On today’s date in 1949, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Boston Symphony in the first complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ten-movement, 75-minute long “Turangalila” Symphony.
“Turangalila” is the Sanskrit word for love, and Messiaen’s score is meant to be a voluptuous evocation of the emotion at its most exalted state. In addition to a huge percussion battery, Messiaen’s score calls for an electronic keyboard instrument known as the “Ondes Martenot,” whose tones fans describe as “haunting,” but foes liken to the sound of a musical saw.
Messiaen had spent the summer of 1949 as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood at the invitation of the great Russian conductor and new music impresario, Serge Koussevitzky, who was also Bernstein’s mentor. Before arriving in Tanglewood, Messiaen had written to Bernstein as follows: “I am 41 years old and I have put into my symphony all of my strengths of love, of hope and of musical research. But I know you are a man of genius and that you will conduct it the way I feel it.”
The exotic French score was a modest success in Massachusetts. At least it provoked no riot, but then, as the Christian Science Monitor noted: “If Bostonians suffer, they suffer in silence.” When Bernstein and the Boston Symphony took the new score to New York’s Carnegie Hall, however, critical reaction ranged from “a really rousing experience” to “the trashiest Hollywood composers have met their match.”