Connections from St. François d’Assise to L’Amour de loin



Kaija Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de loin, is known to be inspired by another 20th century opera by Oliver Messiaen, St. François d’Assise. Before she saw the production of this opera, production by Peter Sellars, Saariaho never really thought about composing an opera. So what changed her mind? What did she see or hear in Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise that inspired her to compose L’Amour de loin? There could be many answers to this questions such as: she looked up to Messiaen as a role model, she liked the historical and religious plot of the opera, or that she loved the music composed for the opera. After listening and watching part of St. François d’Assise and L’Amour de loin, I believe the source of inspiration comes from the music and background of Messiaen’s opera.

Based in 13th century Italy, St. François d’Assise shows the transformation of Saint Francis’ soul throughout the eight scenes in the opera. Being a religious person, Messiaen’s opera embodies Christianity theories. Messiaen’s libretto contains quotes from primary sources such as Fioretti, by Alexandre Masseron and the Jerusalem Bible. Similarly, L’Amour de loin is based in the 12th century about troubadour and also contains primary sources in the libretto, such as quotes from Jaufre’s Rudel’s songs. Although the plot in Saariaho’s opera has a larger focus on love, both operas show the sense longing and death on a spiritual level. Win a spiritual sense, these operas focus more on the psychological development of the characters, which is portrayed strongly to the audience.

Examining the music of the two operas, it is easy to find the medieval influences in both the orchestral parts and vocal lines. In St. François d’Assise, Messiaen’s knowledge and use of medieval historical compositional techniques is present with the simple melodies, counterpoint and modes of plainchant. Messiaen gives characters themes, or leitmotifs, to further describe their emotions and also to help the audience recognize and find a deeper understanding to their personalities. These include Saint Francis’ theme and Brother Leo’s theme, which both show a deeper side to the characters and their longing in life. This similar technique can be found in Saariaho’s writing for L’Amour de loin. She gives Jaufre and Clemence themes, which are present throughout the opera that show their longing for each other. Jaufre’s theme, in particular, clearly represents medieval musical techniques, such as small intervallic relationships, a simple melody and modal counterpoint. And as stated earlier, Jaufre’s vocal part contains direct quotations from his music written in the 12th century. Even has both composers use this medieval technique, their modernistic approaches are also very present and heard throughout the operas. 

The relationship between St. François d’Assise and L’Amour de loin can be seen through the historical context, based during the medieval era, and musical approaches, using medieval techniques. With understanding these approaches from both composers, there is a better understanding of the inspiration Saariaho drew from Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise for her first and very successful opera, L’Amour de loin . 

Caitlyn Collette


Calico, Joy.  “Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin: Modernist Opera in the Twenty-First Century” in Modernism and Opera, edited by Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Fallon, Robert. “Two Paths to Paradise: Reform in Messiaen’s Saint François D’Assise.”  Edited by Robert Sholl. In Messiaen Studies, 206-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Prickett, Amy Lynn. “ Kaija Saariaho’s Path to the Met: The Merger of Convential and Unconvential Musical Devices in L’Amour de loin PhD diss.” The University of Alabama. 2017.


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