Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The world hardly needs my voice added to the roar of acclamation attending the hundredth birthday of Olivier Messiaen. However, lest someone get the wrong idea, let me affirm:

Without Turangalila, my creative life would have turned out far less rich than it has been. The 20th century afforded no clearly more magnificent musical work.


  1. David D. McIntire says

    Kyle, my favorite Virgil Thomson quote is the last few sentences from his 1945 review of Messiaen’s music. After observing OM’s occasional propensity for excess and banality, he declared: “Nevertheless, the man is a great composer. One has only to hear his music beside that of any of the standard eclectic modernists to know that. Because his music really vibrates and theirs doesn’t.”
    KG replies: Good god, the man could write. Thomson, I mean, though Messiaen too.
    Since you bring it up, I never could understand what was supposed to be banal about Messiaen, just as I never got what was vulgar about Mahler. Perhaps I have no taste, but I am consoled with the thought that perhaps Messiaen and Mahler would have liked my music, too.

  2. Jim says

    Quartet for the End of Time was the piece of Messiaen’s that had the most impact, early in my musical life. I find Turangalila a bit hard to take, mainly the sickly sweet stuff, although someone reminded me just the other day of an outdoor performance in Avignon where a storm came up suddenly and interrupted the proceedings. Appropriate, somehow, that nature would play its part.
    For full-blast Messiaen, I would choose Des Canyons Aux Etoiles. It’s an incredible piece, combining all the elements of his mature style that seem, to some, overdone in the much longer Saint-Francois, which was written just after. I just attended the Montreal Symphony’s presentation of SF, though, and it was quite worthwhile, even if I may not seek out other performances anytime soon (or in this lifetime).

  3. Bob Lukomski says

    Not to go overboard, but Messiaen’s setting of “O Sacrum Convivium” was what started my interest in composing at the age of 10, while I was a chorister at St. Thomas Choir School in NYC. After being innudated with the likes of Stanford, Noble, Britten, and even Durufle and Poulenc, this short motet sounded like nothing else I had ever heard before, and I really wanted to figure out why.
    Even after picking it apart in my teens and performing in numerous times over the years (just pulled it out for a rehearsal at Grace Church NYC last week), it still retains the same otherworldly beauty and WTF mystery for me.
    KG replies: Great story, for someone who knows that list of names.

  4. Steve Hillyer says

    Dear Kyle,
    My “Turangalîla” valentine appeared in the December GRAMOPHONE. Alas, they deleted the last two grafs and thus a key point I was wanted to make — namely, that one should never judge a conductor (in this case, Ozawa) on his commercial discography exclusively.  I humbly submit for your approval the unexpurgated original:
    To the Editor:
    Philip Clark (“Sanscrit Symphony,” Awards 2008 number, p. 73) might not be so quick to dismiss Maurice Le Roux’s 1961 recording of Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie” with the Orchestre National de la RTF (Accord 465 802-2) were he to hear the original LPs issued by Véga (VAL 127, 3/63).  Sumptuously packaged in a sturdy box covered in silk (the color — magenta — chosen by the composer, who also supervised the sessions), this was the first commercial recording of “Turangalîla,” predating Ozawa’s Toronto set by six years.  Le Roux (1923-1992), a longtime disciple of the composer, acquits himself well on the podium and makes up for any lack of fire with superior delineation of texture, especially winds, brass, piano, and high percussion.  While it may be true that the dry acoustic of the Salle des Fêtes at Puteaux, where the recording was made, was “uninspiring” (to quote Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone’s definitive biography of the composer), it does allow one to “hear into” the scoring to an unusual degree.  Alas, every reissue, dating back to a two-LP set released on French Decca in the 1970s, has been a sonic travesty.  At some stage in the transfer process, at least one engineer with ears of lead decided to “improve” things by shearing off the highs and submerging the result in a mud-bath of artificial reverb.   What a pity; doubly so when one realizes this is the only “Turangalîla” recording that allows one to hear how the work sounded when French orchestras still sounded French.  I urge Accord to go back to the original tapes and make a clean, honest transfer replicating as nearly as possible what the composer actually heard and approved in the studio.
    My own nominee for the “Turangalîla” of a lifetime is the performance led by Seiji Ozawa at Tanglewood on 15 August 1975, in the presence of the composer.  No one fortunate enough to have been there will forget it.  The Boston Symphony played like gods that night, especially their storied percussion section, whose whiplash accuracy and panache remain incomparable to this day.  An avowed “Turangalîla” fanatic for four decades, I have owned and/or heard nearly every recording of this amazing work.  Captured for broadcast by the BSO Transcription Service in glorious analogue sound so warm, transparent, and impactful as to eclipse most commercial issues for the engineering alone, this is the one I’ll be taking to that desert island (though I’d hate to be without Rosbaud as well).
    Unlike other major orchestras that issue recordings on a regular basis now, the BSO has released nothing from its vast storehouse of broadcasts since 2000.  I can think of no better way to break the silence than by issuing this treasure (and please don’t fiddle with the sound).
    Stephen C. Hillyer