• A Deep Resonance (1970)

A Deep Resonance:
Lutosławski’s Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux

This article was first published in Soundings. A Music Journal no.1 (Autumn, 1970), pp.58-70.  This venture by the Department of Music at University College, Cardiff, was initiated by Professor Arnold Whittall.  In 1969, he moved to Cardiff from Nottingham University, where I had graduated that summer, and I followed him to study for my Masters’ degree.  He had been present when I organised and was one of the two conductors of the UK premiere of Lutosławski’s Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux on 25 June 1969.  That it took a bunch of keen students to give this premiere six years after its world premiere – at the Zagreb Biennale on 9 May 1963 – is a measure of how Lutosławski, aged 56 in 1969, had yet to achieve the international recognition that we now take for granted.

I have been grateful ever since to my fellow students at Nottingham, and particularly to Hermione, who brought back from her visit to Poland in the summer of 1968 the score of Trois poèmes and a mono LP of Lutosławski’s music containing Symphony no.1, Postlude no.1 and Trois poèmes, performed by the Great Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (WOSPR), Kraków Radio Chorus, conducted by Jan Krenz and Witold Lutosławski (Muza XL0237).  Unwittingly, she set me on a path that has enriched my life ever since.

I have posted some further thoughts on Lutosławski’s rhythmic and registral organisation in the first poem, ‘Pensées’, in WL100/45: Trois poèmes, UK*25 June 1969.  This Soundings article, written when I was in my callow early 20s and before I’d ever been to Poland, shows the evidence of my age.  It includes a somewhat injudicious and (partly) misguided reference to ‘middle-aged spread’, which I certainly retract with regard to Livre.  But I thought it might be worth uploading the original text – possibly the first article on the composer in an English-language journal – as a document of its and my times.  I have introduced section headings here for ease of scrolling and made a few corrections and clarifications [in square brackets].


Soundings, Autumn 1970


Those European composers who, in the early 1950s, followed Messiaen’s example, in Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, in applying serial procedures to all parameters of musical composition, encountered an acute problem of communication.  Quite apart from the difficulties involved in attempting accurate realisations of complex rhythmic and dynamic patterns, the logic of the organisation was largely if not completely inaudible and the emotional effect arid.  This intellectual, highly ascetic approach was the ultimate ‘right-wing’ position of a philosophy which regarded the composer as sole organiser of the whole (cf. the excellent elucidation of the organising principles, and their ultimate aural effectiveness, involved in Boulez’s Structure 1a by the composer György Ligeti in Die Reihe, vol. 4).

At the same time, however, on the extreme left, the American John Cage was advocating the total abandonment of conscious control over content by either composer or performer and an intense concentration upon the essence of sound.

The European avant-garde moved rapidly towards an involvement with pure sound, with instrumental texture and colour – the sensual, non-intellectual aspect of aural perception – as can be seen in works like Le marteau sans maître (1954) by Pierre Boulez and Pithoprakta (1955-56) by the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, in which closely argued structures underlie the newly created sound-worlds.

Polish context

In February 1956, Nikita Khruschev’s ‘secret’ report, The Personality Cult and its Consequences, marked the beginnings of a general relaxation of the severe controls which Stalinist ideology had imposed upon the activities of Soviet satellite countries since 1945.  The degree of autonomy achieved in cultural matters varied then as now from country to country, but Poland, where the incumbent Stalinist regime was overthrown only eight months after Khruschev’s report, has since October of that year enjoyed a freedom of artistic expression unparalleled behind the Iron Curtain.  Reforms had long been urged by Polish writers and intellectuals, and one of the immediate results of the thaw was renewed cultural contact with the West.

