2. Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Cinq rechants

Cinq rechants
for twelve singers is the final component of Messiaen's trilogy of works embracing the Tristan myth and, especially, the simultaneous fulfillment of love and death. This trio of works, including the song cycle Harawi (1945) for soprano and piano and the vast, orchestral Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-48), diverge from the religious focus of most of Messiaen's other devout, non-liturgical Roman Catholic works. Messiaen composed the Tristan trilogy when his wife, Claire Delbos, was institutionalized because of a mental breakdown until her death in 1959. Meanwhile, Messiaen and his student, the pianist Yvonne Loroid, fell in love. Their relationship remained fulfilled only musically until their marriage in 1962.

The medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde derives from an anonymous twelfth-century French poem. One of the poem's earliest elaborations was Gottfried von Strassburg's medieval masterpiece written around 1210. Essentially, the tale is about unsatisfied love. The handmaiden Brangaine impetuously serves a love philter to the protagonists, previously abhorrent to each other. The resulting passion ends in tragic death. Whereas Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (1859) ushered in the decay of tonality through irregularly resolving tritones, Messiaen stepped further, using tritones as melodic or cadential intervals throughout and even employing parallel tritones in harmonic fauxbourdon.

Messiaen used the title "rechants" (refrains) in homage to the similarly structured Le Printemps by the Renaissance composer Claude le Jeune (1529-1600), who like Messiaen composed vocal music transcribing word stress into rhythmic proportions. Each of Messiaen's five movements consists of an introduction, alternating refrain and verse, and a coda. Most often, the refrains repeat exactly and the verses recur layered with additional material. The coda usually repeats music from the introduction or the verse.

Messiaen's melodies, in the style of Peruvian harawi and medieval European alba love songs, are meant to recall the voices of spirits warning lovers that their night of passion is nearing its end. His rhythms come from provincial Indian decî-tâlas and his own non-retrogradable and additive inventions.

Messiaen himself wrote the poetry by combining surrealistic French and made-up pseudo-Sanskrit syllables that he chose for their softness or explosiveness of attack. The French parts of the poetry are ripe with amorous references to affairs both mythic and tragic: Tristan and Isolde, Viviane and Merlin, Orpheus, Bluebeard, Perseus and the Medusa.


Messian begins Cinq rechants by invoking Brangaine, the bearer of the love philter to Tristan and Isolde. Messiaen orchestrates the unison refrain, quickly passing the melody from voice to voice resulting in prismatic changes of vocal color. The images in the poetry recall paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Marc Chagall.

The verse of the opening movement cycles through isorhythmic melodic and rhythmic material in much the same way as "Liturgie du crystal" from Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940). Three sopranos and two altos repeat their undulating melodies out of time with each other like a floating musical mobile. At the repeat of the verse, the women sing exactly as before, while two basses add a new isorhythm and the tenors speak pseudo-Hindu syllables as if intoning a spell to create Brangaine's love philter. The basses evoke Bluebeard, the villain of Charles Perrault's 1697 fairy tale, who murdered his wives and hid their bodies in a locked room.

hayo kapritama lali ssaréno
les amoureux s'envolent
Brangien dans l'espace tu souffles
vers les étoiles de la mort
ha ha ha soif
l'explorateur Orphée
trouve son coeur dans la mort
miroir d'étoile châteu d'étoile
Yseult d'amour séparé
bulle de cristal d'étoile mon retour
Barbe Bleue château de la septième porte
hayo kapritama lali ssaréno
hayo kapritama lali ssaréno
the lovers flee
Brangaine in space you blow
toward the stars of death
ha ha ha thirst
the explorer Orpheus
finds his heart in death
star-mirror star-castle
Isolde of love separated
crystal-bubble of the star my return
Bluebeard castle of the seventh door
hayo kapritama lali ssaréno


The quasi-palindromic solo melodies of the second movement stir up passionate flirtations. The melodies repeat for the second verse over the incantation-like pseudo-Hindu in the deep male voices.

