Part of Messiaen's 'Tristan' trilogy of 1945-8 (Harawi and Cinq rechants are the other two), the Turangalila-Symphonie's sensuality is bound up in Catholic divine love rather than the earthly sensuousness of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. A mammoth work utilising a huge orchestra, and overflowing with colour and energy, the Symphony was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Serge Koussevitzky.
Rhythm forms a vital part of the Symphony: Turangalila, itself, is the Sanskrit name for one of the Indian rhythmic patterns found in Lavignac's encyclopaedia. Messiaen also began in this piece to experiment with applying the serial techniques of 12-tone music to rhythm, and the results can be heard in the Turangalila sections I, II and III.
Based around the tonal centre of F sharp, the Symphony is wonderfully colourful. It prominently features the strange sounds of the Ondes Martenot (an electronic instrument) and contains an extensive solo piano part written for Messiaen's future wife, Yvonne Loriod. Constructed in ten movements in two clear halves, it interpolates the, at times, still tranquillity of the Love Song (Chant d'amour) between the thrilling vibrancy of the other sections, with the 5th and 10th movements proving particularly exuberant.
Oliver Messiaen was born in Avignon, France in 1908. His father was an English teacher and his mother was a poet. He began to compose at the age of seven, and when in 1918 he was given a score of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande, he resolved to become a composer. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 at the age of 11, studying harmony, counterpoint and fugue, piano accompaniment, history and composition, winning many prizes. When he left the Conservatoire in 1930, Messaien became the organist at La Trinité in Paris, where he stayed for over 40 years. He also taught at the Ecole Normale de Musique from 1936 and at the Schola Cantorum. He composed his famous organ cycles La Nativité du Seigneur in 1935 and Les Corps Glorieux in 1939.
In 1940 he was taken prisoner and sent to a Silesian prison camp, where he composed the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”). When he was released, Messiaen became a professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, and later taught outside France, in (among others) Budapest and Tanglewood, USA. In 1947 the post of Professor of Musical Analysis was created at the Paris Conservatoire especially for him. His classes became world-famous among musicians as a source of supreme compositional education.
During the 1950s Messiaen concentrated more on composition, and often used the influence of his pupils to his own benefit, such as in 1958, when one of Boulez’ Domaine Musical concerts saw the premiere of his Catalogue d’Oiseaux. This work was typical of many of his later pieces, drawing as it does on the sounds of birdsong, with which Messiaen was particularly taken. Indeed, he would spend hours outside noting down birdsongs in manuscript and then using them in his music. In 1962 he visited Japan, then Bulgaria and Argentina. In 1965 the French Government commissioned Et Exspecto Ressurrectionem Mortuorum to commemmorate the world wars' casualties. In 1966 he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire, and he devoted the latter parts of his life to the composition of large-scale works such as the 12-movement Piano Concerto Des Canyons aux Étoiles... (1974) and the opera Saint François d'Assise (1983).