Young composers seized with both hands the new concepts which the music of Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Varèse and Xenakis opened up to them.  Of this generation, Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933) is best known in the West.  His explorations of new instrumental effects and textures in the early 1960s were important advances, though his music is an example of the trap into which both he and some of his contemporaries appeared to be falling.  As Xenakis commented in 1966:

They are concerned with the exterior aspect of the thing, of sound in itself and in its effects, like a kind of collage; I regret this because they cannot go far along this road.  I am glad that this sensibility for sounds has reached and captured the public; but on the other hand, as touching the basic matter, the construction on reasoning (which alone permits a large step forward), there is not a great deal I believe among the young Polish composers at present.

Obviously the younger Poles felt that the pure sound quality of their music was sufficient to sustain a vibrant contact with their audience and that structural considerations were largely incidental.  Collage is, of course, essentially a technique in which juxtaposition and, more particularly, superimposition are paramount; organic development of material is rarely an important ingredient.  Consequently, composers such as Penderecki seldom used ‘on-going’ forms, except simplified versions of, for example, ternary, rondo or arch structures which lent themselves to their particular brand of collage.

One composer whose name is frequently linked in the West with that of Penderecki (and who has as much in common with him as Benjamin Britten with Peter Maxwell Davies) is Witold Lutosławski (b.1913).  While both composers share an involvement in texture and sound-blocks, there is an essential difference between Lutosławski’s use of organic growth and Penderecki’s preference for blunt confrontations.  Lutosławski’s music is worth examining for its individual, and largely independent, attempt to solve the problems of communication raised by total serialism in the early 1950s, from which he was sheltered by Soviet cultural ideology.


An exact contemporary of Britten, up to 1956 Lutosławski was similarly eclectic in his musical style, Bartók, Debussy and Stravinsky being strong influences.  In works such as his Symphony no.1 (1947) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) he showed a keen sense of instrumental colour and a sure grasp of symphonic development which he moulded into a vein of brittle neo-classicism.  He felt, however, that the Concerto for Orchestra was as far as he could go in the use of tonal centres and symphonic development of folk-like material, and between it and the October coup of 1956 he produced little of importance.

In the same way that many Polish writers and poets led both a public and a private creative life during the years 1945-56, and were thus able to publish hitherto subversive material almost as soon as the thaw began, so one suspects that some composers, while providing the required Gebrauchsmusik, were at the same time working independently along new lines.  Lutosławski, for example, produced, within a year of the coup, Five Songs for mezzo-soprano and piano which show that he had tackled the problem of pitch organisation at the roots, even though other parameters remained very much as before.

Five Songs

In the Five Songs he makes extensive use of sound-blocks, frequently built up by means of the sustaining pedal. The harmonic constitution of these blocks is entirely new in his music and provides the basis for later developments. Taking the twelve notes of the chromatic scale as his material, he ensures that all pitches are present in the built-up blocks, though their relationships have nothing to do with serial techniques.  His concern is not with horizontal orderings, but with vertical agglomerations, and his basic principle is that different intervallic structures within the blocks can be aurally differentiated by the audience and can consequently be regarded as potential expressive elements.  Not only can two different blocks be harmonically juxtaposed, but their intervallic structure can be altered step by step in an organic progression, as in the concluding six bars of the fourth song, ‘Rycerze’ (Knights).

Funeral Music and Three Postludes

Funeral Music for string orchestra (1958) partially concerns itself with horizontal statements (staggered entries à la Bartók) of a twelve-note idea constructed from tritones and semitones, while the climax of the work is a twelve-note chord based upon the harmonic series.  The succeeding Three Postludes for orchestra (1958-60) experiments also with the splitting up of the chromatic scale into small clusters.  Both these works show a considerable retreat from the total chromaticism of the Five Songs, and the Three Postludes in particular suggests that further refinement and development of the new harmonic ideas was not possible without a comparable rethinking of rhythmic and structural elements.

