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Classical 101

The Johnstone Fund for New Music Presents 'Hawari'

Olivier Messiaen in 1946

The Johnstone Fund for New Music presents Olivier Messiaen’s Hawari, with Liz Pearse, soprano and Karl Larson, piano, Wednesday, May 27 at 7pm at the Short North Stage. 

As always with the Johnstone Fund Concerts, the music will be new to you, and once heard never forgotten. Admission to the concert is free. Cash bar will be available, so come early and schmooze.

​"Inventons l'amour du mond."  Translates to: "Let us invent thelove of the world." (Lyrics from Harawi)

I had never heard Hawari until I begun studying recordings which are free on YouTube. Now I can’t wait to this tremendous work performed live.

​Hawari is a set of twelve songs, with music and text by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992).  Work on Hawari coincided with the increasing mental instability of Messiaen’s wife, Claire Deblos, and his love for the young pianist Yvonne Loriod.

The production depicts raw sexuality, delayed consummation and death, clothed in the imagery of the Andes and its inhabitants. The title comes from the Andean song Yaravi, depicting lovers who are united only in death.

Hawari was first performed on June 27, 1946, in Brussels. The composer accompanied soprano Marcelle Bunlet.  

I like to say that music has never recovered from Richard Wagner. Meaning it was Wagner who upended the rules of harmony and voice leading; daring the world to criticize and daring the world to follow. Half followed, half railed. Nevertheless, Wagner remains the most influential composer of the 19th Century. That’s saying something since that era flourished Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.

Wagner’s line in the sand was undoubtedly his opera Tristan und Isolde. The love of the princess of Ireland and her knight who survived attempted murder, kidnapping, and Isolde’s marriage to Tristan’s elderly uncle.

The liebestrank, a magical potion that enabled their passion, drove Wagner to a score that symbolizes the lack of consummation. It is only with the final liebestod, "love death," that resolution occurs. It is both a harrowing and engrossing four hours of opera. It is the story of Tristan und Isolde’s,  and Wagner’s example of sexuality in music,  that is at the heart of Olivier Messiaen’sHawari.


Hawari, Songs of Love and Death,  comes from 1945. Messiaen was recovering from his years as a prisoner of war, and the mental decline of his wife, Claire Deblos. The young pianist Yvonne Loriod came into his life. Their passion may have disturbed a man married to a wife who was mentally beyond help.

Either in admiration for Wagner, panic at Mme Messiaen’s increasing mental illness, or delayed passion for Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s Hawari depicts in music nothing less than a love story of ecstasy and tragedy. The composer admitted to little knowledge of the Andes. He nonetheless used Andean legends and the Quechan language.

His musical writing incudes not only notes but onomatopoeias that do not translate literally. We have the sound of passion and suffering in words: doudou chil is the sound of Peruvian ankle bells.  Lila is a Sanskrit word approximating romantic passion.

One of the songs, repeats cries of ecstasy invoking the god Shiva. The double violet depicts love; The dove is the beloved; Primal nature, the sun, the skies and the mountains come to represent the beloved, passion and hope. And the desired woman is called Piroutcha. The young man is not named.


This love needs no great cantilenas. This is a passion rooted in myth, in the untamed outdoors, with its wild birds, great skies and unrestrained cries.

Messiaen’s score is completely different from Wagner’s, but he’s expanding on his German counterpart 80 years after the first performance of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner experimented with new uses of harmony. Messiaen experiments with new sounds. The yearning of Wagner’s orchestra can drive listener’s to-happy-distraction, Messiaen  is unafraid to attack the primal senses and settings, mountains, light, air, sex and love.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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