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The Turangalîla-Symphonie is a large-scale piece of orchestral music by Olivier Messiaen (1908–92). It was written from 1946 to 1948 on a commission by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The premiere was in Boston on 2 December 1949, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The commission did not specify the duration, orchestral requirements or style of the piece, leaving the decisions to the composer.[1] Koussevitzky was billed to conduct the premiere, but fell ill, and the task fell to the young Bernstein.[2] Bernstein has been described as "the ideal conductor for it, and it made Messiaen's name more widely known".[3] Yvonne Loriod, who later became Messiaen's second wife, was the piano soloist, and Ginette Martenot played the ondes Martenot for the first and several subsequent performances. From 1953, Yvonne's sister Jeanne Loriod was the ondes Martenot player in many performances and recordings.[4]


While most of Messiaen's compositions are religious in inspiration, at the time of writing the symphony the composer was fascinated by the myth of Tristan and Isolde, and the Turangalîla Symphony forms the central work in his trilogy of compositions concerned with the themes of romantic love and death; the other pieces are Harawi for piano with soprano and Cinq rechants for unaccompanied choir.[5] It is considered a 20th-century masterpiece and a typical performance runs around 80 minutes in length. When asked about the meaning of the work's duration in its ten movements and the reason for the use of the ondes Martenot, Messiaen simply replied, "It's a love song."[6]

Although the concept of a rhythmic scale corresponding to the chromatic scale of pitches occurs in Messiaen's work as early as 1944, in the Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus, the arrangement of such durations into a fixed series occurs for the first time in the opening episode of the movement "Turangalîla 2" in this work, and is an important historical step toward the concept of integral serialism.[7]

The title of the work, and those of its movements, were a late addition to the project, chosen after Messiaen made a list of the work's movements. He described the name in his letters from 1947–1948.[8] He derived the title from two Sanskrit words, turanga and lîla, which roughly translate into English as "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death",[9] and described the joy of Turangalîla as "superhuman, overflowing, dazzling and abandoned".[This quote needs a citation]

Messiaen revised the work in 1990.[4]


The piece is scored for:

The demanding piano part includes several solo cadenzas.

Cyclic themes[edit]

In writing about the work, Messiaen identified four cyclic themes that reappear throughout; there are other themes specific to each movement.[9] In the score the themes are numbered, but in later writings he gave them names to make them easier to identify, without intending the names to have any other, literary meaning.

Turangalila ex 1.PNG Introduced by trombones and tuba, this is the statue theme. According to Messiaen, it has the oppressive, terrible brutality of ancient Mexican monuments, and has always evoked dread. It is played in a slow tempo, pesante.[a]
Turangalila ex 2.PNG This is the flower theme. It is introduced by two clarinets.
Turangalila ex 3.PNG This theme, the most important of all, is the love theme. It appears in many different guises, from hushed strings in movement 6, to a full orchestral treatment in the climax of the finale.
Turangalila ex 4.PNG A simple chain of chords, used to produce opposing chords on the piano and crossing counterpoints in the orchestra.


The work is in ten movements, linked by the common themes identified above, and other musical ideas:

  1. Introduction. Modéré, un peu vif: A "curtain raiser" introducing the "statue theme" and the "flower theme", followed by the body of the movement, which superimposes two ostinato groups with rhythmic punctuations. A reprise of the "statue" theme closes the introduction.
  2. Chant d’amour (Love song) 1. Modéré, lourd: After an atonal introduction, this movement is built on an alternation of a fast and passionate theme dominated by the trumpets, and a soft and gentle theme for the strings and ondes.
  3. Turangalîla 1. Presque lent, rêveur: Three themes are stated: one starting with a solo clarinet, the second for low brass and strings, and the third a sinuous theme on the woodwinds. The movement then develops and, later, overlaps the themes, with the addition of a new rhythm in the percussion.
  4. Chant d’amour 2. Bien modéré: Introduced by a scherzo for piccolo and bassoon, this movement is in nine sections, some of which recall and develop music heard earlier. A calm coda in A major brings it to a close.
  5. Joie du Sang des Étoiles (Joy of the Blood of the Stars). Vif, passionné avec joie: A frenetic dance whose main theme is a fast variant of the "statue theme". For Messiaen, it represented the union of two lovers seen as a transformation on a cosmic scale. The dance is interrupted by a shattering piano cadenza before a brief orchestral coda.
  6. Jardin du Sommeil d’amour (Garden of Love’s Sleep). Très modéré, très tendre: The first full rendition of the "love" theme in the strings and ondes is accompanied by idealized birdsong played by the piano, and by other orchestral coloristic effects. According to Messiaen, "The two lovers are enclosed in love's sleep. A landscape comes out from them..."
  7. Turangalîla 2. Un peu vif, bien modéré: A completely atonal movement that is intended to invoke terror, with a predominant role for the percussion ensemble.
  8. Développement d’amour (Development of Love). Bien modéré: For Messiaen, the title can be considered in two ways. For the lovers, it is terrible: united by the love potion, they are trapped in a passion growing to the infinite. Musically, this is the work's development section.
  9. Turangalîla 3. Bien modéré: A theme is introduced by the woodwind. A five-part percussion ensemble introduces a rhythmic series that then sustains a set of superimposed variations on the woodwind theme.
  10. Final. Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie: The movement is in sonata form: A brass fanfare, coupled with a fast variation of the "love theme", is developed and leads to a long coda, a final version of the "love" theme played fortissimo by the entire orchestra. The work ends on an enormous F major chord. In Messiaen's words, "glory and joy are without end".

The composer's initial plan was for a symphony in the conventional four movements, which eventually became numbers 1, 4, 6, and 10. Next, he added the three Turangalîla movements, which he originally called tâlas, a reference to the use of rhythm in Indian classical music. Finally, the 2nd, 5th, and 8th movements were inserted.[10] Early on, Messiaen authorized separate performance of movements 3, 4, and 5, as Three tâlas (not to be confused with the original use of the term for the three Turangalîla movements), but later came to disapprove of the performance of extracts.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ This example is taken from the CD booklet included with the Chung recording.[6] It was written in Messiaen's own hand, and has the low D (D2) assigned to the third trombone as shown. However, in the published 1990 score,[4] the note is written an octave higher (D3).


  1. ^ Program notes provided with the Naxos Records recording by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra with François Weigel (piano), Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot) and Antoni Wit (conductor).
  2. ^ Thomas Barker, "The Social and Aesthetic Situation of Olivier Messiaen's Religious Music: Turangalîla-Symphonie." International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music. 43, no. 1 (2012): 53–70; citation on 53
  3. ^ Andrew Ford (2012). Try Whistling This: Writings about Music. Collingwood, Victoria.: Black Inc. p. 261. ISBN 9781863955713.
  4. ^ a b c d e Full score, pub, Durand.
  5. ^ Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone (2005). Messiaen. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10907-5.[page needed]
  6. ^ a b Olivier Messiaen, CD booklet with Turangalîla Symphonie, (Myung-Whun Chung, conductor; Orchestre de la Bastille; Yvonne Loriod, piano; Jeanne Loriod, ondes martenot). CD recording. DG 431 781–2.
  7. ^ Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen, revised and updated edition (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1989): 94, 192.
  8. ^ Hill 2005, p. 172.
  9. ^ a b Some of the information in this article can be found in the program notes, written by Messiaen, provided with the DG recording by Orchestre de l'Opéra Bastille.
  10. ^ Hill 2005, p. 171.

External links[edit]