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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)


Chant d’amour et de mort
The Song Company, Amy Moore (soprano), Antony Pitts (piano)
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Label: 1equalmusic
Recording details: December 2020
Studios 301, Sydney, Australia
Produced by Francis Greep
Engineered by Jack Prest & Jesse Deskovic
Release date: February 2022
Total duration: 57 minutes 18 seconds

Cover artwork: Seeing is believing (detail) by Roland Penrose
Private Collection / © Lee Miller Archives

Harawi is Messiaen’s grandest song cycle: loquacious (and audacious) birds, forbidding stone statues and ritual dances, and the tenderest affairs of the heart are together conjured in chords and melodies that effortlessly morph from the underground jazz of Wartime Paris to a Peru of legendary folksong, where monkeys jabber, dancers shake their ankle bracelets, and syllables of the Andean Quechua language are de- and re-constructed.

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"For me the links between sound and colour are intellectual: a complex of sounds or chord corresponds to a particular ensemble of colours, and this ensemble of colours accompanies the chord at each octave, getting lighter as you go up towards the treble, and darker as you go down towards the bass. This happens only if you transpose the chord by octaves; if you move it by a semitone or a tone, or a 3rd or a 4th, the ensemble of colours changes.
"The first, essential element in music is rhythm, and rhythm is first and foremost the change of number and duration … Imagine a scene in the theatre with three characters: the first is active, even attacking the second; the second is reactive because his actions are dominated by those of the first; finally the third character witnesses the conflict and remains inactive. If we translate this idea into the domain of rhythm, we get three rhythmic groups: the first in which the durations are always increasing—that’s the attacker; the second in which the durations become smaller—that’s the victim; and the third in which the durations never change—that’s the unaffected character.
"Melody is our point of departure. May it remain supreme! And however complex our rhythms or harmonies become, we will not let them take over but keep them subordinate to it like faithful servants."

(Olivier Messiaen)

Messiaen’s music is full of colour and full of joy and of life, and full of joie de vivre—joy in living itself. His music is also full of extreme passions and contrasts, and some of the colours he creates in his harmony are strange to the point of sounding otherworldly, as if from another civilization … beyond the stars. But he warmly invites the listener (and the performer) to hear the world as he hears and sees it—in the 'songs of love and death' of Harawi that means loquacious and audacious birds, forbidding stone statues and ritual dances, and the tenderest affairs of the heart, all in chords and melodies that cross from wartime Paris with its underground jazz ('the symbol of, or the last tie with, the outside free world') to a Peru of folksong and legend where monkeys jabber, dancers shake their ankle bracelets, and syllables of the Andean Quetchua language are de- and re-constructed.

Harawi takes its title from a type of Peruvian folksong most often lamenting the death of the beloved. Messiaen’s Harawi is a song cycle of a dozen songs, some short and sweet, others long and intense, telling the story of two lovers fated to love, to die, and to be reunited in their love and death, and transcending the limitations of present reality. A surrealist painting by Roland Penrose, Seeing is believing, is, as Messiaen put it himself, 'the symbol of the whole of Harawi'—'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' (the central part of the painting is featured on this album cover).

For Messiaen himself, love in real life was both intense and complicated. At the time he was writing Harawi his wife Claire Delbos, herself a composer and violinist, had been suffering from very serious mental health issues for a number of years, and would eventually die in a sanatorium. His love for her had been expressed in two earlier song cycles, Poèmes pour Mi (1936), and Chants de Terre et de Ciel (1938), and Harawi appears to reflect her deterioration and the eventual parting that the couple faced. At the same time, the woman who was to become Messiaen’s second wife (in 1961, two years after Claire’s death) was already an important part of his life. Yvonne Loriod, a pianist and burgeoning composer, was one of the pupils in Messiaen’s first class at the Paris Conservatoire after his repatriation from prisoner-of-war camp in 1941. Even while their relationship was little more than friendship the sparks kindled a blaze of musical outpouring for the virtuoso fingers of the young Loriod, including works from the 1940s such as Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jèsus and Visions de l’Amen.

Messiaen had recently written incidental music for a play based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde where there is a love triangle that results in separation and death. Harawi itself is part of a trilogy of his works directly inspired by the legend (the other two works are the enormous orchestral Turangalîla-symphonie and Cinq Rechants for 12 voices). Messiaen himself pointed to the all-consuming love of the Tristan story as a positive rather than destructive force, despite the aspects of the mediaeval legend that clearly contravened his own very strong Christian faith; instead, he saw a connection with the love-sacrifice at the centre of the Gospel (although there is no overt theology in Harawi at all). The very earthy, though heaven-bound, love story of Harawi follows the journey of Piroutcha and her un-named lover in two acts, the first leading up to the grand farewell in the seventh song, and the second taking the lovers into a universe that might be a surrealist vision of the afterlife.

