Excruciatingly Human

An investigation into the theoretical treatment of love and death in Messiaen’s Harawi of the “Tristan Trilogy”


*NOTE: My endnotes have been lost in formatting translation, but my works cited can be found at the end of the post.


Despite his reputation as a devoutly religious man, and a nearly supernatural composer, Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) music is in fact astoundingly reflective of the earthly human condition.  This is particularly evident in the three works dubbed to be his “Tristan trilogy”: Harawi (1945), Turangalîla-Symphonie (written 1946-8, first performed 1949), and Cinq rechants (1948).  This collection of pieces addresses the narrative and themes found in Richard Wagner’s operatic romantic tragedy, Tristan und Isolde—as well as preceding versions of the tale—by which Messiaen was heavily inspired.  The first piece in the trilogy, the song cycle Harawi: chant d’amour et de mort (or, “song of love and of death”) is a masterpiece showcasing Messiaen’s intensely individualistic and innovative compositional style.  Composed for piano and specifically a dramatic soprano (perhaps a stylistically Wagnerian decision), Harawi traces the physical, emotional, and spiritual struggle of two lovers through twelve songs, with compositional techniques handling the deepest conflicting, and most counterintuitive human emotions.  In an intricate fusion of text, harmony, symbolism, and unique conventions such as modes and birdsong, Messiaen reconciles the mortal experience with its relationship to the divine universe and explores love’s extent into realms beyond the physical limits of humanness.

The myth of Tristan and Isolde dates back to Celtic origins before the 12th century, but the earliest source material has been lost.  The now-infamous story was recorded by Thomas of Brittany (1150-70), Béroul and Eilhart (1170-90), and Gottfried von Strassburg (ca.1210).  (Gottfried’s is the version which inspired Wagner, and subsequently Messiaen.)  It is quite clear that the tale of the two lovers is one fraught with sadness, frustration, difficulty, and in some interpretations, sin.  Wagner focused heavily on this last quality, and one might think Messiaen would be drawn to the aspect of forbidden love from a Catholic perspective, (especially since some have postulated that the composition of the Tristan trilogy may have been inspired by events in his own life), but in fact, he used Harawi to explore the mortal implications of an all-consuming love as well as its connection to God through a sense of personal sacrifice.  He was attracted to the story as a vessel of an other-worldly experience on Earth, for as Audrey Davidson describes, the Tristan myth is “the supreme myth of passionate love with a transcendent veto [which] causes [it] to remain unconsummated, and which finds fulfillment only in death.”  Messiaen wrote the text himself—as was typical of him—and used a combination of French and Peruvian inspiration drawn from the folklore of the Andes.  The title of the cycle itself is a Quechua word describing a particular type of song ending in the deaths of two lovers, in this case being a woman named “Piroutcha,” and an unnamed man.  

While there are many ways in which theorists have chosen to organize and group the songs in Harawi, there seem to be three main sections.  The first contains songs 1-4, and follows a narrative of “descent and recovery,” moving from an idyllic scene, to a dizzying moment of panic, and back to a celebratory dance.  The second section covers songs 5-9, which do not connect to each other in a particular way apart from convening tension and turmoil during the trying phase of the lovers’ journey.  Song 9 serves as the turning point into the third section, (songs 10-12), as it depicts a scene of death, leading to the ensuing peace and fulfillment described in the final three pieces.  While all of the songs are linked by thematic, and sometimes musical material, each one is striking in how it portrays its portion of the mythic substance.

The poetry of song one, “La ville qui dormait, toi,” paints a pastoral fantasy which the lovers occupy: “The town which slept, you.  My hand on your heart by you.  The heart of midnight the bank, you.  The double of the violet, you.  The eye immobile, without unraveling your look, me.”  The scene is set in the music with sweet chords that border on saccharine, but in a mature and tranquil way.  Messiaen generously adorns the accompaniment with added sixths, creating an effect that could be interpreted as “jazzy” by modern listeners.  In a choice that is potentially reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde prelude, there is no drive to a particular harmonic resolution.  (The “bank” in the text is also a reference to the bank on which Wagner’s ill-fated lovers recline in Act II.)  This effect is accentuated by additive rhythms, (a favorite convention of Messiaen), which keeps the resolution hovering out of reach.  Meanwhile, the singer follows a melody revolving around a D to B interval, outlining the key of G major, which Messiaen considered to be the key of desire.  

A curious thing occurs in the text at measures 8-9 at the line “The double of the violet, you.”  In alignment with Messiaen’s synesthesia, the color violet had particular significance to him, which varied with the precise shade.  He considered red-violet to signify the “Truth of Love,” while blue-violet represented the “Love of Truth,” (and was typically associated with his Mode 2).  The fact that the heroine is considered to be a “double violet” implies that she represents both of these constructs—that love is both joyful and painful.  Mode two is in fact presented in the accompaniment in those measures, (which is also a moment with a particularly thick texture in the scope of the piece), but it is not alone, leading to the conclusion that it is either a modified mode, or multiple modes combined.  The piece concludes with the singer’s tritone leap from G to C#, followed by a major seventh down to D, which along with a tonic chord (with an added sixth, of course), draws the tonality back to G major.  While for Wagner the tritone represented something more akin to the medieval demonic interpretation, Messiaen perhaps saw it as a very human interval, choosing instead to employ it in moments of amorous bliss.  

The lovers part for the day in song two, “Bonjour, toi Colombo verte,” addressing a “green dove” of multi-layered cultural significance.  As Siglind Bruhn explains in her Messiaen’s Explorations of Love and Death, “In Andean folklore, the green dove that deserts its mate symbolizes the unattainable beloved in the story of Piruča.  In Western iconography, the expression merges the emblem of peace with the color of spring, freshness, and renewal.  This symbol appropriately captures the overarching theme of finding new life through sacrifice in the face of an impossible predicament, and is referenced multiple times throughout the cycle.  The text translates to: “Good day to you, green dove, Returned from the heaven.  Good day to you, limpid pearl, Departure of the water.  Star-linked, Shadow-sharing, You, of flower, of fruit, Of heaven and water, Song of birds.  Good day, Water.”  At the opening of this piece, Messiaen introduces his cyclic melodic theme: a variation on the Peruvian folk tune “Delirio,” (or “Frenzy,” which is also found in movements seven and twelve.)  The six-note tune is adapted from its original form to the first transposition of his Mode 2, and paired with the symbolist text.  

The accompaniment is constant birdsong, both with the text, and on its own in extended cheerful and melodic cadenzas at measures 9-14, and 23-29.  Not only is the birdsong directly referenced in the text, but it is also indicative of joy.  However, the ends of the sung phrases are punctuated with a motif of descending sevenths, fourths, and fifths, perhaps hinting at the dizzying height to be encountered in song three.

“Montagnes,” (“Mountains”), contains the following text: “Violet-red, black on black.  The antiquated, useless ray of black, Mountain, listen to the solar confusion of dizziness.  The genuflecting stone carries its black masters.  In tight hoods the spruces hasten toward the black.  The abyss, thrown everywhere into dizziness.  Black on black.”  Panic is induced from the start with agitated polytonal chords that rock back and forth, and moments of descension in the accompaniment reflect the act of looking down into the “abyss.”  A dark tone has been taken, reflected in the suddenly low brood of the soprano.  While in the previous pieces, the vocal line is sent soaring to the top of the staff in ecstasy, now it wallows around a C#4, rising no higher than G4 with one exception—the word “vertige” (translated to “dizziness”) is sung on a C#5, leaping up a tritone from G4.  “Vertige” is repeated twice in the text, (at measures 14 and 38, and sung to the same melodic line both times) strongly emphasizing the concept of disequilibrium as the speaker looks down from a mountainous peak.  Bruhn points out that at these two moments, Messiaen layers Mode 3 and Mode 6 in the right and left hands, respectively.  In addition, he explores a rhythmic pattern in the right hand that is played in retrograde in the left, creating a texture Messiaen described as evoking “the atmospheric vibrations experienced in the complete silence high up in the mountains.”    There is obvious, strong color imagery in the text, and the concept of “red-violet” returns in a low and menacing new light, paired with extreme blackness.  Each time the word “black” is iterated, the piano holds the same slurred chromatic chords.  This movement is the darkness of love—the terror of the complete surrender, and the foreboding of a deadly future.

Song four marks a return to cheerfulness.  The title, “Doundou tchil,” is an onomatopoetic phrase meant to describe the sound of ankle bells worn by dancers.  The phrase is sung 48 times throughout the piece, each time on a C#4, in the same rhythmic pattern of two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note.  Messiaen avoids monotony of repetition by employing a palindromic A B C D C B A form, plus a coda.  During the chant portions, only the left hand of the accompaniment plays, mimicking a primitive drum beat.  The right hand joins between the first chant and the first verse, adding frantic, enthusiastic bird-like chatter.  The text follows the pattern of song two in comparing Piroutcha to various symbols of love: 

“Doundou tchil.  Piroutcha, here you are, Dance of the stars, doundou tchil.  Piroutcha, there you are, Mirror of familiar birds, doundou tchil.  Rainbow, my breath, my echo, Your glance has returned, tchil.  Piroutcha, you are here, My buyant fruit in the light, doundou tchil.  Toungou, mapa, nama, mapa, kahipipas.  Toungou, mapa, nama, mapa, mahipipas.”

In the middle section, Mode 2 returns, along with the lover Piroutcha, and in her comparison to the dancing stars, we see a glimpse of Messiaen’s affinity for the Hindu concept of “lîla”—a notion of “whirling” cosmic features.  The rainbow imagery in the text also provides a link between humanity and the larger universe, as traditionally in Christian iconography, the rainbow is seen as a bridge between heaven and earth, as well as symbolic of divine intervention.

Song five, “L’Amour de Piroutcha,” contains verses stemming from each of the two lovers.  The woman’s text reads: “Toungou, ahi, toungou, rock-a-bye, you, my cinder of light, Rocky-a-bye your little one in your green arms.  Piroutcha, your little cinder, for you,” and the man’s, “Your eye all the heavens, doundou tchil.  Cut off my head, doundou tchil.  Our sighs, blue and gold, Ahi!  Chains of red, black, mauve, love, death.”  Piroutcha’s opening word is just one of multiple symbolic terms that are spoken throughout the piece.  “Toungou” stands in for the cooing of doves, which the heroine imitates in her lullaby-like song, reinforced with a duple meter and soft dynamics.  Comparatively, the man’s text is performed in contrasting loud dynamics, and contains violent images, such as “cut off my head,” which could be a reference to the death wish shared by Tristan and Isolde.  “Doundou tchil” reappears, along with a new sighing term, “Ahi.”  This is not a contented lovers’ sigh, but one of distress and mourning.  It is sung just before the color imagery of “Montagnes” returns, this time through a descending motif which includes tritone intervals.  This leads a descent to death—“la mort,”—which when sung for the second time in the last two measures, lands in the familiar G major tonality (with an added sixth), thus uniting death and desire.  

The next song, “Répétition Planétaire,” (“Planetary Repetition”) opens with primitive cries, accompanied by frantic 32nd notes in the piano, and fortissimo dynamics.  The cries are followed by a chant, not unlike that of “Doundou tchil,” this time consisting of the phrase “O Mapa nama mapa nama lila, tchil,” sung on an E natural.  “Lila” and “tchil” can be recognized from earlier installations in the cycle, but “O Mapa nama mapa nama” are Quechua and Sanskrit syllables.  The piano paces underneath the chanter, plodding up and down in an intervallic fashion.  Alternating sections of cries and the chant give way to an entire fugue in the piano, and then a new incantation consisting of planetary imagery before returning to the cries once again.  In the new incantation, when words like “star” or “planet” are uttered, a high tinkling is heard in the piano, and the singer leaps up a major seventh mimicking the jumping of grasshoppers, which held associations with stars for the ancient Peruvians.  Messiaen himself describes the narrative of the piece, stating: 

“In this whole passage, the birth of the earth is evoked—the sun, a red star, collides with a nebula which transforms it into a nova—it then launches into space part of its substance which coils into the form of fiery ‘tubes-tourbillons,’ which feed and grow off the substance of the nebula—one of these ‘tubes-tourbillons’ is the earth.”

As the sixth song, “Répétition Planétaire” falls in the middle of the second section of the cycle, and thus right in the midst of the lovers’ despair.  It is an inward, rather than outward despair, such as in “Montagnes.”  They are caught between heaven and earth; life and death, and within the climax of life’s cycle.

“Adieu,” song seven, is once again addressed to the familiar green dove: “Goodbye to you, green dove…Goodbye to you, new light, Philter with two voices.  Star-linked, Shadow-sharing…Goodbye to you, my heaven on earth…Of flower, of night, of fruit, of heaven, of day, Forever.”  This separation of the two lovers is set in E flat major tonality to prepare for the reappearance of the “Delirio” melody, and theme of the cycle.  The sweet and sorrowful melody is interrupted by anxious piano interludes, and undercurrents of menacing pedal tones, such as in measures 18-20,  which contrast the delicate melancholy of the loving imagery.  Some terms of endearment are brought back from previous songs, like the “green dove,” of course, and the “limpid pearl,” but a new symbol, the “Philter with two voices,” is especially important in the context of the Tristan myth.  The image of the love potion is the first time the myth is explicitly referenced in the song cycle.  While the philter in Wagner’s opera controversially removed the free will of its protagonists, “for Messiaen the philter was embraced as a symbol that represented an event in the lives of the lovers that is beyond rational control and beyond logical explanation.  Yet for him the philter was not casual in a magical sense.  It was a symbol of the spontaneous erupting of a love that causes long periods of anxiety but also produces moments of bliss.”  Thus the juxtaposition of joy and pain is once again addressed in this song, as the lovers struggle to reconcile their immense passion with their impending spiritual or literal deaths.  The two voices of the philter are perhaps called on again in the final measures, as the piano alternates between dissonant chords in increasing rhythmic values.  

