Turangalîla-Symphonie – ‘It’s a holy terror, but a hell of a good time’

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.”

About the ondes Martenot


  1. Really interesting, thanks! Contrary to many listeners’ experience, I loved this on first hearing but didn’t know much about it. This has been a good place to start. It’s interesting that Olin Downes liked Mvt V the best – it certainly has the best name, V & Joy of the Blood of the Stars.

    Best wishes

    Alan Coady

  2. Barrie GILBERT

    I was looking for a scholarly analysis of this work on Google when I came across this piece, and found it amusing as well as informative. I have listened to To-outrun-galila well over a hundred times (but then, I’m 76, which would work out to only twice a year in a 50 year period…) and never cease to enjoy every darned note, every twittering bird, every over-the-top brass chords, all to the very last twinge. Now my Big Project is to capture at least the essence of this joyous work on a rack of about twenty already-individually-rich synthesizers. But to do that, I need the full orchestral score, and so far I haven’t been able to find one that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (and I need to keep both for another 25 years or so…). Any ideas out there? In fact, IS there anybody out there? Hel-loe…….

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