The opening song of the first half, 'La ville qui dormait, toi', introduces the beloved’s mesmeric gaze, while all else sleeps; the stillness is broken by the morning-call of the green dove, a symbol of youth and love, in 'Bonjour toi, colombe verte' introducing the main love-theme which comes back in both the seventh and the final movements of the cycle. The radiant beauty of the green dove gives way to the vertiginous mountain landscape of 'Montagnes', in which there is a premonition of impending catastrophe. Then it is time to dance with the sound of ritual Peruvian ankle-bells echoed in the onomatopoeic title and refrain of the fourth song, 'Doundou tchil'—the middle section resounds with the lover calling Piroutcha’s name, which is answered by her in the fifth song, 'L’amour de Piroutcha', a tender love duet in which the lover knowingly talks of the fate that awaits not just her, but him too. Things take a cosmic turn in 'Répétition planétaire' as their love-play is set against the turning forces of the universe with music that is, by turn, hysterical and mysterious, culminating in a terrifying whirlwind fugue! 'Adieu' ends the first half of the cycle as his 'green dove' passes from the lover’s reach with three final crashes on the piano sounding something like an orchestral tam-tam.

The second half begins with 'Syllabes'—a game of number- and word-play consisting of a captivating lovesong addressed to his departed 'green dove', alternating with an extraordinary series of frenetic chases in which the warning 'pia-pia-pia' calls of apparently friendly monkeys are overlaid with cascades of chords that go forwards and backwards … and eventually can go no faster! The climactic eighth movement, 'L’escalier redit, gestes du soleil', celebrates an intimation of a lovers’ ecstatic reunion beyond death, and is thoroughly physical and exhilarating. In the afterglow of 'Amour oiseau d’étoile'—one of Messiaen’s most enchanting slow movements—the distance between earth and heaven is pictured in terms of Penrose’s Seeing is believing. 'Katchikatchi les étoiles' expresses the lover’s longing for his departed Piroutcha as a dance that wends its way through the universe—and his own macabre desire to join her. Finally, the vision slowly recedes—for now, at least—with images of her and his own undying love drawn from the preceding movements, ending with an acceptance that his 'green dove' has gone into the night—'Dans le noir'. If there is any guilt in Harawi related either to loss or infidelity, it is totally suppressed and/or transfigured into an overwhelming sense of atonement.

Antony Pitts & Amy Moore © 2022

Reflections on Messiaen’s Harawi
for Amy Moore, with admiration and love
On 2 February 1945, Messiaen recorded some incidental music on the organ of the Palais de Chaillot for Lucien Fabre’s play Tristan et Yseult which opened three weeks later. The handsome programme includes a fascinating clue to the pre-history of Harawi: a page of Messiaen’s manuscript, headed ‘Tristan et Yseult—Thème d’amour’ is none other than the great cyclic theme of Harawi, much as it appears in 'Bonjour toi, colombe verte', and 'Adieu', but written six months before he started work on the song-cycle. Another song, 'L’amour de Piroutcha', started life (in May 1945) as a piece for oboe and piano written for that year’s oboe concours at the Paris Conservatoire.

Messiaen and his family were finally able to get away from Paris to their country retreat at Petichet (near Grenoble, in the Dauphiné) by the middle of July 1945 and he began work straight away on composing the new songs. Usually eager to explain the thinking behind his music (sometimes at inordinate length), Messiaen said very little about Harawi: as we shall see, it was a work with a very private meaning. He did, however, describe it as the first piece in his ‘Tristan trilogy’ (the other two being the Turangalîla-symphonie and Cinq Rechants). The Tristan connection is implicit in the subtitle of Harawi: ‘chant d’amour et de mort’ (‘song of love and death’), but Messiaen never spoke of a specific musical connection. However, the incidental music for Fabre’s Tristan et Yseult provides just such a link, and it’s tempting to suggest that this small commission not only gave him the cycle’s most important musical theme (the ‘Theme of Love’) but may even have planted the idea of composing a piece inspired by thoughts of irresistible and fatal love.

