Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie is a vast and complex love song. Lasting around 85 minutes, and composed for enormous orchestral forces, this ten-movement symphonic masterpiece is a pioneering landmark in twentieth century orchestral music by virtue of its innovations in orchestration, rhythm, melody, harmony, and form. Writing in 1995, just a few years after Messiaen’s death in 1992, musicologist Malcolm Hayes noted that it is “beyond serious dispute” that “Turangalîla has attained the status of a classic,” adding that the piece “must at the time have seemed gargantuan in its elaborate instrumental apparatus, hectic invention, flagrantly inflated rhetoric, and total lack of personal and artistic inhibition” (Hayes, 1995: 190). Since then, the piece has retained its place in the canon and has been regularly performed and recorded.

A page from Messiaen’s handwritten program note (Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives)

As one of only a few pieces not primarily inspired by Messiaen’s Catholic faith, but by human love as described in the romance of Tristan and Isolde and elsewhere, this new book contextualizes the Turangalîla-symphonie in Messiaen’s oeuvre and as a genre piece. Using previously untranslated information from Messiaen’s own description of the work in his Traité, close analysis of the music seeks to demystify some of the complex innovations he made to his musical language, especially in the areas of rhythm and orchestration. Special attention is paid to the fragmentary and elusive program which is explained with reference to Messiaen’s fascination with surrealism at this time. Information is included on the commission and composition of the piece, its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, its revision by Messiaen in 1990, and its reception history in both live and recorded performances.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalïla-symphonie will be published in early 2024.