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. Koussevitzky was billed to conduct the premiere, but fell ill, and the task fell to the young Bernstein. Bernstein has been described as "the ideal conductor for it, and it made Messiaen's name more widely known". 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.
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. 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."
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.
The title of the work, and those of its movements, were a late addition to the project. They were first described by Messiaen in a diary entry in early 1948. He derived the title from two Sanskrit words, turangaand lîla, which roughly translate into English as "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death", and described the joy of Turangalîla as "superhuman, overflowing, dazzling and abandoned".
Messiaen revised the work in 1990.