• WL100/18: Notebook, 12 February 1961

Lutosławski on the brink

The period which I have been going through for a long time already (a few years) has been uninteresting. It has been a period of intensive explorations into expressive devices that suit me.  This has inevitably led to a state where, for the most part, these work in poorly mastered, unfamiliar ways.  In this state, one loses one’s sure hand, loses accuracy, loses balance, loses authoritativeness and full responsibility for the outcome.   To this must be added that these investigations proceed slowly, that they bring few lasting gains.  The result of this state of affairs is the fact that the works of this period (orchestral wks from 59/60, and also a work for chamb. orch. from 1961), if going by their own intrinsic value, stand certainly lower than some of my previous pieces (Conc[erto for orchestra]., M[usique]. F[unèbre]., [Five] Songs to Iłł[akowicz].).   For me personally they still have greater value than those works because they are leading to something, are preparing something, are facilitating something which will be much more my own.  I will be able to write these pieces when the devices now being developed are to me as mastered, familiar and malleable as was the ‘late tonality’ in the Concerto for Orch.

Okres, który od dłuższego już czasu przeżywam (parę lat) jest nieciekawy.  Jest to okres wzmożonych poszukiwań odpowiednich dla mnie środków wyrazu.  Prowadzi to nieuchronnie do stanu, w którym operuje się w dużym procencie środkami źle opanowanymi, mało znanymi.  Gubi się w tym stanie pewność ręki, gubi się celność, gubi się równowagę, gubi się autorytatywność i pelnię odpowiedzialności za dzieło.  Do tego dodać należy, że te poszukiwania postępują wolno, że niewiele przynoszą trwałych zdobyczy.  Rezultatem tego stanu rzeczy jest fakt, że utwory tego okresu (utw. orkiestrowe z lat 59/60, a także utwór na ork. kam. z 1961), jeśli wziąć pod uwagę ich oderwaną od wszystkiego innego wartość, stoją na pewno niżej od niektórych poprzednich moich utworów (Konc., M. ż., Pieśni do Iłł.).  Dla mnie osobiście mają jednak wartość większą niż tamte, ponieważ prowadzą do czegoś, przygotowują coś, ułatwiają coś, co będzie o wiele bardziej moje własne.  Będę mógł te utwory napisać wtedy, kiedy opracowywane teraz środki staną się dla mnie tak opanowane, znane, podatne, jak to było z “późna tonalnością” w Koncercie na ork.

Witold Lutosławski, 12 February 1961  [my translation]

This entry in Lutosławski’s creative notebook is fascinating.  Firstly, it shows that he is still battling to find his own voice on a technical level.  With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that he was tussling with the practicalities of the aleatory (chance) procedures that he had first encountered in John Cage’s Concert for Piano (1958) in a radio broadcast.  This life-changing moment occurred, by his own account, sometime in 1960.

The orchestral pieces that Lutosławski mentions from 1959-60 are what he subsequently called Three Postludes. He completed them as follows, but not in the order in which they were published (my primary source here is the German musicologist, Martina Homma):

No.1  (14 September 1958)
No.3  (4 April 1959)
No.2  (27 August 1960)

There is no record of any other work being completed during the next six months, until he started to finalise three movements from Jeux vénitiens, the chamber orchestra piece from 1961 mentioned above.  These three movements were premiered in Venice on 24 April 1961.  Two of them were then radically overhauled and a third movement added in time for the full premiere in Warsaw on 16 September 1961.  The Jeux vénitiens chronology works out as follows:

Mvt.4  (7 March 1961; rev. 11 August 1961)
Mvt.2  (28 March 1961)
Mvt.1  (5 April 1961; rev. 29 August 1961)
Mvt.3  (21 August 1961)

wl-jv-sketches-folderOne may only conjecture what was happening in Lutosławski’s head and in his studio between 27 August 1960 and 7 March 1961.  It seems probable that it was during September-December 1960 that he heard Cage’s Concert for Piano.  Evidently, on 12 February 1961 he was still nowhere near a satisfactory solution to his quest for new expressive devices.  His search almost certainly revolved around how to animate his twelve-note harmonic language (already evident in Five Songs, Musique funèbre and the ‘orchestral wks from 59/60’) with ‘unmastered, unfamiliar’ rhythmic aleatorism.  His first public attempts, aired in Venice, were quickly revised for the Warsaw premiere (I explored these issues in detail in 2001).

What is fascinating about the diary extract above is the clarity of Lutosławski’s mind about the value of this experimentation, even though his technical efforts were still in some disarray and he was far from finding the solutions that suited him.  But he knew that the direction in which he was heading was the right one, and he was determined to follow his instincts through.

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