After hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Debussy famously wrote: “It haunts me like a beautiful nightmare, and I’ve been trying in vain to recapture something of that terrible impression.” For pianist and Messiaen biographer Peter Hill, this is the phrase that comes to mind as we speak about Olivier Messiaen’s monumental Turangalîla-Symphonie– the French composer’s musical orgy of love, ecstasy and death, which the Australian World Orchestra and students from the Australian National Academy of Music will be performing in July under the baton of Simone Young.
Premiered in December 1949 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a little under a decade after Messiaen’s internment in a German prisoner-of-war camp resulted in his Quartet for the End of Time, Turangalîlawas a commission by the orchestra’s famously creative Music Director Serge Koussevitsky, though it was a young Leonard Bernstein who ultimately conducted the first performance after Koussevitsky fell ill.
The commission from Koussevitzky was a watershed moment for Messiaen. It was his first major commission and certainly his first overseas commission. “I think he was on his mettle,” Hill says. “I think he was probably thrilled to receive this commission and he was determined to put everything of himself into Turangalîla.”