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ClassicsOnline Home » MESSIAEN, O.: Harawi / 3 Melodies (Bruun, Hyldig)
Messiaen’s song cycles Trois Mélodies (1930) and Harawi (1945) were both inspired by the loss of a loved one: the Mélodies are a memorial to his mother who had died three years previously and Harawi was written shortly after his wife Claire Delbos had begun to suffer from the long illness that would ultimately lead to her death. But far from resorting to misery, the shimmering beauty of Messiaen’s music leaves the listener with a sense of hope and transcendence.
By Joshua Meggitt
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Trois Mélodies • Harawi
Olivier Messiaen was born on 10th December 1908 in Avignon into a literary family. His father was an eminent translator of English literature and his mother,
Cécile Sauvage, was a published poet. Messiaen displayed a precocious musical talent from an early age, being accepted by the time he was eleven into the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied piano, composition and organ. After graduation he served as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris from 1931 until his death, and his own contribution to the organ repertoire is arguably greater than that of any other composer since Bach.
In 1932 Messiaen married the violinist Claire Delbos and they had a son five years later. During World War II he was captured while serving as a medical auxiliary and held as a prisoner of war at Görlitz in Silesia. It was there that he wrote one of his most famous works, the Quatuor pour la fin de temps
(Quartet for the End of Time), which was given its first performance in the camp by four of the prisoners. After his release in 1941 Messiaen returned to Paris and took up a Professorship at the Conservatoire. Towards the end of war Claire developed mental health problems following an operation. Her condition worsened steadily and she was eventually hospitalised until her death in 1959.
Messiaen had been fascinated by birdsong since his teenage years; he once described birds as ‘probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet’. In 1953 he began travelling around France, meticulously notating different birdsong and using it in his music. By the 1960s as his growing international reputation was taking him further afield (including Japan, Iran, Argentina and Australia), he extended concert trips to further his birdsong research, often accompanied by his second wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, whom he had married in 1961.
The late 1960s and 1970s were dominated by a series of monumental works which embodied the ideas and phenomena that inspired him most: the oratorio La transfiguration de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965–9) and the opera Saint-François d’Assise (1975–83) were acts of devotion to his Roman Catholic faith, and the orchestral work Des Canyons aux étoiles…(1971–4) was inspired by birdsong as well as the colours and majesty of the Bryce Canyon in Utah, which he visited in 1972. Messiaen retired from teaching in 1978, but continued composing until shortly before his death.
Messiaen lived and worked at a time when Western composers were rejecting many of the styles that had evolved over the previous three centuries and inventing
new ones. Although he himself was a musical innovator, he stood aside from his contemporaries, as his music was born of a deep religious faith and a wonder of
nature in an age when secularism and detachment were much more in vogue. As a teacher he was a major influence on a new generation of ground-breaking composers, including Boulez and Stockhausen, but whereas these composers aimed to break totally free from tradition, Messiaen’s sound-world always has a shimmering beauty that seems to be the natural successor to the ravishing harmonies of early twentieth century French composers, such as Debussy, who had first awakened his own passion for music.
The Trois Mélodies were written when Messiaen was only 22, and the influence of Debussy can be heard in the textures and harmonies. They are a musical memorial to his mother, who had died in 1927. The second song is his only setting of a poem by his mother, and he wrote the texts of the first and third songs himself. In Pourquoi? (Why?), the poet wonders why the beauty of nature no longer moves him; Le sourire (The Smile) likens the effect of a single word uttered by a loved one to being kissed on the soul, which brings forth a trembling smile. La fiancée perdue (The Lost Bride To Be) opens as the bride evokes images of angels, sunny afternoons and the wind blowing through the flowers; the mood soon changes, however, as we realise the bride has been lost and the poet asks Jesus to grant her peace.
When Messiaen wrote the song cycle Harawi in 1945, he had been studying Peruvian legend and folksong (the title of the cycle refers to a particular type of Peruvian traditional song, often dealing with the death of a lover). He had also recently written the incidental music for a production of a play by Lucien Fabre based on the Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde, whose love could only be fulfilled in death. His wife Claire’s deteriorating mental health made this a particularly significant concept for Messiaen at this time. He gave Harawi the subtitle ‘Songs of Love and Death’, and this work, together with the epic Turangalîla-symphonie (1946–1948) and Cinq Rechants (1948), form what he called his ‘Tristan trilogy’.