Jeux vénitiens

In his next work, Jeux vénitiens for orchestra (1961), Lutosławski attempts to solve the deadlock.  Even so, he fails to take a forward step with the same firmness as in 1956.  As in the two previous compositions, he includes a scurrying moto perpetuo movement recalling his music of the post-war decade.  The new element is that of chance. Tightly controlled aleatory elements are applied to rhythm and duration in Jeux vénitiens, although some conventionally notated passages are still used.  The chance element takes two principal forms.  Firstly, where a closed-end block of fixed duration is required, the performers are given passages to be repeated at an approximate speed until cut off by the conductor.  Secondly, where an open-ended section of approximate duration is required, the performers’ parts are written in space-time notation with, for example, one inch [= 2.5cm] along the stave equalling one second, performers in both instances not attempting to coordinate vertically with one another.  This ‘dissociation of time connexions between sounds’ enables Lutosławski to write the individual lines in each block in what he calls ‘aleatory counterpoint’ and naturally gives him greater freedom of manoeuvre than specific notation.  It is primarily not a decorative effect but a practical approach to the realisation of aurally complex rhythms without having to resort to what he felt to be the unnecessary impracticalities of the notation used by total serialists.

Jeux vénitiens is probably the closest Lutosławski has come to the younger Polish composers.  For here, although the principle of organically expanding and contracting chord progressions is taken a stage further in becoming a structural link between the third and fourth movements, the rapprochement with the younger generation is seen rather in the straight juxtapositions (first movement) and superimpositions (fourth movement) of sound-blocks.  In the first movement, two separate ideas are alternated.  Lutosławski is careful to maintain a sense of forward movement through the addition of new instrumental colours and dynamic and rhythmic patterns at each repetition of the first idea, with the second idea mildly changing its character and length, though not its orchestration, at each statement. The climax of the whole work comes in the fourth and final movement in which a series of different textural blocks is superimposed upon itself in ever-decreasing circles.  The intended accumulative effect is somewhat chaotic, and, as with a similarly inorganic procedure in the final Postlude, Lutosławski seems less at ease with this technique than with the blocks in which changing intervallic relationships are the important factor.  Jeux vénitiens is the last work in which a collage effect in this manner is attempted.

Trois poèmes

It is in Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux for choir and orchestra (1963) that Lutoslawski succeeds in unifying the different elements coherently and consistently and in presenting a credible solution to the problem that composers have been grappling with since the war: how to balance the intellectual and the sensual, control and chance, theory and practice.

Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux* is scored for twenty-part choir and an orchestra of wind instruments and non-pitched percussion, together with two pianos, harp, celeste, xylophone, tubular bells and vibraphone.  The orchestra and choir, placed side by side on the platform, each has its own conductor for ease of performance, there being no intention to create any specific antiphonal effects [except in the central poem].

In retrospect Lutosławski can be seen to have been moving at this time towards a musical style whose aesthetic approaches that of early twentieth-century French composers, artists and writers, in particular the music of Debussy, whose apparent vagueness veils a precisely organised tonal structure.  Consequently, the choice of poems by Henri Michaux is a natural complement to the direction of Lutosławski’s musical development at the time.

Born in Belgium in 1899, Michaux was initially a poet, although this activity was eventually superseded in the 1940s and 1950s by painting and drawing.  The first and last of the three poems, ‘Pensées’ (Thoughts) and ‘Repos dans le malheur’ (Rest in sorrow), date from the mid-1930s, and both have close affinities with the paintings of the period in their overall indistinct quality heightened by precisely detailed flickers of light and colour, as in his watercolour ‘Dragon’ (1936).  Michaux uses the word phantomisme about these paintings, a description that could equally apply to the poems.  The central poem, ‘Le grand combat’ (The big fight), was written some ten years earlier and being a violent narrative is altogether more specific than the flanking poems.  His paintings of the mid-1920s, his first attempts in the medium, such as ‘Flecks in the form of an octopus or a city’ (1926), anticipate the tachism of the 1950s and early 1960s where, as in a gouache of 1962, small silhouetted shapes, possibly human figures, are executed with the inspired spontaneity of oriental calligraphy and sweep across the page with great urgency and near panic.  It is this sense of detailed individual movement within a frame that Lutosławski has so effectively caught in his ‘aleatory counterpoint’ [for more on Michaux’s art, see my post of 9 May, WL100/38: Les dessins de Michaux].

