Turangalila Analysis Essay

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. 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:

  • Solo piano and ondes Martenot;
  • Woodwind: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons;
  • Brass: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 1 trumpet in D, cornet, 3 trombones, 1 tuba;
  • At least 8 and up to 11 percussionists,[4] playing: vibraphone, keyed or mallet glockenspiels, triangle, temple blocks and wood block, cymbals (crash and three types of suspended), tam tam, tambourine, maracas, snare drum, Provençal tabor, bass drum, and tubular bells;
  • celesta, and strings (32 violins, 14 violas, 12 cellos and 10 double basses)[4]

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.

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]
This is the flower theme. It is introduced by two clarinets.
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.
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 chord of F♯ major. 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. 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.


  • Roger Désormière, Orchestre National de la Radio Télévision Française, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Ginette Martenot (ondes martenot) – INA 1950 live (European premiere, at Aix-en-Provence Festival on 25 July 1950)[full citation needed]
  • Hans Rosbaud, SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Ginette Martenot (ondes martenot) – Wergo 1951[full citation needed]
  • Maurice Le Roux, Orchestre National de la RTF, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot) – Vega/Accord 1961 (supervised by Messiaen)[full citation needed]
  • Jean Fournet, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot) – Q Disc 1967 live[full citation needed]
  • Seiji Ozawa, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot) – RCA 1967[full citation needed]
  • André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, Michel Béroff (piano) and Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot) – EMI 1977, SLS 5117 Double 33 RPM LP set
  • Louis de Froment, Orchestre Symphonique de RTL, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot) – Forlane 1982 live[full citation needed]
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen, Philharmonia Orchestra, Paul Crossley (piano) and Tristan Murail (ondes martenot) – CBS/Sony 1985[full citation needed]
  • Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Peter Donohoe (piano) and Tristan Murail (ondes martenot) – EMI 1986, LP EX270468-3 and CD 747463-8
  • Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre de l'Opéra Bastille, Yvonne Loriod (piano) and Jeanne Loriod (ondes martenot) – Deutsche Grammophon 1990, CD 0289 431 7812 9; supervised by Messiaen, and first recording of the revised version
  • Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) and Takashi Harada (ondes martenot) – Decca 1992[full citation needed]
  • Marek Janowski, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Roger Muraro (piano) and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot) – RCA 1992[full citation needed]
  • Yan Pascal Tortelier, BBC Philharmonic, Howard Shelley (piano) and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot) – Chandos 1998[full citation needed]
  • Antoni Wit, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, François Weigel (piano) and Thomas Bloch (ondes martenot) – Naxos December 1998, CD 8.554478-9
  • Hans Vonk, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Garrick Ohlsson (piano) and Jean Laurendeau (ondes martenot) – Pentatone 1999 live[full citation needed]
  • Kent Nagano, Berliner Philharmoniker, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) and Dominique Kim (ondes martenot) – Teldec 2000 live[full citation needed]
  • Norichika Iimori, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Kazuoki Fujii (piano) and Takashi Harada (ondes martenot) – Canyon 2001[full citation needed]
  • Ryusuke Numajiri, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, Ichiro Nodaira (piano) and Takashi Harada (ondes martenot) – Exton 2002 live[full citation needed]
  • Thierry Fischer, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Roger Muraro (piano) and Jacques Tchamkerten (ondes martenot) – BBC Music 2006 live[full citation needed]
  • Hiroyuki Iwaki, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Kaori Kimura (piano), Takashi Harada (ondes martenot) – ABC Classics 2007 (live, recorded in 1985)[full citation needed]
  • Sylvain Cambreling, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Roger Muraro (piano) and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot) – Hänssler 2008[full citation needed]
  • Juanjo Mena, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Steven Osborne (piano) and Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot) – Hyperion 2012[full citation needed]
  • Hannu Lintu, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Angela Hewitt (piano) and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes martenot) – Ondine 2014[full citation needed]
  • Jan Latham-Koenig, is the only person to have performed the Turangililia symphony as the pianist, and then later conduct the work.

See also[edit]



  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. ^ abcdeFull 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. ^ abOlivier 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. ^ abSome 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.

External links[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).

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) TURANGALILA-SYMPHONIE
I & Introduction
II & Love Song 1
III & Turangalîla 1
IV & Love Song 2
V & Joy of the Blood of the Stars
VI & Garden of Love’s Sleep
VII & Turangalîla 2
VIII & Development of Love
IX &Turangalîla 3
X & Finale

Turangalîla&Symphonie (tour-ahn-ga-lee’-lah) was commissioned by American composer/conductor Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Started on 17th July 1946, the piece took nearly two and a half years to complete. The Symphonie is revolutionary in countless ways, not the least of which is its separation from the Western tradition.