The heroine of Harawi is Piroutcha, though her lover is never named. The work is in two halves: the first seven songs depict the couple, their love, and their parting through death in Adieu. Amid the ecstasy of this first half, darkness and premonitions of death loom: Montagnes is full of references to dark colours, and in L’amour de Piroutcha the young man says ‘Coupe-moi la tête’ (‘Cut off my head’). The remaining five songs depict a world full of surrealist imagery where the lovers have been reunited after death.
The poems, which Messiaen wrote himself, are in French, interspersed with words in the Andean Quetchua language. Messiaen uses the Quetcha words not for their semantic meaning, but for their sound quality and onomatopoeic effect. The exclamations of Doundou tchil in the fourth song evoke the sounds of ankle-bells worn by Peruvian dancers, and the wild repetitions of the word ‘pia’ in Syllabes refer to a Peruvian legend in which the warning cries of monkeys in the trees save a Prince from death.
The melody first heard at the opening of Bonjour toi, colombe verte is the work’s ‘Thème de l’Amour’ (‘love theme’). It can be heard again in Adieu, Dans le noir, and in altered form in the last section of L’escalier redit, gestes de soleil and throughout Katchikatchi les étoiles. The tune is closely based on a Peruvian folksong, and also appears in Messiaen’s incidental music to Fabre’s play.
Messiaen’s love of birdsong, of nature and his fascination with colour are all evident in Harawi. The dark imagery of Montagnes combines with dramatic musical gestures to evoke the grandeur of a vast, foreboding mountainous landscape. At several points Messiaen instructs the pianist to play ‘comme un oiseau’ (‘like a bird’), such as the solo piano sections of Bonjour toi, colombe verte and in the ethereal interjections in Amour oiseau d’étoile. Messiaen’s text also contains frequent references to birds; in particular the recurring theme of a green dove (‘colombe verte’), representing both the girl and the coming of spring, provides relief from an otherwise dark atmosphere.
Messiaen specified that Harawi should be sung by a ‘grande soprano dramatique’ and he was well aware of the great vocal demands he was placing on the singer. One of his favourite sopranos, Marcelle Bunlet, gave the première of the work in Paris on 26th June 1946, accompanied by the composer.
The music of Messiaen is overpowering and seductive. It delights the senses and challenges the mind, calling forth emotions both peaceful and violent. It dissolves
time into a floating state and creates a multidimensional space of subtle sounds, harmonic colours, and melodic movement. The music of Messiaen encompasses great
contrasts, from luscious harmonies to harsh cacophonic effects. Simple melodies stand side by side with complex music in many layers. His music possesses delicate nuances and provocative clashes, and tones that rise to extreme heights and fall to bottomless depths.
Messiaen’s Trois Mélodies and the song cycle Harawi both deal with the loss of a beloved person. The composer wrote the texts in conjunction with the music, establishing a coherent creative process. “I am not a poet”, Messiaen said. But his mother, Cécile Sauvage,
was a poet. Before Olivier was born, she wrote the collection of poems L’Âme en bourgeon (The Soul in Bud), predicting her son’s future enthusiasm for music and birdsong. Even though his mother was not a believer, Messiaen grew up as a convinced and devout Catholic.
Trois Mélodies (1930)
Cécile Sauvage died in 1927, forty years old, and three years later Messiaen wrote Trois Mélodies in memory of her, enclosing her poem Le sourire (The Smile) between two texts of his own. Messiaen’s setting of Le sourire is intimate and delicate as the poem, ”like a kiss on the
soul”. The first song, Pourquoi? (Why?), evolves from ingenuous simplicity to passionate expression, presenting the delights of nature, birds, light, water, sky, flowers, and lamenting their passing charm. The final song, La fiancée perdue (The Lost Bride To Be) is a vivid image of Cécile as a young and innocent bride, and a serene prayer that Jesus may grant her mercy and repose after death.