Despite the close parallel between Michaux’s poems and paintings and Lutosławski’s use of aleatory rhythms with his sound-blocks, it is nevertheless important to emphasise that, with the possible exception of the second poem, the composer’s inspiration is musical, not literary.  Lutosławski has indicated that he had already envisaged the general structure of the music, though to what precise extent is hard to ascertain, before finding the Michaux poems.

In common with many of his other compositions, the overall structure is simple: statement (‘Pensées’), a gradual build-up to a central climax (‘Le grand combat’), followed by a haunting crépuscule (‘Repos dans le malheur’).  In addition, each movement uses this general structural concept as its framework, thus giving the composition an underlying, crystalline unity.  The first poem is the only one to use recapitulated ideas; the other movements are through-composed with no back-references to particular motivic patterns.


‘Pensées’ is in clear ternary form, with the ‘A’ section in two parts.  It opens with a series of overlapping chord contractions, in which the two whole-tone scales [with an initial displacement at top and bottom] are initially separated by a semitone in the centre of the chord and are then gradually overlapped step by step until a complete major 7th semitonal cluster is reached (G natural – F sharp), whose central axis is middle C-C sharp.  The choir immediately disperses this into three clusters of five, four and three notes.  ‘A2’ [fig.33] follows after a pause.  It consists of six quasi-statistical passages for soft staccato woodwind into which is woven a section for sopranos.  The pitch of this diminishes from a tritone (C-F sharp), through a major 3rd (B-D sharp) to a major 2nd (B flat-C).  It is characteristic of such chordal contractions, and expansions, that the bass [line] [sometimes it can be the upper line] should move by step, usually in semitones, in order to give them coherence.

The central passage [fig.85] gradually builds up to the climax of the movement and ends with a series of pitched percussion chord contractions in a high register, again using the two whole-tone scales.  The recapitulation that follows [fig.143] is varied: instead of a chord contraction down to a G-F sharp cluster as at the opening, the orchestra starts from the C-C sharp axis and builds outwards, the major 7th cluster being taken up as before by the choir. There is no consequent dispersal of pitches, but an apparent repeat in which the C-C sharp axis expands only to a major 6th cluster (G sharp-F) which is in turn taken up by the choir.  The recapitulation of ‘A2’ omits the quasi-statistical woodwind passage and proceeds in the voices with the symmetrical diminution of pitch range centred on C-C sharp that was begun at the start of the recapitulation: from a perfect 4th (B flat-E flat), through a minor 3rd (B-D) onto a final minor 2nd (C-C sharp).

The recapitulatory techniques cannot be discussed without mentioning Lutosławski’s use of the orchestral palette. In Trois poèmes the orchestration is restrained: he is fond of using instruments in their families for broad sculptural effect, with little solo colour until the final movement.  His use of any one instrument or group is dictated not only by considerations of colour and texture but also from a desire to highlight the musical structure.  In the first movement, the pitched percussion, pianos excepted, is reserved for the climax of the central section.  But the structural emphasis is even more marked in the flanking passages of ‘A1’.  Here the brass makes its only appearance in the movement, serving to accentuate the ternary form, with the pianos marking the beginning and end of the opening passage of both exposition and recapitulation like inverted commas.

The instrumentation of Trois poèmes affords an interesting comparison with Penderecki’s in the early 1960s.  The younger composer, concerned with semitonal or microtonal clusters and bands, and less with individual pitches and intervals than with the overall sound of the texture, has found string instruments admirably suited to his purposes. Lutosławski, on the other hand, being primarily concerned with the internal construction of chords rather than clusters, is less successful when using strings [I would not be so categorical today!].  In making the intervallic relationships between chords clearly perceptible, it is evident that wind instruments produce more succinctly the aural effect demanded by the musical argument.  An example of this can be seen in the very opening orchestral passage of ‘Pensées’ (the chordal contraction down to the G-F sharp cluster).  This passage is clearly a development of a section from the fourth movement of Jeux vénitiens [figs 21-58] where the strings gradually introduce sfpp attacks into an otherwise quiet string texture, the attacks increasing in intensity until a new passage is begun.  In the opening passage of ‘Pensées’ the sfpps are given to the brass, with woodwind providing the background, the whole effect being transformed into a more dynamic and expressive accumulation of sonority.

