Second Prize – Holly Bacon

RPS Young Classical Writers Prize 2023

Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie: Building bridges from emotion

I used to avoid classical music wherever possible. It all sounded the same, was devoid of emotion, and was boringly repetitive, declared ten-year-old me, before self-righteously putting on my headphones to listen to Little Mix for the twentieth time that day. For an embarrassingly large part of my childhood, I even had an irrational fear of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, and exited the room whenever my siblings played it on the electric piano demo mode.

A few years later, I had moved on from Little Mix and turned my attention to Radiohead. I soon began to wonder what it was that made Radiohead’s music sound so different to any pop or rock music that I had heard before. It was haunting and eerie without necessarily being creepy, with beautiful dissonances – something that I had previously considered oxymoronic – and a sense of massive presence and overwhelming emotion. As I began my search to find out what or who had influenced them so greatly to produce such powerful music, one name, and one piece, appeared repeatedly: the French composer Olivier Messiaen, and his Turangalîla-Symphonie. Already marginally dissuaded by the classical-sounding word ‘symphonie’, I began (somewhat grudgingly) to listen to it.

To my surprise, I was instantly greeted by frantic strings, the melody scattered with dissonance, and the phrases angular and unpredictable in rhythm, yet entirely purposeful. This wasn’t what I was used to hearing, but it didn’t matter. Contrary to my ear’s ingrained expectations for consonant, balanced phrases, there was an enormous sense of emotion and passion that flowed throughout all ten movements. I soon realised that this piece featured everything I admired about Radiohead, whilst opening my mind to a new perspective on classical music, sparking my inquisitiveness and emotion.

A variety of cultures influenced Messiaen: the first of the four recurring themes, known as the ‘statue theme’, was inspired by Mexican monuments, with connotations of strength and power created by trombones and a tuba in an accented motif. He was also inspired by Indian music, particularly rhythmically. The word ‘Turangalîla’ comes from Sanskrit, and Messiaen explained that it simultaneously means ‘love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death’. One aspect of time could be reflected by the use of the ‘ondes Martenot’, an early electronic instrument. In addition to contributing its soaring pitches to moments of intense emotion, its appearance in this piece builds a connection between traditional classical music and a new era of electronic experimentation.

Messiaen has played a significant role in my appreciation of classical music as a whole, fundamentally due to his ability to build metaphorical bridges through the emotion conveyed in the Turangalîla-Symphonie. He built bridges between expectations and experimentation, between previous and modern times and genres, and most importantly, between the composer, performers and listeners. Now I not only admire his work, but also have the enthusiasm to learn about all types of classical music, exploring them through a new lens to discover the wide range of emotions such music has always had to offer. Maybe I’ll even gain a newfound appreciation for Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor.