Harawi – Chant d’amour et de mort

Composer: Olivier Messiaen (b. 1908 - d. 1992)
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Composer: Olivier Messiaen (b. 1908 - d. 1992)

Performance date: 04/07/2018

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1945

Duration: 01:02:54

Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ

Instrumentation: S-solo, pf

Instrumentation Category:Duo

Artists: Cédric Pescia - [piano]
Caroline Melzer - [soprano]


Caroline Melzer [soprano], Cédric Pescia [piano]


Olivier Messiaen [1908-1992]

Harawi – Chant d’amour et de mort (1945)

La ville qui dormait, toi

Bonjour toi, colombe verte


Doundou tchil

L’amour de Piroutcha

Répétition Planétaire



L’escalier redit, gestes du soleil

Amour oiseau d’étoile

Katchikatchi les étoiles

Dans le noir

Le grand amour…est une initiation

Par la mort et la séparation de ce monde,

À un amour plus grand et plus pur.

(Great love…is an initiation through death and separation from this world, into a greater and purer love) 

(Olivier Messiaen)

This is the first of three masterpieces on Love and Death that Messiaen himself called his Tristan Trilogy. The others are the Turangalîla Symphony for piano, ondes martenot and orchestra and Cinq rechants for twelve mixed solo voices. Harawi portrays the Tristanesque concept of fateful and irrevocable love that can only find fulfilment through death and entry into another world. The composition of the work coincided with tragic events in Messiaen’s life. His wife was stricken with an incurable disease after the birth of their son and afterwards in 1943 he met the young, beautiful and extremely talented pianist Yvonne Loriot. His wife finally succumbed to her illness in 1959 and he married Yvonne Loriot in 1962. 

This song cycle is a South American version of the Tristan legend set to a mixture of surrealistic poetry, symbols of Peruvian mythology and onomatopoeic word and syllable sequences from the ancient Quechua language of the Peruvian Indians. The word Harawi is a Quechua word describing a love-song that ends with the death of the lovers. The Peruvian Isolde is called Piroutcha, the man is nameless. The individual songs are formed into a complete work by a series of linguistic and musical resources in the overall structure of the cycle. Two clear sections can be recognised: the first six songs depict passionate worldly love, while the remaining six celebrate their fate in a new cosmic existence, like stars floating in the universe.

The mythical status of the work is clear from the first bar of the first song, The sleeping city, where the lovers first meet and whose first line will return to conclude the saga. This song acts as a prelude to the unfolding drama. The second song introduces the green dove, the ancient Mayan symbol of lovers, who is also addressed in the seventh and final songs. These three songs act as pillars supporting the rest of the cycle: they are all in the key of E flat and they share the beginning of the vocal part’s melody. They also signal the three acts in the drama: life and love; parting and death; and eternity. The appropriate musical representations are the bird-song piano part of the second song symbolic of a naïve joie de vivre and the death bell tolling in the seventh song. In the final twelfth song there are three ever more extended passages of chord sequences as a symbol of the lovers’ existence in eternity. 

The third song represents the deep, black abyss in the mountains as a symbol of death for the lovers on their path to the summit of their passion. This is matched in the second half by the eighth song that uses the traditional Peruvian ape dance as a warning of acute danger. Doundou tchil the fourth song is a ritual marriage dance, one manifestation of mortal love. The drum-like onomatopoeic doundou tchil is repeated seventeen times at the beginning and end, framing the sung dance form. Piroutcha’s love is a personal and tender love duet in the key Messiaen reserved for earthly love, G major. This lovely song is followed by the first expansion into the planetary, cosmic sphere, a harbinger of the approach of death. It opens with spine-chilling cries and enigmatic ritual enumerations before terrible warnings of cosmic chaos, red stars and spinning all-devouring planets. It ends as it began with the threatening cries.

The seventh song with the tolling bells is the halfway point, the farewell to lover and to life; the surreal imagery beginning at last to make sense: Farewell you, desert who weeps, mirror without breath of love, of flower, of night, of fruit, of sky, of day, for always. The music here rises to ecstatic heights with a thunderous conclusion from the piano to symbolise the utter finality of the farewell. The mighty ninth song corresponds with the ritual dance of the fourth song only now the lovers’ experience embraces the natural and the elemental. The stairway motto of the three elements, sky, water and time repeats hypnotically throughout the piece leading to the great outcry at Let us create the Love of the World. The wildly surreal text with its complex symbolism is given emotional coherence by the music, whose themes are now becoming familiar. The Starbird corresponds to the tender lovesong of Piroutcha of the fifth song. It also describes a surrealist painting by Roland Penrose that depicts a man’s hands, raised upwards from the bottom of the picture, towards the head and downward floating hair of a woman, whose body merges into the sky. The song is set in F sharp major, the key Messiaen used to portray mystical love. Katchi-katchi of the eleventh song is the Quechua word for grasshopper. Here the lovers are caught up in a cosmic riot of stars and nebulae where time is destroyed. 

The concluding song juxtaposes four great declamations of Into the dark against mesmeric chord sequences in an augmented rhythmical canon in the piano before repeating the first four lines of the eighth song, fading out on a repetition of Très loin, tout bas. The end is then in the beginning as the opening line of the whole cycle is repeated before fading into the night.

Francis Humphrys