This ‘Theme of Love’ (slightly altered, and without Messiaen’s transforming harmonies), has an intriguing provenance, having been taken from a collection of Peruvian folk melodies. This may seem an unlikely source for music on the Tristan myth, but in fact the Quecha ‘harawi’ is a type of song that depicts lovers destined to be united only in death. Messiaen’s changes (and his chords) have an extremely potent effect on this melody. It is first heard at the start of the second song ('Bonjour toi') where the greeting of the two lovers already carries a sense of doom. In the songs that follow, dark forces seem to crowd in, so that even the relatively untroubled dialogue between the lovers in 'L’Amour de Piroutcha' is coloured by gruesome images of decapitation (‘Coupe-moi la tête, doundou tchil’) and death (‘amour, la mort’). Altogether, Harawi has music of a ferocity and desperation that is unlike anything else in Messiaen, as well as elements of wild dancing (in 'Doundou tchil' and 'Katchikatchi les étoiles'). It is also the work in which Messiaen was most heavily influenced by Surrealist poetry and art, as the composer told Antoine Goléa:

At the time I wrote Harawi I was a great reader of Pierre Reverdy and Paul Eluard, and also a very good book by André Breton on Surrealism and painting. It is thus an almost entirely Surrealist work, apart from some images borrowed from the mountains of the Dauphiné (because I have never seen the Andes cordillera), and certain Peruvian Surrealist phrases such as a ‘green dove’. The dove is the symbol of a girl in Peru, and the colour green represents spring.

Messiaen’s two previous song-cycles had both been overtly autobiographical. The first, Poèmes pour Mi, was written as a love song to his first wife, Claire Delbos. The second, Chants de Terre et de Ciel, was a celebration of the birth of their son, Pascal. But the autobiographical element of Harawi is more complicated—and much more private: it was never discussed by Messiaen. The image of the ‘green dove’ suggests that it was written as an expression of love for Messiaen’s young muse, Yvonne Loriod (who later became his second wife). That may well true in part, but darker thoughts of death and loss point to something more tragic. From about 1943 onwards, Messiaen’s first wife Claire began to exhibit symptoms of what we would now describe as early-onset dementia. Even those close to the couple knew little of this (Goléa commented that ‘for a long time Messiaen kept these terrible things hidden … Later, unable to hide the truth, he spoke of her as a saint, because of her long and patient martyrdom’), but Messiaen’s grief and pain seem to be etched in much of the music of Harawi.

One song, 'Amour oiseau d’étoile', was inspired by a painting: Seeing is believing by the British Surrealist Roland Penrose (1900-1984), showing, as Messiaen described it: ‘two male hands stretched out, then a woman’s head upside down; continuing upwards, her hair spreading out, her brow, her eyes, her face, her neck, but the rest of the woman is missing, or rather she is continued in the sky or in the stars’. This image went far beyond this one song for Messiaen. He declared that Penrose’s painting was ‘the symbol for the whole of Harawi’. In the words of 'Amour oiseau d’étoile', the lovers are depicted beyond space and time, where ‘hands are singing … my hands, your eye, your neck, the sky.’

Messiaen always had a specific singer in mind for Harawi: the soprano Marcelle Bunlet, noted for her Wagnerian roles at the Paris Opéra. On the title page of the score, the voice is specified in unusual detail: ‘a grand dramatic soprano voice; mostly in the medium and low register, despite some forceful high Bs’ and he later said that he wanted a singer with a ‘brilliant upper register’, adding that ‘the influence of Peruvian folk music led equally for her to have a warm lower register, powerful and sonorous.’

Marcelle Bunlet and Messiaen gave the first performance on 26 June 1946, at a private concert in the magnificent home of Comte Étienne de Beaumont at 2, rue Duroc in Paris. The invited audience was given an elegant programme, printed on hand-made paper, with a cover design by Picasso of the Three Graces. Messiaen provided no programme note: just the work’s title, subtitle and a list of the songs reproduced in his own handwriting. In terms of the subject matter of Harawi, it’s poignant to note that Yvonne Loriod was Messiaen’s page-turner at this concert, and Claire Delbos was in the audience. The next day, Messiaen and Bunlet were in Brussels, where they gave the first public performance of the cycle. Claire became increasingly ill, spending the last ten years of her life in a nursing home. She died in 1959, and Harawi stands as a perpetual and glorious memorial.

(Nigel Simeone is a writer and teacher. He is co-author of the biography Messiaen (2005). His other books include Janáček’s Works (1997, co-author) and The Janáček Compendium (2019), The Leonard Bernstein Letters (2013) and Charles Mackerras (2015, co-author). He is currently working on a book about Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult. He writes for Opera Magazine, the Royal Opera House and the Wigmore Hall, and appears regularly on BBC Radio. He has been a guest several times on ABC’s Music Show. Nigel has recently retired from teaching, but earlier in his career he had worked at a school in Cambridge where he had the good fortune to teach a gifted young soprano called Amy Moore.)

Nigel Simeone © 2022

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