Debussy, one of Messiaen’s biggest influences was interested in the gamelan but Messiaen took the idea even further, abandoning the logic and continuity characteristic of the Western tradition in favour of creating spaces for mental excitation or reflection. This fascination with meditation and abstract thinking was borne of deep religious beliefs. He resisted the label of mystic, preferring instead to say that he was merely illuminating the teachings of the Church. All of his work from 1945 to 1962 deals with religious subject matter.

An undying love
At its heart, Turangalîla-Symphonie is a love song. An intensely cerebral, cacophonic ode that tests the limits of human sensory perception granted, but a love song nonetheless. Although definitely miles away from the usual songs we associate with love, the Symphonie is an aural reflection on full emotional gamut inherent in colossally magnitudinous affairs of the heart.

Turangalîla is a combination of two Sanskrit words: turanga, meaning time and the more difficult to translate lîla, meaning love but also the play that is life and death. The composer explains further by saying, “Love is present here in the same manner [as superhuman, overflowing, binding and unlimited joy]. This is a love that is fatal, irresistible, transcending everything, suppressing everything outside of itself.”

The filter through which Messiaen presents this love is the ancient legend of Tristan and Iseult. It is not a literal telling of the story however and he took pains to caution commentators against the “distinctly shaky and often ridiculous” assignation of literary meaning where there is none. Most famous as the subject of a Wagner opera, the legend has been circulating throughout Europe since the 12th century. The details of the story change depending on the country but a basic synopsis is:

Tristan goes to Ireland to bring back Iseult for his Uncle Mark, King of Cornwall to marry. On the way back to Cornwall, Tristan and Iseult accidentally drink a love potion that makes them immediately mad for each other. King Mark marries Iseult as planned but Tristan and his love continue their under-the-radar affair. What happens after the royal wedding depends on which country’s version is read but usually Tristan ends up dying alone after he falsely assumes that Iseult deserted him.

The religious connection in the Symphonie is the idea of romantic love as a metaphor Christ’s love for the church or the Virgin Mary. This is the traditional interpretation of the Song of Songs, with the juxtaposition of Mary’s purity and the erotic themes of the poetry forming the cornerstone of Marian devotion. None of these texts are used directly in the Symphonie however like many religious philosophers before him, Messiaen made no distinction between the two types of love.

No matter how you slice it, Turangalîla is not an easy listen. It is long, loud and lacks any clear narrative, instead relying on 4 themes that reccur throughout. Messiaen composed deliberately, taking great care to assemble themes in ways that were, to him, perfectly logical. The effect however, particularly for someone who is not familiar with Messiaen’s other works, is one of an ADHD child unable to stay focussed long enough to complete a thought.
When the work premiered on 2nd December 1949 at Symphony Hall in Boston. Most of the critics were baffled by what they heard. The New York Times critic, Olin Downes, compared the concert to a Hollywood spectacle, adding that the fifth movement was, “the best and the most fun of the ten-movement symphonic circus. It is cunningly contrived to entertain and excite after much pretentious obscurity.” An employee of the Hall, obviously familiar with that infamously unfortunate premiere of Stravinsky’s, said he didn’t like the piece but was more disappointed it wasn’t bad enough to start a riot.

Making sense of it all
Big challenges mean big rewards however. After the second or third listen, the multiple colours, themes and rhythmic characters become more comprehensible. In that sense, it is much like an American trying to work out the cricket, they usually don’t get very far after one day’s play.

There are two ways to listen to this symphony. You can either surrender yourself to being swept away by the work’s aural and philosophical grandness or try to make head or tails of what’s happening structurally. While an analysis of the piece’s inner workings has filled up many a book, a good place to begin is with the identity of each of the four cyclical themes.

The first cyclical theme, called “statue” occurs right at the beginning of the piece and is a series of heavy thirds played by the trombones and tuba. “Flower”, the second theme, is played pianissimo by a pair of clarinets, which reminded Messiaen of two eyes reflecting each other. Next comes the love theme, “the most important of all.” It is presented in many different guises appearing in full for the first time in the sixth movement. The final theme is a chain of chords that, “echoes the formulae of an alchemist’s doctrine ‘dissociate and coagulate.’ ” It is more difficult to pick out than the others but bookends the eighth movement.

Because of the large forces required and the difficulty of the parts Turangalîla-Symphonie is not often performed. The irony of that is, of course, that it is much better appreciated live than via a recording simply because being physically surrounded by the sound world Messiaen created is an important part of the experience. In the words of American music critic Michael Walsh, “It’s a holy terror but a hell of a good time.”

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