currently played in the concert hall.

But if Shostakovich is our present, then our new frontier is Messiaen, and in less than a half-century, I predict that Messiaen's orchestral works will be as popular as Mahler is today. Messiaen is our expanded musical consciousness - mingling within it the rhythms of Africa and India, the tone colors of East Asia, the harmonies of the Middle East and Hollywood scores, the systemization of advanced mathematics. In our era dominated by global interconnectivity and the twin obsessions of sexual freedom and religious prohibition, Messiaen's erotically charged religious mania, his relentless curiosity about the musical world, his ability to synthesize every worldwide musical influence into a completely unique musical voice, speaks to our immediate future as nothing else does. 

From Mahler and Bruckner and Shostakovich, Messiaen inherited the torch of writing metaphysically charged music for the orchestra, but Messiaen has little in common with those forefathers except the breath of their ambition. From Stravinsky and Bartok, Messiaen inherited the torch of looking beyond the immediate music of the concert hall to folk music, music of other traditions, music that's foreign to us and broadens our horizons of what music can be. From Messiaen, it's only a short step to African, East Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern composers emerging from the developing world to write music that eclipses even the composers of Europe and America. 

Turangalila is not a word in any language, it is two words compounded from Sanskrit "Turanga" and "Lila", fused together like a compound German adjective. When put together, it translates roughly to 'The Love Song and Hymn of Joy." When viewed with Western ears accustomed to joy and love represented by major keys and soft tones, there is very little here that equates to our conceptions of love and joy. What's represented here is something far more primal than Western manners allow for. Is it a love song for Yvonne Loriod, his student whom the deeply Catholic Messiaen loved could not marry or even sleep with because his wife was in an insane asylum? Is it a recreation of the story of the unconsummated love between Tristan and Isolde, which Messiaen so long identified with? Is it a song of joy for the world emerged from World War II? Is it a song of divine love and joy? Is it an evocation of an orgiastic pagan ceremony that celebrates the senses? Is it all of those and much more? 

These were some of the questions which occurred to me on Saturday night when I came to David Geffen Hall (until recently, Avery Fischer Hall) at Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The reviews of the concert were absolute raves, and the raves were mostly deserved. This performance was one of the loudest things I've ever heard in my life - Salonen did what he could to make the work dance, but the "conductor-proof" New York Philharmonic wasn't quite sharing in his invitation. Instead, they offered us the awesome sound of the world's brashest orchestra at full cry. There are no words for the awe these sounds generate in the listener. I could imagine a more agile, more balletic performance (such as the one I linked to), but I cannot imagine a performance that better unleashes the full heaven-shaking power of it.

The next afternoon, I returned to Geffen Hall to hear an even more extraordinary performance of my favorite orchestral work, Mahler's 3rd Symphony. I've written so extensively about Mahler 3 that I have very little to add except about the performance, which I hope to write about tomorrow. All I can say about Mahler 3 is that it articulates a complete view of the world, created by the will to life and bound together by love itself. I once came up with a list of music that articulated an entire worldview, and somehow it didn't occur to me to put Turangalila into that list. I now wonder if Turangalila not only belongs on that list, but on something much more rare - a work that articulates its own unique view of the Cosmos itself. Mahler's Third Symphony is a view of the world from the vantage of the turn of the 20th century - influenced by the metaphysical philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the musical gigantism of Wagner. Messiaen's Turangalila is a view of the world from the vantage of 20th century at its midpoint. The metaphysical search for the 'thing in itself' has bifurcated - the hard physical realities of science and outer space share the stage with dogmatically religious impulses. Philosophy both seems superseded by science and astronomy, and simultaneously traced all the way back to its religious origin. The mathematical formulae of the highest university share the stage with the primal musical impulses of Indian and African ritual ceremonies. It's almost as though the former work begat the latter, and both express the time in which they wrote as no less ambitious work ever could.  

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