For musician and conductor Stanley Dodds, Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie is one of the most joyous works of music ever written. By Kate Holden.
Stanley Dodds on Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie
Stanley Dodds is a Berlin-based, Australian-raised classical musician, conductor and educator, and a member of the accomplished Dodds family. As well as having three decades of experience as a violinist with the Berliner Philharmoniker and other major orchestras, Dodds is also the founder of the ZeMu! Ensemble, an opera director and recording artist, principal conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, and this year will become chief conductor of the Sydney Youth Orchestra (SYO), following his passion for music education and encouraging young performers.
He chose to speak about French composer Olivier Messiaen’s 10-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948), which is inspired by the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isolde.
In 1953 The Observer reviewed a broadcast of this work with phrases such as “a stream of revoltingly shuddering and viscid sounds” and “appalling difficulties of technique and co-ordination”. But it concluded, “someone or other is sure to have adored this symphony”. I presume you’re one of those someones? When did it come into your life?
When I came to Berlin as a 23-year-old, my interests were the violin and playing in the Berlin Phil. Up to that time orchestral repertoire hadn’t featured heavily in my interest list. I’ve been interested in a lot of things – science, mathematics, physics or electronic engineering, sports – I’ve always seen myself as someone who dabbles in way too many things and never really takes anything seriously enough. So I came late to the orchestral canon.
And I encountered this piece about 30 years ago, around that time – perhaps three times I’ve played it, including Simone Young’s performance recently in May. The first time it was with mild curiosity and then the next was with Simon Rattle. I’m a very unfaithful individual when it comes to work, except to a general category, which I will simply label “good music”. And the life of a contemporary musician is such a mosaic: you have one project one week, and another the next week – you’re always leaving something behind. But there’s the possibility or likelihood of return; you return to the same works maybe 10 or 20 years later.
I took the occasion of Simone coming to Berlin to conduct this work as an opportunity to delve much more deeply into both the work and the composer. It was such an enriching experience. I realised that I personally rate this piece as one of the most important pieces of the 20th century. Like The Rite of Spring, it has the potential to appeal to anybody hearing it for the first time – I should add, live. If you’re in a hall and you hear this piece for the first time, you cannot help but say, “Wow.” It has a musical language which is incredibly complex, but you don’t need to know anything to go into this piece and still be blown away. And particularly for young people – I have SYO in mind – if any 15-year-old or 18-year-old hears this or has a chance to be part of it, I do think it can be life-changing. So let’s say it’s a conviction of mine that this is a really important work.
And Olivier Messiaen, there’s no doubt he was one of the most influential figures in contemporary European music of the 20th century. The thing that appeals to me is his universality: he drew inspiration from, literally, world music. You’ll find in his compositions influences from Japan, a group of instruments he called his gamelan, based on the Indonesian gamelan orchestra; there’d always be the piano, the celeste and the vibraphone; he had elements sometimes from Peruvian, Andean culture, he’d take language elements from there and find inspiration. [Also] very important for him on the rhythmic level was the influence of the Indian, Hindu rhythmic school, the desi talas; not to mention all the European influences.
Then on top of all that there was his expertise as an ornithologist. He was a leading expert on birdsong, worldwide. He visited Australia once, in 1988 on the occasion of the Bicentenary, and he spent time in Sydney and Melbourne; there were performances of works of his. He went in search of bird call that he knew about but had never heard, in particular the lyrebird. In his last work there is a movement dedicated entirely to the lyrebird, an homage.
I was reading a description of the title of this work, Turangalîla: lîla means play, and love, and turanga is time that runs, like a horse. There’s a sense in the title of, as Messiaen said, “superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited” joy, and the work is abundant in esprit and vitality. Seventy years later The Guardian called it “an ecstatic rumpus”. It must be wonderful to play, to inhabit that emotional and sensory experience.
I think this is one reason why I choose to champion this work: he called it “a hymn to joy”. To paraphrase another composer, you could also call it “an ode to joy”. That’s as a composition in a very, very dark century, and after a very dark time, 1948 – it was commissioned in 1945. So to come out with a statement that says, “Life is worth living, and there is joy in life and existence”, an affirmation, I think is bold.
It works like that too: when you listen to the work it has something incredibly uplifting. But it is a massive, massive piece and I can report that, sitting in the middle of it, you come away as if from an hour-and-a-half in a rock concert, completely overwhelmed with sound. It’s quite exhausting to play: there are a lot of notes and you’re playing in very loud textures, but there are some important reprieves. There’s one movement that is basically an image of sleep in a magic garden. He drew inspiration from visual artists and one of those was Chagall, with his floating people and those pastel colours. On the subject of Messiaen’s synaesthesia, he associated colours with certain keys, and there was an incredible interconnectedness between being alive and sensing the world, and sensing everything together.
It’s a piece I’m yearning to conduct. Growing up, I was never quite sure what I wanted to do, or where my real calling was, because I felt interested in so many different things. A lot of non-musical things, too. What attracts me to conducting is that I realise that it calls on many, many different facets of me as a human being. Obviously, there’s the musical side, the professional side, the experience with the repertoire; at the same time, it’s the experience as an orchestral player and now also as a conductor. But it is very much also the preparation for the work: it involves taking the score, asking how did this come about, why did the composer write this, did it come from somewhere? This is where the intellectual side – my passion for engineering – comes into it. Just to go under the skin of a work, this is something that gives me great joy.
This is a work that will appeal to young and to old alike, it has a universal message and a universal appeal, and I do think that the joy he sought to communicate will be strongly sensed by anybody who experiences it. With Messiaen, for all his dogmatic beliefs, he understood that music can sound beautiful, it can sound ugly. And rhythm – rhythm is the driving force of what makes us move, and life is movement – again, the turanga part of it. Messiaen has great rhythms! And rhythms appeal to everybody. You can’t sit still to a good rhythm.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Stanley Dodds".
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