“Religious music” gives me another flimsy but worthy excuse to draw our attention to Messiaen and his Turangalîla-Symphonie.
The premiere on 2nd December 1949 was conducted in Boston by Bernstein, standing in at short notice. It’s always worth homing in on the late 1940s—just as Bird and Miles were creating their own new language, and Billie Holiday was recording You’re My Thrill; whereas, by contrast with the contingent vibrancy of the USA, Western and Eastern Europe were in ruins (do read Keith Lowe, Savage Continent), not to mention the convulsions taking place in China.
Negative reviews of what we now hear as masterpieces have a long history (see the excellent Slonimsky, Lexicon of musical invective), but responses to the premiere of Turangalîla are no less perplexing.
In the Boston Globe, Cyrus Durgin described it as “the longest and most futile music within memory”, while Warren Story Smith in The Boston Post deserves some sort of notoriety for the prediction:
Will we hear all this again, save for this evening’s performance? I doubt it.
Virgil Thomson, who had previously praised Messiaen’s music, complained that it came “straight from the Hollywood cornfields.” Rudolph Elie, writing for the Boston Herald, found some things to admire, but was troubled by Messiaen’s melodies:
The clue to the possible fundamental emptiness of this work, is the appalling melodic tawdriness of the three big cyclical themes heard throughout. […] The first is a motto of six notes Gershwin would have thought better of; the second might make the grade as a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, and the third, a dance of joy, might be ascribed to Hindu Hillbillies, if there be such.
Of all audiences, one might think Americans in the 1940s should have responded with joy—at least to its glitzy Hollywood brashness… But it’s far from Gershwin.
OK, such a response is less striking than the famous premiere of The Rite of Spring. At least the French knew how to put on a good riot.
But enough of Turangalîla’s shock value. Its blending of sacred and profane, the dialogue of piano and ondes martenot… apart from the joyous dance movements, the sixth movement is incandescent:
Never miss a live performance of Turangalîla! And then there’s everything else he ever wrote…