• WL100/32: Les espaces, **12 April 1978

If you dip into any study of Lutosławski’s music that includes Les espaces du sommeil (1975, premiered by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Berlin PO under the composer’s baton on 12 April 1978), you will read that the text is by Robert Desnos (1900-45) and probably also that it comes from his volume of poetry Corps et Biens (Paris, 1930).  In fact, it had been published four years earlier in La révolution Surréaliste (June 1926), where his new collection of poems was printed under the title ‘À la mystérieuse’, a reference to Desnos’s lover, the singer Yvonne George.

Lutosławski’s source was actually a much later volume, a copy of which he owned and in which he also bookmarked poems by four other writers.  How do I know this?  In September 2002, I spent several days in Lutosławski’s house with permission to explore the contents of his study and attic store-room.  One particular book leaped off the shelves at me, figuratively speaking.

It was La poésie Surréaliste (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1964, repr. 1970), selected by Jean-Louis Bedouin.  The cover featured a drawing by Yves Tanguy.*

141-4164_IMGDesnos’s poem was the first that Lutosławski bookmarked (with paper strips torn, as was his wont, from an old notebook or diary).  The second was Météores by the Croatian Radovan Ivšić (1921-2009).  The third was a group of eleven short verses by the Anglo-Egyptian Joyce Mansour (1928-86).  The fourth was De tout repos by Pierre de Massot (1900-69).  And the fifth was Pierre de soleil (Piedra de sol) by the Mexican Octavio Paz (1914-98).

What immediately grabbed my attention and thrilled me was that the only poem that Lutosławski had marked up was Desnos’s Les espaces du sommeil.  Here was Lutosławski’s structural analysis of the text, complete with brackets, underlinings, circlings, Greek letters, a few translations into Polish and even some key dynamic markings at the very end.  He underlines or circles the two dominant refrains ‘Dans la nuit’ and ‘Il y a toi’.  He gives Greek letters α-ζ (another characteristic habit) to the subsections of the first two of the work’s three main sections.  He translates three words that he doesn’t know (‘charnus’, ‘essieux’ and ‘médusantes’).

15. La poésie Surréaliste 146-7 Desnos

Above all, Lutosławski is clearly captivated on these two pages by the text’s musical possibilities in terms of verse and refrain and the final climax.  How excited he must have been to find a poem which dovetailed so neatly with his symphonic preoccupations of the 1960s and 70s.


* When I was in Warsaw in January this year, I was invited to Lutosławski’s house.  I learned from the wife of Lutosławski’s stepson that unfortunately this volume seems since to have disappeared.  If this is so, then these photographs, taken against a piece of Lutosławski’s blotting paper on his desk, are quite possibly the only record of this particular background to Les espaces du sommeil.


I have written in a little more detail about Lutosławski and his approach to text setting in ‘One Last Meeting: Lutosławski, Szymanowski and the Fantasia’ (2007).

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