In these three mélodies, the 21-year-old composer was on his way from the French tradition of Debussy and Fauré to a musical language of his own. He coloured the songs with the harmonies of the octatonic mode of alternating semitones and tones, which he adopted as one of his “modes of limited transpositions”. These modes were Messiaen’s important personal discovery. Out of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale, he selected patterns of 6, 8, 9 or 10 notes which repeat themselves after a limited number of transpositions on the keyboard. These modes became the sources of Messiaen’s refined and powerful melodies and characteristic colourful harmonies.
Harawi: Songs of Love and Death (1945)
Harawi is a cycle of twelve songs, portraying an overwhelming love that is fulfilled in death. Messiaen drew on several sources of inspiration for this work. He studied the folk-music of the Andes in a collection of Peruvian folk-melodies. The Andes were unknown to Messiaen, but the grandeur of the French Alps had made a huge impact on him since his childhood. He admired the operas of Richard Wagner, not least the love story of Tristan and Isolde. He was a great reader of the French surrealist poets Pierre Reverdy and Paul Éluard, and he studied Hindu mythology and books of astronomy. As a French soldier in the Second World War, Messiaen experienced the threat of death, and suffered hunger and cold as a prisoner of war. As a composer, he developed his skill and technique in numerous works for orchestra, organ, piano and voice, in particular the modes of limited transpositions and the additive rhythms, which impart a sense of flexible and floating time by avoiding fixed metre.
From his sources, Messiaen selects melodies, words, images and ideas in a very personal way. Harawi is a type of Peruvian folk-song, often dealing with
unhappy or lost love, sometimes combined with a longing for death. Messiaen selects a few of these songs, adapts their melodies to his own modes and rhythms,
and integrates them in the European myth of Tristan and Isolde, the story of irresistible love that leads to death. From song texts in the indigenous Quechua language, he picks out onomatopoeic words such as toungou, mahipipas, kahipipas and doundou tchil, the latter an imitation of the sound of ankle-bells in dance. He also adopts the Peruvian girl’s name Piroutcha, green as the colour of hope, and the dove as a symbol of the beloved.
Messiaen’s texts are surrealistic poems in the sense that words, concepts and images combine and clash in an unusual and unexpected manner. Yet every text is a significant contribution to the unfolding of the tragic love story. These are the twelve songs of Harawi:
1. La ville qui dormait, toi (The town that slept, you)
The first song is a tender prelude to the cycle, sung extremely slowly, evoking memories of past, disappearing love. The beloved one is receding into a
distant state of dream and sleep, inaccessible to the lover’s gaze. La violette double (the double violet) is a symbol of love, borrowed from the refrain of a French folk-song, in which a nightingale is sent as a messenger to the castle of love. Le plein minuit le banc (the “bank at midnight”) hints at a scene in Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where the lovers recline on a grassy bank.
2. Bonjour toi, colombe verte (Good morning, green dove)
The story begins with a song of love in its fullest bloom. The young girl is greeted as a dove descending from the sky, clad in the green colour of hope, and as a limpid pearl, born out of the water. The lovers are so closely linked to each other that they share a common shadow, and their love is celebrated by the joy of brilliant birdsong. This song represents the main theme of love, which has its origin in a Peruvian song. The theme returns in songs Nos. 7 and 12.
3. Montagnes (Mountains)
The awe-inspiring grandeur of hard and massive mountains is depicted by the sharp rhythms of a shrill piano, tumbling down in darkness to meet the singer in
her low range, and the view into the depths of abysses evokes feelings of chaotic vertigo, mirrored in the rotating motion of soaring piano chords.
4. Doundou tchil
The young man performs a dance of courtship to the repeated syllables Doundou tchil, imitating the sound of Peruvian ankle-bells. Catching sight of his beloved Piroutcha, he plunges into an ecstatic love song, which mixes pet names, Quechua words, and the syllables of incantation mapa nama. The dance then grows to a climax, accompanied by rapid birdsong.
5. L’amour de Piroutcha (The love of Piroutcha)
A dialogue unfolds between the young girl and the young man. She sings a lullaby, inviting him to lull her in his arms, but he realises that their love can only be fulfilled in death, and asks her to cut off his head.
