Harawi, ix. L’escalier redit, gestes du soleil
Harawi: chant d’amour et de mort
by Olivier Messiaen
Stephanie Aston, soprano
Christopher Adler, piano
Recorded live in concert April 24, 2015 at the University of San Diego
Watch the complete performance on the Harawi playlist
Video by Tina Tallon / SALT arts documentation
Harawi, written by Messiaen in 1945, is a multi-layered love story. It tells the story of Tristan and Isolde as well as the Andean myth of “Piruça” or “Piroutcha,” a story of unattainable love. It is the story of a metamorphosis of human love into a divine or cosmic love. Some scholars even state that it tells some part of Messiaen’s own love story, perhaps his grief at the fading mental capacity of his first wife, Claire Delbos, or the exciting but unlikely idea of a relationship with his soon to be second wife, Yvonne Loriod.
‘Harawi’ is the Quechua term, also known as “Yaravi” in Spanish, for a melancholy song on the idea of tragic love. Messiaen learned of this type of song in the book La Musique des Incas, written in 1925 by ethnologists Raoul and Margerite d’Harcourt, containing folklore, myths, and poetry from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador as well as transcriptions of folk songs and dances. Messiaen appropriated words, melodies, and rhythms, and recast them into his own poetry and musical language.
Harawi isn’t just the melding of various myths and folklore, it is also the melding of two of Messiaen’s greatest musical associations: religion and birdsong. In all of Messiaen’s previous song cycles, he grapples with the differences between human love and divine love, but only in Harawi does Messiaen allow the idea that human love does not interfere with divine love, but can, in fact, be a foresight into divine love. Birdsong had not been a strong interest of Messiaen’s until 1935, the same year he finished composing his previous song cycle Chants de Terre et de Ciel, and wasn’t utilized systematically in his music until 1941. Messiaen composed no more song cycles after Harawi, and as such, it holds a unique position in his oeuvre.
Although he was constrained to the use of traditional notation, Messiaen’s desire was not just to tell the story, but also to depict the Andean setting in sound. This part of the interpretation was not fully realized until the late 1980’s when Messiaen and Loriod worked with contemporary specialist Sigune von Osten. She utilized her previous work with composers such as Cage and Berio, and her experience with other musical cultures, to craft a palette of vocal timbres for many of the songs, in collaboration with the composer. Messiaen has stated that her performance “has passed all my expectations.” Tonight’s interpretation is informed by this work.
Harawi is a story of love found, tested, affirmed, lost, and regained. The first and second songs depict the finding and declaration of love, with the second introducing the cyclic theme in Messiaen’s second mode of limited transposition (also known as the octatonic scale), and based on the central tonality of E-flat. The theme itself is a derivation from a folk song in La Musique des Incas, with form and melodic shape preserved. The third song, “Montagnes,” envisions the chasms of the Andes mountains and the conflict of conscience and desire between the lovers. “Doun-dou tchil” (the sound made by ankle bells) evokes an Andean folkdance celebrating the lovers. “L’amour de Piroutcha” is an expressive declaration of love in dialogue. Messiaen borrows from folk mythology where to “cut of my head” is to return someone to their human form after having ben turned into a cat or sheep. “Répétition Planétaire” is the telling of the creation story, with animalistic chants in the forest, incantations, and the earth forming by eating the sun. In “Adieu”, set to the cyclic theme, the lovers accept that death will separate them. “Syllabes” refers to a girl pulling petals off a flower, a secret meeting of lovers, and a friend notifying the lovers they are about to be discovered. The danger of discovery is conveyed by a raucous musical monkey-chant, inspired both by a Peruvian dance as well as the kecak performances of Bali. “L’escalier Redit” depicts the lovers’ ascension into paradise. “Amour Oiseau D’étoile,” set in his key of ‘mystical love’, F#-major, evokes Messiaen’s dream of birds among the stars, inspired by a painting by Sir Roland Penrose. “Katchikatchi Les Étoiles” depicts an Incan ball game where the winner’s head was cut off as a sacrifice to the gods, and the stars appear to dance like grasshoppers (‘katchikatchi’ in Quechua). “Dans Le Noir” recapitulates the tragic journey, with texts and themes from “Bonjour, toi,” “Adieu” and “Syllabes.”
—Program note by Stephanie Aston
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