Song eight stands in its entire format as a stark Tristan reference.  The piece serves as an alba, a very specific type of song in which “lovers lost in a clandestine encounter” are warned by a confidant “at the onset of dawn that it is time to part,” (the alba in Wagner’s opera is Brangäne’s Act II “Habet acht”).  Jonathan Saville describes the psychology behind the alba

“…the movement of time appears at the very foundation of the dramatic events in the alba: …The night of union changes to the day of separation; …life itself must give way—in the process of time—to death.  The lovers do not want to accept time; but the watchman, proponent of the reality principle, keeps reminding them of the existence of time, keeps telling them that in the world of nature time cannot be avoided.”

In “Syllables,” the confidant is played by monkeys—typically a trickster symbol in Andean tradition, but used here by Messiaen as the warning figure.  They are represented by the shrieking onomatopoetic term “pia,” which is uttered 275 times throughout the piece, always on the note B natural.  Additive rhythms and a complex rhythmic pattern are utilized during the monkey cries, (of which Bruhn provides an in-depth analysis on pages 170-171 of her Messiaen’s Explorations of Love and Death), exploring the concept of fleeting timeThe melodic line is derived from a new Andean song this time—number 32 in La Musique des Incas—“Tristezas me depara,” yet is adapted to the G major 6/5 tonality, and features Mode 2 in the first stanza before the monkeys chime in, (eventually returning to G major in the last two measures): “Green dove, The number five to you, The double of the violet will double, Very far, very low.  O my heaven, you flower, Piroutcha mia!  Let us spread from heaven, Piroutcha mia!  Let us blossom from water, Piroutcha mia!  Kahipipas, mahipipas, Pia, pia, pia, doundou tchil [repeated].”  The “double violet” image reappears, and the new association with the number five potentially harkens to a divine symbol for Messiaen.  He associated the number with a duality between heaven and earth, and in the Christian tradition it is representative of the five wounds of Christ, so its use in “Syllables” could be a reference to the Passion, and its relationship to suffering for a “desirable [goal].”  In the context of Harawi, the association of five with the beloved could be the acknowledgement of the pain leading up to the inevitable death.

Song nine is that death.  The long, four-versed text of “L’Escalier Redit, Gestes Du Soleil,” or “Staircase Retold, Sun Gestures,” is thick with references to death.  A few rhythmic and melodic motifs repeat throughout the piece, drawing specific attention to death in its relationship to the lovers.  Each time the singer utters “comme la mort,” or “like death,” (always on a B flat and C flat), the piano descends through sixteenth notes, perhaps alluding to descending the staircase of the text down into death.  A triplet ostinato appears each time with the phrases “eye of time,” and “eye of heaven,” and concludes the piece, sounding as if it is demonstrating a sense of the infinite through repetition.  The humanistic tritones occur with the refrain “of heaven, of water, of time,” tying the earthly with the divine and other-worldly.  In the melodic line, both major and minor thirds are utilized to indirectly call back to the “Delirio” theme of previous songs, especially during moments in which the text describes the beloved as the “dove” or “pearl.”  There are some high notes that rise far above the melody in final exclamations of joy, before descending to “comme la mort,” each time Piroutcha is referred to as “my little cinder.”  Song nine is the culmination of the anxiety, suffering, and foreboding of the middle section of the cycle.  It is the acceptance of what Davidson suggests could be a literal death, a fear of death, or a metaphorical death,  and opens the door to the salvation of the lovers in the final three songs.  In his Traité, Messiaen refers to those last songs as the “union and definitive reunion of the two lovers,” and their “ascent towards the light.”  

The ascension begins with song ten, “Amour Oiseau D’Étoile,” or “Love Bird of the Star.”  This piece was directly inspired by the 1936 surrealist painting “The Invisible Isle” by English painter Sir Roland Penrose.  (While the original painting was lost in World War II, Messiaen saw a reproduction in the Swiss art review.)  The painting depicts a man’s arms outstretched upwards towards a woman’s head which is upside down—her neck dissolving into the stars.  Each line of the text directly references the painting: 

“Bird of the star, your eye which sings, Toward the stars, Your head reversed under heaven.  Your eye of star, Links falling, Toward the stars, Shortest pathway from shadow to heaven.  All the birds of the stars, Far from the painting, my hands sing, Star, silence augments from heaven, My hands, your eye, your neck, heaven.”