‘Le grand combat’

The sound world of the second poem, ‘Le grand combat’, is in complete contrast to ‘Pensées’.  Here Lutosławski introduces the battery of non-pitched percussion, while the choir is not at any stage required to sing pitches, but to whisper, shout or cry in glissandi.  The comparative violence of this poem, in which Michaux invented evocative nonsense words, has led Lutosławski to treat it in a far more direct and expressionistic manner than the other two. Undoubtedly it was the extensive use of percussion, speaking chorus, and the violence of the musical argument that led it to be called ‘avant-garde’ at its first performance.  Closely reasoned musical development is secondary to the overt sensuality of the actual sound, and for this reason its appeal may be felt to be transitory.

Nevertheless, ‘Le grand combat’ does give an insight into Lutosławski’s reliance upon his idiomatic use of the twelve chromatic pitches, even when their vertical ordering may not be aurally perceptible.  The climax of this movement is an apparent free-for-all where all rhythmic coordination is discarded.  It is immediately preceded [fig.52] by two alternating series of irregular chord expansions which are constructed from major 3rds and minor 3rds respectively. The ensuing harmonic progression [fig.53], underlying the rhythmic chaos, proceeds in two leaps from a widely spaced chord to a cluster.  Three different orderings of the twelve pitches, each symmetrical from the centre outwards, kaleidoscope into one cluster whose axis is E sharp-F sharp.  The three orderings are based upon the two whole-tone scales (upper register), the three diminished 7th chords (middle register), and the six tritones (lower register), in all of which the tritone is a constituent interval.

Such precise reference to specific intervals is a consistent feature of the chords, the clearest instance occurring between figures 87 and 89 of ‘Pensées’.  Here each instrumentalist’s part is made up of repeated fragments whose intervals are major 2nds, or perfect 4ths with a major 2nd outside.  Although all twelve pitches are present, the intervals employed are clearly audible and give the music an atmosphere redolent of passages from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

‘Repos dans le malheur’

With ‘Repos dans le malheur’, the crépuscule of Trois poèmes, Lutosławski returns to a tightly knit underlying structure and a drastic reduction in orchestral forces: until the climax, the pianos and harp are the only instruments employed, the harp occupying a key role.  The choral meditations, punctuated by the harp’s repeated notes [poco] sf>p on a single pitch, culminate in a resonant, widely spaced choral sound-block [fig.24], from which the pitch F sharp is omitted.  This is followed by an F sharp punctuation [poco] sf>p [fig.26], a choral, then an orchestral, elaboration on this pitch, and the movement ends with the choir singing within the range C sharp-F sharp immediately above middle C.  One can in a very real sense talk about the emphatic F sharp statement following the above example as a tonal centre.  In the first instance, it is the culmination of the movement’s direction: apart from being the textural and dynamic highpoint of the poem, its impact accentuated by the absence of F sharp from the preceding, and lengthy, sound-block, the punctuating harp [poco] sf>ps have had as successive pitches C sharp, D sharp and E sharp up to fig.24.  These pitches have been starting points for the choral meditations, and thus F sharp can be seen and heard as the tonic resolution of a V-VI-VII-I progression.

The second instance is related to the structure of the whole work and makes it seem likely that the general harmonic basis for Trois poèmes was plotted out by the composer prior to the choice of the texts.  The outer sections of ‘Pensées’ are centred around the middle C-C sharp, with the C sharp particularly prominent in the sfpps as they are the topmost pitch given to the brass.  In a less direct way, E sharp-F sharp is the centre of the chordal climax of ‘Le grand combat’.

