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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)
Richard Taruskin

To see Messiaen’s musical cosmology maximalized to the very limit one must look to his gigantic Turangalîla-symphonie, a ten-movement, seventy-five-minute blockbuster for a 107-piece orchestra, composed in 1946–48 and first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under a young conductor named Leonard Bernstein in 1949. The orchestra is not only huge but unprecedentedly variegated as well. There are parts for fifteen different percussion instruments requiring eight players, and a “continuo” of six keyboard instruments including tubular bells and glockenspiel. (If keyboard-operated models for these are not available, the minimum number of players goes up to 109.)

The remaining keyboard instruments are a celesta, a vibraphone (an American invention consisting of a xylophone with metal bars and an electric-motor-driven mechanism to produce a controlled variation in amplitude that sounds like vibrato), a piano prominent enough to require a virtuoso soloist with feature billing (for the first forty or so performances it was the composer’s second wife, Yvonne Loriod), and an ondes martenot (“Martenot Waves”). This last, invented in 1927 by Maurice Martenot, a musically trained engineer (who called it the ondes musicales), was one of the earliest and most successful electronic instruments, producing its sound by means of an electric oscillator. It, too, is treated in Turangalîla like a concerto soloist. (For the first dozen or so performances, the player was the inventor’s sister Ginette.)

According to Messiaen, who devised it, the title is a composite of two Sanskrit words: turanga, meaning the measurement of time by movement, and lîla, meaning the play of the divine will on the cosmos (and, by poetic extension, the force of love). In their conjunction the two words are as protean (and, ultimately, as unfathomable) in meaning as Liebe + Tod = Liebestod in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which Messiaen acknowledged to be the symphony’s inspiration. “Turangalîla signifies, at one and the same time, a love song, a hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death,” the composer wrote, seemingly leaving room for any desired interpretation of his words. Yet one thing does emerge with clarity: where Tristan und Isolde had shown time and movement to be powerfully unidirectional, to the point where it virtually defined the “Western” outlook on the nature of music for a hundred years, Messiaen’s concept of time, like Scriabin’s, while ostensibly Wagnerian in inspiration, was cyclic and ultimately quiescent, as the Turangalîla-symphonie so massively demonstrates.

Three of the movements in the symphony bear the name “Turangalîla” in their own right: they are the work’s quintessential “time and motion studies.” The seventh movement, Turangalîla 2, an orgy of cycles and palindromes, is the densest of all, and in that sense the most maximalistic. Its many discrete components and subsections, juxtaposed like the tiles in a mosaic, can be classified into several recurring groups. What follows is a very selective description of some of the main events and relationships, keyed to the rehearsal figures in the score so that they may be verified there by interested readers.

  • The opening piano cadenza, clearly recognizable (on the basis of Ex. 4-26) as birdsong, is full of rhythmic palindromes. Taking the sixteenth-note rest in the second measure (an “added value”) as the midpoint, and ignoring grace notes, the first of them (for example) can be traced by moving forward to the end of m. 3 and back to the third eighth note of m. 1. The birdsong cadenza continues with accompaniment at fig. 3, and returns briefly by itself at fig. 9 with the same nonretrogradable rhythm as at the beginning. The very end of the movement reproduces the end of the opening cadenza.

  • The section beginning at fig. 1 is identifiable by the chromatic scale descending in the ondes martenot and ascending in contrary motion in the cluster of low trombones. This simple contrary motion seems to rotate the idea of a rhythmic—temporal, “horizontal” palindrome by 45 degrees, so that it becomes spatial (“vertical”). At fig. 6 the scales are again set in motion with reversed trajectories: this could be interpreted either as an inversion (“vertical” reversal) or a retrograde (“horizontal” reversal) of the section at fig. 1. Another reversed recurrence comes at the end (fig. 12), resulting in a repetition or recapitulation of the music at 1, but harmonically enhanced. (The ondes martenot line, for example, is doubled by the violins in parallel diminished-seventh chords: chords, that is, which sample every other pitch of the second mode of limited transposition and therefore share its invariance properties.)

  • At fig. 2, the unpitched percussion contribute a little bazaar of rhythmic palindromes. The easiest one to spot is the one between the woodblock (second line in the score) and the bass drum (sixth line), because it fits exactly into the time allotted. Counting the sixteenths within each notated value, the woodblock series is 12 14 1 2 7 8 16 (played twice) and the bass drum is precisely the reverse. The triangle (top line) has the series 15 13 3 4 (played three times plus one note) and the maracas (fourth line) have precisely the reverse (played three times plus three notes). The “small Turkish cymbal” (third line) has the series 5 6 9 11 10 (played three times, the last not quite complete) and the “Chinese cymbal” (fifth line) has precisely the reverse. Notice that every value from 1 sixteenth to 16 sixteenths is represented once in the scheme. That is what Messiaen called the “gamme chromatique de durées” (chromatic scale of durations).

  • At fig. 7 the chromatic scale of durations is played in consecutive ascending order by the triangle, and backward (or in consecutive descending order) by the bass drum, doubled (on the attacks) by the string basses, who reinforce the notion of gamme chromatique by simultaneously executing a chromatic scale in the ordinary meaning of the term. At the same time the piano is playing a repeating series of three chords in the right hand, and another in the left in a rhythmic canon with the right at the time interval of a quarter note. Comparison with Ex. 4-26 will reveal that the rhythms so treated make up the very same pattern of seventeen durations from Sharngadeva’s treatise already used in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (nor do these two exhaust its appearances in Messiaen’s work).

And that is not all. The upper strings and a group of winds (clarinets, bassoons, and horns) are simultaneously engaged in another isorhythmic game. The strings have a pair of chords that are first heard on the first and last sixteenths of the first measure. The second chord always comes on the last sixteenth of alternating measures; but the first chord advances along the chromatic scale of durations: at 7 it is on the first sixteenth, at 7 + 2 it is on the second, at 7 + 4 it is on the third, and so on. The second wind chord is always on the downbeat, while the first advances by chromatic durations, beginning with the second sixteenth at 7, the third at 7 + 2, and so forth, so that the string chords always function as pickups to the wind chords. In the third measure before 9, where the advancing wind chord and the advancing string chord coincide on the last sixteenth, the two chords plus the high piccolo note together produce… yes, an aggregate harmony.

How much of this is actually meant to be “heard”? How much is mere “notation”? The bass drum part at fig. 2 is obviously notation, not sound. (The sound of a single drumbeat lasting two measures cannot even be imagined.) But this was nothing new. Similarly overloaded medieval polytextual motets suggest the answer to the question with which this paragraph began. As the singing eagle said to Dante, in the latter’s Paradiso, “As are my notes to thee who canst not follow, such is the Eternal Judgement to you mortals.” Where ultimate truth is to be revealed, the senses must be overcome, the mind boggled.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004012.xml