Musical Process in L’Amour de Loin and Saint Francois d’Assisie

A first glance, the operas Saint Francois d’Assisieby Messiaen and L’Amour de loinby Saariaho, do not seem very related to one another, but there is one key connecting factor between the two: Saariaho saw Saint Francois d’Assisieand decided that she, too, could write an opera. It seems instinctual, upon learning that Messiaen’s work inspired Saariaho, to question if there are any clear allusions or direct quotations of Messiaen in L’Amour de loin. Granted, the overall sound of each opera is vastly different, Saariaho’s being highly atmospheric with its lack of rhythmic or metric momentum and steadily morphing flow from the differing styles of each character, and Messiaen’s sounding more disjointed with instruments interjecting different melodies or motifs and, at times, much thinner orchestral density. However, there was one statement by Messiaen that made me speculate there was at least some similarity between the music of L’Amour de loinand St. Francois d’Assisie. On the night of the premier, Messiaen told his audience to take special note of the musical “process of grace” (Sholl, 206). Considering Saariaho’s tendency for gradual development in her music, it seems less shocking that there would be direct musical connections in the transformational aspects of each opera. Looking, specifically, at excerpts from Act II, Tableaus 4 and 5 inSaint Francois d’Assisieand Act II, Tableaus I and II in L’Amour de loin, and the transitions from one scene to the next; I will explore similarities in musical process in hopes of finding a common thread.

While the general musical aesthetic of Messiaen’s opera seems much more disjunctive than Saariaho’s there still remains a similar connection in between numbers. Unlike Saariaho’s work, there is not a clear delineation in the music where one section ends and the other begins. In the instance of the transition between Tableau 4 and 5, there is a decisive shift in the music. However, the quick iterations of a five-note pattern in the chimes continues with the strings and in a much slower tempo. Saariaho’s transition from Tableau 1 to 2 in Act II, while treated differently has a similar sense of connection. Throughout Tableau 1, there is a repeated four-note ascending melody in the harp that occurs frequently in the last number of the scene but it is somewhat buried in the orchestra. When Tableau 2 begins, this motif returns, but this time it is at the forefront of the orchestra and the atmospheric drone, along with chimes color the tone of the new section. There are many other instances in which Saariaho’s and Messiaen’s approach to music is similar; I would not go so far as to say that she is quoting him, or specifically referencing him, but there are clear similarities.

Both composers favor having specific instruments or “colors” present in their orchestrations and because of this, I would suggest that if either Saariaho took out her characteristic drone, or if Messiaen added one of his own, then the works would sound much more similar.



By Jacque Hale





Dingle, Christopher. The Life of Messiaen. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007

Sholl, Robert. Messiaen Studies.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007


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