• WL100/29: Notebook, 6 April 1961

Lutosławski and Poor Alternatives


I often see in my finished works only wretched caricatures of what were once their first concepts.

Często widzę w moich zrealizowanych utworach tylko nędzne karykatury tego, czym były w swoim czasie ich pierwsze wyobrażenia.

Witold Lutosławski, 6 April 1961  [my translation]

This single-sentence entry in his notebook reflects Lutosławski’s dissatisfaction at the very moment when he was racing to complete Jeux vénitiens.  He had finished the first movement the previous day (5.04) and would complete the final movement the following day (7.04).  The premiere took place in Venice less than three weeks later (24.04), but he immediately withdrew this version for a major overhaul.  The revised piece was premiered in full on 16 September that year at the Warsaw Autumn festival.  For previous notebook entries and commentaries on Jeux vénitiens, see WL100/18 (12.02.61), WL100/24 (11.03.61) and WL100/27 (19.03.61).

A comment on vocabulary.  I wonder if previous versions understate the intensity of Lutosławski’s comment.  In Lutosławski on Music (Lanham MD, 2007), Zbigniew Skowron translates ‘nędzne’ as ‘poor’:

I often see in my finished works only poor caricatures of what their first conception was like.

So too does Joanna Holzman in Lutosławski. Homagium, an exhibition catalogue published by Galeria Kordegarda (Warsaw, 1996).  Her version, despite the unnecessary insertion of ‘very’, is nicely succinct:

I very often view my finished works as poor caricatures of the original concept.

I pondered for quite a while on ‘nędzne’, because a range of Polish-English dictionaries gives a range of much stronger translations as well, of which the following is a selection: abject, abysmal, beggarly, lousy, meagre, mean, measly, miserable, paltry, poor, sad, shabby, sordid, sorry, squalid, vile, worthless, wretched.  It seems to me that ‘poor’ is the mildest of these.  It is quite likely that Lutosławski was feeling particularly frustrated and under pressure, sandwiched between the two days when he completed the outer movements of  Jeux vénitiens, just in time for the parts to be copied and sent off for rehearsal (which must have been an interesting event, as it was the first time any performers had encountered Lutosławski’s aleatory procedures and notation).

Of the alternatives to ‘poor’ I sense that ‘lousy’ (although overly colloquial), ‘measly’, ‘miserable’, ‘sad’, ‘sorry’ and ‘wretched’ are equally if not more suitable for his mood at this particularly stressful moment.  Are there any other views out there?

2 Responses to • WL100/29: Notebook, 6 April 1961

  1. It’s a tough one…although it is slightly weaker in effect compared to the (dire) ‘poverty’ of ‘nędza’, ’poor’ does have (arguably) the more obvious etymological link, as well as perhaps a smoother idiomatic connection (also as in ‘nędzny substytut’). I guess it’s one of those ‘lost in translation’ situations where you can never get the best of both worlds. I’ve had so many of those recently, my brain melts just thinking about them all…

    • Thanks, William, for this – I agree with you that ‘poor’ flows more easily. My concern was that ‘poor’ works fine if this diary entry is viewed as a general observation, viewed from a distance. It just occurred to me that at the moment that he wrote it he was probably rather fraught (insofar as he of all people could be fraught!), up against a deadline and frantically trying to get at least a viable version of the music he had in his head onto paper!

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