LeelaDecember 10th was the centennial of the birth of Olivier Messiaen, one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, and one of our favorites. Last night, we got to see a performance of his Turangalîla-Symphonie at Carnegie Hall, which was an unbearably thrilling and rhapsodic experience. Which doesn’t have anything to do with a comics blog, but we’ll try desperately to find a connection.

• Messiaen was a real life Hogan’s Hero: as a prisoner of war in a Nazi prison camp, he composed his “Quartet for the End of Time” using the only available instruments: a violin, a cello, a clarinet, and an upright piano. The piece, recognized as a masterpiece of the 20th century, was first performed for an audience of 5000 guards and prisoners on a frigid night in January, 1941.

• The symphony — comprising 10 movements of slashing, percussive and soaring themes performed by a full orchestra aided by vibraphone, piano, cowbell, and the theramin-like ondes Martenot — is taken from two Sanskrit words and inspired the name of a popular character on Futurama. (Matt Groening is a fellow Messiaen fan.)

The venue was perhaps two-thirds full, and we were curious to see who my other fellow admirers were…a mix of folks, many young, and all, we got the impression, extremely knowledgeable about classical music. No one made a move to clap between movements, although the performance — by the Yale Philharmonia, and conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw — was so very inspiring. De Leeuw was a friend of Messiaen’s and is known as one of his most important interpreters, and we would say the reputation was earned, as de Leeuw kept the abruptly changing moods and tempos of the piece together, and the often exotic (one might say sci-fi) orchestral registers clear and in service to the extreme sensuality of the music.

All in all, it was quite remarkable, an experience we would recommend to all.


  1. I was there last night, too. One of my most favorite pieces of music in the world. Right up there with Stravinsky’s “Rite” (which it often echoes), Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica,” and the Smithsonian’s “Music From the Outskirts of Jakarta.” The title derives from the Sanskrit words for “time” and “play,” which about sums it up. Messiaen composed it while his wife was going steadily insane.

    David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony performed “Turangalila” in February, too. I preferred their version, not least of all because the Ondes Martinot was cranked up to 11 for that eerie quicksilver surf sound. But I’ve vowed to never miss an NYC performance if I can possibly help it.

  2. “The piece, recognized as a masterpiece of the 20th century, was first performed for an audience of 5000 guards and prisoners on a frigid night in January, 1941.”

    I have always wondered what those prisoners (and even some of the guards) were thinking that night in the Stalag as they listened to this dissonant, difficult piece. Perhaps in their hopelessness, hearing this avant garde work told them that despite all, civilization would survive.

  3. Glad to see a few fellow Messaien fans read the Beat!

    I don’t very often go to classical concerts, usually it’s a once-in-a-lifetime favorite of mine, like Boris Godunov or Oedipus Rex or Prince Igor. Thinking of checking out the Met’s Ring, though.

  4. To those who attended: how did the De Leeuw/Yale Philharmonia’s performance compare to the EMI Rattle/Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s version (which forever will be my sonic base of comparison for this work)?

  5. As someone with a hole in their classical music knowledge, the appopriation of the name by Groening and Cohen is just great.

    Reminds me of when I was a teenager and learned, for the first time, of the name Boris Godunov, and smiled at the genius of Jay Ward.

  6. “The piece, recognized as a masterpiece of the 20th century, was first performed for an audience of 5000 guards and prisoners on a frigid night in January, 1941.”

    This is actually a myth: the hall where they first performed “Quartet for the End of Time” only held a few hundred people. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he wrote such an incredible piece in a prisoner-of-war camp.

  7. Another amazing clip on YouTube has a Russian accordionist playing one of Messiaen’s organ pieces:

    Truly amazing.

    In fact, there are a lot of YouTube clips of Messiaen performances. Most are quite amazing to watch.

    By the way, Bernard Hermann was more influenced by the Viennese composers Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg than Messiaen. I would even doubt that Hermann had ever heard of Messiaen, or even liked his music. OM’s is very French, with a great debt to Debussy. Film composers today will take what they need from various sources.

  8. You may be right. I don’t know that much about Hermann. I would just tend to assume that someone writing scores that were so modern-sounding would be vaguely aware what was going on in the European avantgarde at the time.

  9. Thanks for this post, Heidi. Messiaen has always been only on the fringes of my musical knowledge, and now I’m going to correct that.

    And I had no idea about the Turanga Leela connection, other than that her name always had an odd resonance. Marvellous.