The painting captures the same ascending essence Messiaen intended for “Amour Oiseau D’Étoile,” as well as the shared cosmic notions as Harawi.  Unlike the conclusion of Wagner’s opera, Messiaen had a different ending in mind for his lovers, and thus the piece is not tragic.  This time the tonality of the piece is set in F sharp major, which Messiaen considered to be representative of a mystical love.  The G major of desire has given way to a more mature and nuanced passion, which has now transcended the limitations of earthly love through the sacrifice of death.  The piece follows an AAB pattern, with the A sections consisting of four phrases  utilizing augmented rhythm, and capped with cheerful, fluttering birdsong, and the B section containing four new phrases which are also each concluded with new birdsong.  

More rhythmic precision can be found in song eleven, “Katchikatchi les Étoiles,” (or “Katchikatchi the Stars”).  The text reads, “Katchikatchi the stars, make them jump…make then dance…Nebulae spiral, hands of my hair, Electrons, ants, arrows, the silence in two.  Alpha of the Centaur, Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Expand the space, rainbow blusterer of time, Ionized laughter fury of the clock.”  Messiaen described this piece as “a horrible dream in which the atoms and the stars dance and jump.”  Here, the dancing stars are set to another Andean tune from La Musique des Incas, the dance from number 170, “Cuzco.”  Although the melody is different from “Delirio,” it is once again adapted to Mode 2, the mode of love.  The piece consists of six stanzas in two-bar cells, with an identical vocal line between them all, and a metric organization of 4 + 6 + 4 + 5 + 6 nonretrogradable sixteenth notes.  This rhythmic pattern aids in painting the chaotic movements of the stars.  The jagged line mirrors their leaping, and the anxious violence of it all perhaps recalls the moment of death for the lovers.

The cycle ends with the “grand recapitulation,” “Dans le Noir,” or “In the Dark.”  Despite having proclaimed the sonata form to be obsolete, song twelve serves as a “collage of self-citations,” as very little new material is introduced.  All of the text has been stated before in the cycle, and is simply assembled in new ways: “In the dark, green dove, In the dark, limpid pearl.  In the dark, my fruit of heaven, of day.  Distance of love.  My love, my breath!  Dove, green dove, The number five is yours, The double violet, doubled, Very far, very deep.  The town which slept.”  The melody is the final haunting iteration of “Delirio.”  There is however, some new material in the accompaniment, including a complicated repetition of different rhythmic patterns in the left and right hands.  The pianist cycles through a rhythmic canon, with the right hand playing a phrase of six three-part chords in Mode 6, interversion 5, set within an eleven note-value rhythmic pattern, and the left hand playing seven 4-part chords in Mode 4, interversion five, all the while augmenting the note values by 25%.  The effect is that despite the constant repetition, no exact moment in the piece repeats itself.  Just as the lovers must relinquish their static state of enraptured bliss, so must the listener to familiarity.  Song twelve masquerades as a repetitive summary, but it has transformed, just like the beloved.  “La violette double, doublera” returns from song one, this time placed in a reciprocal position, 4 lines from the end instead of 4 lines from the beginning, hinting at the continuation of love beyond death.  At the end, the text from the very first line of Harawi repeats, but replaces one crucial word with elipses: “The town which slept…[you]”.  The “toi” is omitted, implying that the lovers are no longer separate entities of “I” and “thou,” but have merged into one being in the eternal finality of death, (or as Robert Sherlaw Johnson suggests in a final tragedy).  

When considering the specificity with which Messiaen composed Harawi, like many of his works, one could assume the personal significance would be lost on the listener, however, it is through his consistency in his symbolism and compositional techniques that he achieves emotional impact.  The recurring melodic themes, rhythmic patterns, text, and tonalities draw the listener back and immerse them in the lovers’ passion, anguish, and final peace.  The familiar provides a foundation on which to project new symbolic material, as well as slowly tie love and death together via combined patterns throughout the cycle.  By the end of the piece, the listener is left slowly dissolving away with the lovers, and the final added sixth chord.

Works Cited

Audrey Ekdahl Davidson, Olivier Messiaen and the Tristan Myth (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001).

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014).

Olivier Messiaen, Harawi (Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris: Editions Alphonse Leduc).

Paul Griffiths, Oliver Messiaen and the Music of Time (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985).

Richard Burton, Olivier Messiaen: Texts, Contexts, and Intertexts, ed. Roger Nichols(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975).

Siglind Bruhn, Messiaen’s Explorations of Love and Death (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008). 

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