6. Répétition planétaire (Planetary repetition)
A vision of a frightening universe, dramatized by contrasts between agitated cries and monotonous repetition in mysterious darkness. The love-death tragedy grows to cosmic dimensions, culminating in a dance of dizziness and fear, a nightmare of whirlwinds, winding stairs and a planet that devours everything in its
rotation. In the mysterious incantations, Messiaen adds the word lila, a Sanskrit word signifying the play of creative and destructive forces in the universe.
7. Adieu (Farewell)
The love song to the green dove is slowed down to a solemn song of parting and grief, accompanied by funereal bells and deep gong sounds. The lover recalls
the vanished bliss and the love potion, and takes leave of his beloved. She was once light and fruit, heaven and earth, but now a desolate angel deprived of love’s breath. In the myth of Tristan and Isolde, the magic potion evokes irresistible love which leads to death.
8. Syllabes (Syllables)
A lucid memory of the departed beloved, and long stretches of ecstatic dancing incantation: pia pia pia pia pia pia pia doundou tchil…to conjure up a new life with her after death, unfolding and flowering in heaven. Messiaen inserted significant allusions in the text of this song. The number five given to Piroutcha is the sacred number of the Hindu god Shiva, who has the power to conquer death, and the frenzied repetition of pia pia pia…alludes to a Peruvian tale of a prince who is saved from mortal danger by the warning calls of monkeys.
9. L’escalier redit, gestes de soleil (The stair repeats, gestures of the sun)
A fantasy of overwhelming love face to face with death, and after death. Inventons l’amour du monde (Let us invent the love of the world) is the key phrase, reaching the top note of the whole song cycle in brilliant fortissimo. The bodily heartbeats of the beloved woman slow down and come to a standstill, but the presence of death has released a celebration of the joy of love, mixing blissful memories with ecstatic anticipation of paradisiac eternity.
10. Amour oiseau d’étoile (Love bird of a star)
A dream of love under the starry sky, full of gentle birdsong, a union of earthly and celestial love. This song is inspired by a surrealist painting by Roland Penrose, Seeing is believing, which Messiaen had seen reproduced in an art journal. In the composer’s words: “Two male hands reaching out, then a woman’s head upside down, her hair spreading out upwards from below, her brow, her eyes, her face, her neck, and then the rest of the woman is missing, or rather, she is continued in the sky and the stars. This picture is the symbol of the whole of Harawi”.
11. Katchikatchi les étoiles (Katchikatchi the stars)
A cosmic dance. Stars and atoms jump like grasshoppers, katchikatchi in the Quechua language. Flashing images appear in the expanding universe, and,
as desired in the dialogue between Piroutcha and her lover in the fifth song, a head is cut off, rolling in its own blood.
12. Dans le noir (In the dark)
Death prevails. The green dove and the limpid pearl have sunk into darkness. The love theme is recited slowly and solemnly, interspersed with transparent
piano sounds which move endlessly without direction, symbolic of eternity. Distant memories of love fade away. The sleeping city remains, but she is not there.
Harawi bears no dedication, and the composer remained silent about the personal background of the work. Messiaen’s biography, however, seems to indicate that he had his first wife, Claire Delbos, in mind while composing the song cycle. She was a composer and a gifted violinist. They married in 1932, and their son Pascal was born in 1937, but from 1943 she had shown signs of mental disorder through a disease of the brain, and when the family spent the summer of 1945 together and Messiaen was composing Harawi, he was seriously worried about her state of health. In all probability, Harawi is Messiaen’s passionate farewell to the earthly love he had enjoyed with Claire.
In his two earlier song cycles, Poèmes pour Mi (1936), and Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938), Messiaen had celebrated marital love and the infancy of his son. After Harawi, Messiaen remained absorbed in the Tristan myth. Harawi and his two subsequent works, the Turangalîla Symphony (1948) and Cinq Rechants for a cappella choir (1949) are known as his Tristan Trilogy.
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MESSIAEN, O.: Harawi / 3 Melodies (Bruun, Hyldig)