ma première fois terre terre l'éventail déployé
ma dernière fois terre terre l'éventail refermé
lumineux mon rire d'ombre
ma jeune étoile sur les fleuves
ha solo de flute
berce les quatre lézards en t'éloignant
mayoma kapritama ssarimâ
mano nadja lâma krîta makrîta mayo
my first time earth earth fan unfurled
my last time earth earth fan closed
luminous my shady laugh
my young star on the rivers
ha solo flute
the four lizards as you move away
mayoma kapritama ssarimâ
mano nadja lâma krîta makrîta mayo


The central movement is the crux of Cinq rechants and contains its most erotic music as well as its most virtuosic passages. The poetry hints at the Arthurian legend of the loving sorceress Viviane, who enclosed Merlin in a prison of air. The verses contain additive and subtractive rhythmic patters over quickly chanted pseudo-Hindu that propels the music forward. A virtuosic twelve-part canon leads to a tremendous climax. After a brief silence, the coda sensuously quotes the love theme from the "Jardin du sommeil d'amour" movement from the Turangalîla-symphonie for the text "tous les philtres sont bus ce soir encor."

ma robe d'amour mon amour
ma prison d'amour
faite d'air léger lîla
ma mémoire ma caresse
mayoma ssari mane thikâri
oumi annôla oumi
cheu cheu mayoma kapritama kalimolimo
sari floutî trianguillo yoma
robe tendre
toute la beauté paysage neuf
troubadour Viviane Yseult
tous les circles tous les yeux
pieuvre de lunière blesse
foule rose ma caresse
tous les philtres sont bus ce soir encor
my gown of love my love
my prison of love
made of light air lîla
my memory my caress
mayoma ssari mane thikâri
oumi annôla oumi
cheu cheu mayoma kapritama kalimolimo
sari floutî trianguillo yoma

tender gown
all the beauty new landscape
troubadour Vivian Isolde
all the circles all the eyes
octopus of light hurts
pink crowd my caress
all the love potions are drunk tonight again


The fourth movement begins with a vigorous unison refrain. In the verses, two bass soloists passionately sing tritone fauxbourdon against a monotonously regular unison accompaniment. The coda begins like the verses, but the basses puncture the fabric of the monotony and a rhapsodic soprano solo springs free. The movement finally ends with softly glowing tonal sonorities.

niokhamâ palalane soukî
mon bouquet tout défait rayone
les volets roses oha
amour du clair au sombre oha
roma tama ssouka rava kali vâli
ssouka nahame kassou
ha mon bouquet rayone
niokhamâ palalane soukî
my crumpled bouquet is radiant
the pink shutters oha
love from light to dark oha
roma tama ssouka rava kali vâli
ssouka nahame kassou

ha my radiant bouquet


The final movement mingles words of love and death, light and dark, past and future. The melodies are more angular and cover wider ranges than any other movement of Cinq rechants. Spoken incantations spastically punctuate the multihued, disjointed texture.

Cinq rechants ends sublimely, incompletely, and almost inaudibly with a muffled tritone cadence for the words "dans l'avenir."

mayoma kalimolimo
tes yeux voyagent dans le passé
mélodie solaire de corbeille courbe dans le passé
losangé ma fleur toujours
philter Yseult rameur d'amour
fée Viviane à mon chant d'amour
cercle du jour hayo hayo
foule rose bras tendu
pieuvre aux tentacules d'or
Persée Méduse
l'abeille l'alphabet majeur
fleur du bourdon tourne à mort
quatre lézards la grotte pieuvre et la mort
Corolle qui mord deuxième
garde à manger d'abord
mayoma kalimolimo
dans l'avenir 
 mayoma kalimolimo
your eyes wander into the past
sun-tune of curved capital into the past
diamond-shaped my flower still
love-potion Isolde rower of love
fairy Vivienne to my song of love
circle of day hayo hayo
pink crowd outstretched
octopus with tentacles of gold
Perseus Medusa
the bee the main alphabet
flower of bumble-bee turn to death
four lizards the cave octopus and death
Corolla that bites second
keeps some to eat first
mayoma kalimolimo
into the future