• Jeux vénitiens: R3’s 50th Modern Classic

I’ve just caught a fine performance of Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens (1960-61) on BBC iPlayer (Radio).  It was from last Saturday’s Hear and Now on Radio 3, so it’ll be available for another 96 hours.  For the past year, Hear and Now has been using part of its precious hour and a half each Saturday night to highlight a composer and a work which has brought something new to music in the second half of the 20th-century.  It has been an absorbing series, with many well-known names and pieces passed over in favour of something more radical, curious or forgotten.  You can download the spoken introductions to all 50 ‘modern classics’ here.

At one stage, the producers were thinking of including Górecki’s Symphony no.3 in the roster, but in the end the only Polish piece to make it onto the list was Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens.  No, there wasn’t even a space for Penderecki’s Threnody, one of the iconic works from the 1960s.  Ah well.  But Jeux vénitiens is a good example of Polish experimentalism at its height (it’s contemporaneous with the Penderecki).

On the podcast, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Paul Griffiths give succinct comments, mainly on the (then new) aleatory component in his musical language, though its twelve-note harmonic aspect is not neglected.  Curiously, the words ‘aleatory’ and ‘ad libitum’ are mentioned by neither Salonen nor Griffiths (maybe ‘random’ and ‘uncoordinated’ have displaced terms which now may be thought as too unfamiliar).  Equally, ‘twelve-note’ (harmony) is notable by its absence.  It’s a pity, perhaps, that other aspects specific to the piece are given short shrift, or not mentioned at all. There is no reference to how the music develops in any of the movements (brutal intercutting in the first, accelerated superimposition in the fourth), no mention of thematic connections between the first and third movements, no notice given to the way that Lutosławski links the third and fourth movements harmonically.

It is very nice to hear Lutosławski himself talking (he, however, does mention ‘ad libitum’ and ‘aleatoric’), from an interview made with an unheard Thea Musgrave in 1973.  By that time, he had already adopted his defensive posture against being associated closely with Cage (and other ‘more radical’ composers).  He makes his point with some force in this interview, which suggests that he was already somewhat impatient with such links being made on a routine basis by commentators.  His closing comments about the future direction of avant-garde music also make for interesting listening.

The timing of this broadcast is opportune.  Not only does Jeux vénitiens complete the ’50 Modern Classics’ series, but its position looks ahead to 2013 and the centenary of Lutosławski’s birth on 25 January.  I hope he’ll receive a good hearing on Radio 3 next year, as long as Britten, Verdi and Wagner don’t hog the limelight.

3 Responses to • Jeux vénitiens: R3’s 50th Modern Classic

  1. I wonder what Lutosławski meant by “aleatoric” in his 1973 interview. I think the term has been used in a rather broader sense than intended by those who first used it regarding music. Aren’t “alea” dice — and didn’t Cage use the term aleatoric when referring to the dice-throwing methods (determined by I Ching) he employed for Music of Changes? So did Lutosławski actually use dice in Jeux vénitiens? If this is the case, his later wish to be distanced from Cage sounds a bit like closing the stable door … but then again, I could be missing the point hugely here. Lutosławski’s music almost never sounds Cageian and between the 60s and 70s his music had evolved significantly.

    • You’re right on all counts! He made notes on ‘alea’ in a diary entry on 20.12.61 (i.e., after Jeux vénitiens) and again on 15.03.62. You can find these in ‘Zapiski’ or in Eng. at the back of Skowron’s ‘Lutosławski on Music’. I’m not sure where he picked up on the term, but for him it never meant anything more than temporal aleatorism; and there’s no evidence that he ever used dice! But the term itself seems to be fading in English-language contexts.

      • Right — so the Cage link was always a “czerwony śledź”, and no wonder he was at pains to repudiate it when he felt that people continued to misplace him aesthetically. Controlled indeterminacy (if this isn’t an oxymoron) might be closer to the mark … but this was something central to Lutosławski’s music for decades. The only thing comparable in the Cage I know is the use of time brackets in the later number pieces …

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