The fact that the lengthy statement of F sharp in the final movement is also followed by a filled-in ‘dominant-tonic’ reinforces the suggestion that the C-C sharp emphasis in ‘Pensées’ is a sharpened IV-V tonal centre aiming at the ultimate tonic F sharp.  Lutosławski is not alone in his extraction of certain facets from tonal procedures in order to unify a composition; but the insertion of the idea of a tonal centre into a twelve-note context is perfectly consistent with his general emphasis upon the vertical rather than the horizontal aspects of pitch organisation and is indicative of his unwillingness to abandon links with traditional harmonic roots.  Likewise, his use of ‘aleatory counterpoint’ does not exclude homophonic passages: he believes that a regular pulse is not necessarily reactionary or outmoded, but that it is an essential complement to freer rhythmic writing if each is to make its full impact.  ‘Repos dans le malheur’ is an example of a well-judged interplay between the two.

Upholding the dictum that in order to sound disorganised the music must have a method behind the complexity, Lutosławski tightly controls the freedom permitted so as to be able to envisage accurately the resultant sound. Figures 87-89 in ‘Pensées’ show a relatively simple way of ensuring a completely ametric sound-block.  Another, more involved example of ‘a veritable cloud of sonorous material in movement’ (Xenakis on his Pithoprakta) can be seen earlier in ‘Pensées’, figures 35-84.  These quasi-statistical wind passages mentioned as part of ‘A2’, although sounding totally free, are rhythmically based upon two concurrent mirror patterns, both apparently evolved on graph paper.  Here Lutosławski most closely approaches Xenakis’s ideas regarding ‘the construction on reasoning’, although such organisation is the exception rather than the rule in his music, and Xenakis would probably disapprove of the composer’s injunction that ‘the horizontal distances between the notes correspond approximately to the intervals of time’ (my italics).  [For a further exploration of this passage see my post, mentioned above, of 25 June 2013 WL100/45.]

Performing Trois poèmes

Edward T. Cone has said that ‘an analysis is a direction for a performance’, and certainly in the preparation for performance of Trois poèmes detailed investigation of the music’s underlying principles was found to be of paramount performance.  To facilitate understanding, graphic charts were drawn up to show the inter-relationship of orchestra and choir (each has its separate conductor’s score, there being no [combined] full score).

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 12.29.10

Graph of Lutosławski’s ‘Pensées’, not to temporal scale. © 2013 Adrian Thomas

These charts were not only of use to the conductors but also to the performers, in particular the choir.  Having once grasped the essential aspects of the rhythmic notation, the [student] instrumentalists had little difficulty with their parts – the location of pitches presenting no problems for them.  For the student choir, however, armed only with separate scores for each of the twenty parts, and coming straight from [performing] Schubert and Verdi, an understanding of the harmonic structure through the use of visual aids was invaluable.  With a piano reduction of the orchestral parts being largely impractical, the use of the graphs also enabled the singers to become acquainted with the interaction of the two forces prior to the final joint rehearsals.

Choral writing

Much of the choral writing in the outer poems is a cappella, and consequently acute attention to the other nineteen parts was imperative for every singer, not least because any tonal basis which had in their previous experience been taken for granted was absent.  This awareness became an encouraging feature in a forty-strong choir (two voices per part enabled strong singers to help weaker ones) which approached the work with not a little suspicion and hesitancy. The nature of the harmonic language made it imperative that the choir be able to stand its ground when pitted against the orchestra, as in the central climax of ‘Pensées’ [figs.90-136].  As a result, there could be no drifting onto a pitch: each singer had to acquire the ability to pick out an anchor note from the preceding passage and get his or her bearings from there.  For instance, the first passage tackled in rehearsal was the opening choral entry in ‘Pensées’, where the choir takes over the G-F sharp semitonal [major 7th] cluster from the orchestra.  S.A.T.B. start respectively on F sharp, C sharp, middle C and G, for which the best anchor was C sharp: this note was the pitch for the first and third sfpps and also [as already indicated] the topmost pitch given to the brass during the orchestral introduction.

