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Messiaen's Harawi

by Marie Elizabeth Seager and Toms Ostrovskis

"Marie Elizabeth Seager is a world-class artist (...) pianist Toms Ostrovskis was at an absolute peak of performance. All was perfectly rendered and in wonderful ensemble. Rarely in concerts I have the feeling that I do not want it to end, but just go on and on." 

                  Boriss Avramecs, Latvian Radio 3

"It was absolute mastery and this repertoire by these artists is a pearl that deserves being recorded for posterity."

                  Lauma Mellena, Latvian Radio 3

The French mezzo-soprano Marie Elizabeth Seager and the Latvian pianist Toms Ostrovskis began their collaboration when both artists pursued their studies at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 2018, they decided to tackle the demanding cycle by Olivier Messiaen - Harawi (chant d'amour et de mort).

With the support of the Latvian Culture Capital Fund, the Latvian National Library, The Latvian Academy of Music Jazeps Vitols, The Latvian Radio  and the French Institute of Latvia, they gave their first performance of Harawi in the top hall of the very modern Latvian National Library, on November 6, 2018. 

The hall was filled to the brim with curious concert goers...

Harawi (Song of love and deathby Olivier Messiaen

The oeuvre of the 20th century mystic, ornithologist, philosopher and composer Olivier Messiaen is often considered highbrow, too complicated for casual concertgoers. However, the deeply emotional and communicative musical language ensures the rightful, eternal place of his opuses in the chamber music hall of fame.

Messiaen borrowed the title from a musical genre originating in the Andes folklore. The cycle tells the love story of two young Quechua people. Messiaen created both music and verse for Harawi, drawing inspiration from surrealist poetry (oeuvres of Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Pierre Reverdy, amongst others) and paintings, in particular – from the painting Seeing is Believing by Sir Roland Penrose. The symbols in music and text soar above the constraints of grammar and syntax. Feelings of love and devotion permeate the cycle, often, however, condemned by inability to communicate and lack of spiritual concord. 

The musicians' take on Harawi ...

Marie Elisabeth Seager comments: “Harawi attracts me with its contrasts – harmony coincides with chaos, utter darkness shines amongst vivid colours; the most beautiful love finds its most significant expression in death. Within the space of these contrasts, artists and their audience are free to interpret Messiaen’s intentions and to ponder upon love. I think it is the kind of work you can also enjoy with your eyes closed, experiencing it on an almost physical, subconscious level. It can lead us into a transe, a little like a Gregorian chant sung by nuns somewhere deep within convent walls, does: immersed into the piano's evocation of birds and stars and guided by the voice's varied inflexions, one finds one's own meaning of the piece.”


Toms Ostrovskis adds to this: “This cycle is a true challenge for performers. It is so easy to alienate listeners with the complexities of Messiaen’s musical textures, striking symbolisms and sharp contrasts. Is it even possible to convey through sound the majesty of cosmic chaos, darkness of mountain abyss, ray of eternity or ashes of love? I believe that it is very important for the performer to personalize Messiaen’s symbols, to inhabit them both in a spiritual and emotional sense. After all, the “green dove” and “handful of ash” are abstractions - like brackets, they contain Messiaen’s feelings and experiences. If we learn to own these abstractions, Messiaen’s music comes to life, addressing the audience in a fundamental and unique voice.” 

Affiche Harawi Riga .jpg

External links

Excerpts from the Riga Concert November 6, 2018, Latvian National Library

V. L'Amour de Piroutcha (The Love of Piroutcha)

In this song, Piroutcha, the "Green dove", asks her lover to lull her into his arms as she has been reduced to ashes, consumed by the passion of love. "Toungou" represents the cooing of the dove. The young man expresses his desire for death (cut off my head) at last to be severed from the unbearable chains of love.

"Toungou, ahi, toungou,

toungou, berce, toi, 

ma cendre des lumières,

berce ta petite en tes bras verts.

Piroutcha, ta petite cendre, pour toi."

"Ton oeil tous les ciel, doundoutchil.

Coupe-moi la tête, doudoutchil.

Nos souffles, bleu et or, ahi!

Chaînes rouges, noires, mauves,

amour, la mort!"

"Toungou, ahi, toungou

Toungou, lull, you,

my lights' ash,

Lull your little in your green arms.

Piroutcha, your little ash, for you."

"Your eye all the skys, doundoutchil.

Cut my head off, doundoutchil.

Our breaths, blue and gold, ahi!

Red, black, mauve chains,

love, death!


L'Étreinte, 2018, by Quentin Guichard

VII. Adieu toi (Farewell you)

This "Farewell" is probably only a "Goodbye" in effect. The kind of farewell Tristan bad his Isolde many times before seeing her again soon after. However, in Harawi's story, the lovers have already felt that death was inevitable. They are sad because they know that a proper "Farewell" is on it's way, and they enact that moment. The surrealistic images convey the impossibility of their love: "Weeping desert", "Mirror without breath of love". 

Adieu toi, colombe verte;

Ange attristé

Adieu toi, perle limpide,

Soleil gardien.

Toi, de nuit, de fruit, de ciel, de jour,

Aile d'amour.

Adieu toi, lumière neuve,

Philtre à  deux voix.

Etoile enchainée,

Ombre partagée,

Dans ma main, de fruit, de ciel, de jour, lointain d'amour.

Adieu toi, mon ciel de terre,

Adieu toi, désert qui pleure,

Miroir sans souffle d'amour.

De fleur, de nuit, de fruit, de ciel, de jour,

Lointain d'amour.


Farewell you, green dove;

Saddened angel

Farewell you, clear pearl,

Protective sun.

You, of night, of fruit, of sky, of day,

Wing of love.

Farewell you, new light,

Two-voiced potion.

Chained star,

Shared shadow,

In my hand, of fruit, of ciel, of day,

Distance of love.

Farewell you, my sky of earth,

Farewell you, weeping desert,

Mirror without breath of love.

Of flower, of night, of fruit, of sky, of day,

Distance of love.

Esprit hurleur, les Élémentaires, 2017, by Quentin Guichard

VIII. Syllabes (Syllables)

The lovers have reunited, but their death - or that of their love - is imminent.  Messiaen uses a Quechua funeral rite, as if to warn his characters. The "pia pia" syllables were repeated infinitely and one by one, in turn, by a hundred persons holding hands around a tree. Would it be to summon away Death, or to welcome it?  The "double violet", with its petals arranged in pairs, symbolises the couple's fusion. But the love will only "double" or blossom into its fullest expression when death comes. The lovers share this dark secret that is murmured deep inside their soul, "Very far, very quiet". 

Green dove,

The number five that is yours,

The double violet will double,

Very far, very quiet.

O my sky you blossom,

My Piroutcha!

O let us unfold some sky,

My Piroutcha!

O let us blossom some water,

My Piroutcha!

Kahipipas, mahipipas!

Pia pia pia... doundou tchil...

Very quiet...

Colombe verte,

Le chiffre cinq à  toi,

La violette double doublera,

Très loin, tout bas.

O mon ciel tu fleuris,

Piroutcha mia!

O déplions du ciel,

Piroutcha mia!

O fleurissons de l'eau,

Piroutcha mia!

Kahipipas, mahipipas!

Pia pia pia... doundou tchil....

Tout bas…


Esprit rageur, Les Élémentaires, 2017, by Quentin Guichard

Toms Ostrovskis and Marie Elizabeth Seager have found many correspondences between the artwork of Quentin Guichard, which they both admire, and Harawi. L'Étreinte served as the fundamental aesthetic basis of their concert. The artist himself considers this work as the most fitting for Harawi.

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