Lutosławski’s harmonic and rhythmic techniques have been evolved with great regard for their practical application in performance: in the first choral entry in ‘Pensées’, he so orders the parts as to allow for the fact that the fifth part in each of the four voices may be less capable than the first.  A second example where technique, practicality and intention are united occurs in ‘Repos dans le malheur’, where the use of staggered entries of identical material – [something] seen previously in Funeral Music – facilitates the rehearsal and accuracy, all voices concerned practising the line(s) together.  The freeing of durations is a relatively simple matter after this initial stage.

Occasionally, as in the climactic choral passages at fig.90 in ‘Pensées’ and at fig.24 in ‘Repos dans le malheur’, Lutosławski requires more agility of his singers.  The ability to think in terms of specific pitches rather than intervals in an eleven- or twelve-note chord was achieved by dint of repetition.  Once the singers had the feel of a particular chord, this ability was soon acquired.  In the latter example from ‘Repos dans le malheur’ it was, of course, vital that no-one accidentally sounded an F sharp if the succeeding resolution was to have its full effect.

The writing for speaking chorus in ‘Le grand combat’ is uncomplicated and was attacked with an increasingly hoarse gusto by the choir.  The main difficulty encountered was in preventing glissandi which started in the high registers of the soprano and contralto voices from orientating at the top towards an identifiable pitch.  The initial tendency for the singers to conform to a moderate interpretation of their expressionist role was increasingly overtaken by a more vivid and exploratory attitude.

The use of twenty separate parts, each singer having his or her own identity within the corporate whole, gives Lutosławski the opportunity, utilised to the full, of exploring the enormous dynamic range of such a choir.  This is particularly noticeable in ‘Le grand combat’ and at the end of each of the movements.  At these points, a legitimate reduction of forces (made feasible through the doubling of the twenty parts) enables the performers to achieve an effective and smooth decrescendo down to an ‘audible silence’, particularly at the conclusion of the composition. Certainly the choir became aware during rehearsals of the minute gradations in tone and dynamics which they could achieve, both as individuals and as a body.

Many younger composers are taking up ideas propounded by Cage in the post-war years, sometimes to the extent that anarchy appears to have been taken over.  Lutosławski’s use of chance procedures has been slight, for he has no wish to lose effective control over the music.  His delegation of certain rhythmic and durational elements to the choice of the performers does, however, mean that they are actively participating in the interpretation of the music.  In performance, the relaxing of vertical coordination in much of Trois poèmes meant that the players were not inhibited by the presence of the audience, being able to concentrate upon pitch in the way they would concentrate upon correct rhythmic performance in a more conventional work.


The years 1956-63 saw a great change in Lutosławski’s music, one that was accomplished with the minimum of miscalculation and the maximum of mature self-confidence.  The balance he achieved in Trois poèmes between aleatory elements – upon which both he and some commentators lay great stress – and precise notation has been finely wrought.  In later works, such as Symphony no.2 and Livre, there is a disturbing tendency towards a middle-aged spread, where the extension of the aleatory counterpoint outside the blocks has sometimes produced amorphous ‘splodges’, a possible musical counterpart to some of Michaux’s early paintings such as as ‘Flecks’.

In Trois poèmes Lutosławski’s moulding of all parameters into a unified whole is convincingly expressed.  He has chosen a palette at one with the musical argument, and, in this, his first and only attempt since 1956 to employ a choir, his writing for voices is as idiomatic as his writing for pitched and non-pitched instruments of the orchestra.  His ability to communicate with the minimum of fuss is due not only to textural beauty and allusions to vaguely familiar landmarks but also to the firm harmonic direction and the relaxed yet purposeful pace at which the music unfolds.

* The first UK performance was given at Nottingham University on June 25th, 1969, by the University Music Society Choir and Orchestra under the direction of Adrian Thomas and Donald Goodhew.


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