• Lutosławski and Jeux vénitiens

This is a story in three parts: (i) the 2011 ‘Warsaw Autumn’, which opens tonight; (ii) the significance of Jeux vénitiens (1960-61) for Witold Lutosławski and developing terminology for chance procedures; (iii) my meeting with the composer about the score and sketches after the 1981 ‘Warsaw Autumn’.  Today; 50 years ago; 30 years ago.

The 2011 ‘Warsaw Autumn’

The 54th ‘Warsaw Autumn’ International Festival of Contemporary Music begins today.  It is a most remarkable phenomenon, unique in its longevity and perpetual re-invention.  It began in 1956, at the cusp of monumental political, societal and cultural changes not only in Poland but in some of the other satellite countries of the then Soviet Union (USSR) in Eastern Europe.  It has been the proving ground and showcase for generations of Polish composers and has provided a priceless opportunity for Polish audiences to hear the latest developments in new music from abroad as well as dipping into historical moments in post-war music.

This year’s programme is as inventive as ever.  Historical contexts are offered by performances of Górecki’s firebrand orchestral work Scontri (1960), to commemorate his death last November (Scontri opens the festival this evening), of Nono’s A-Ronne and Penderecki’s radio programme The Brigade of Death on Sunday (18.09), 17 parts of Stockhausen’s Klang next Thursday (22.09) and Nono’s Il canto sospeso in the closing concert a week tomorrow (24.09.11).  There is a strong thread of music theatre and documentary works on current topics (child soldiers in Africa, the sale of Eastern European women for prostitution in the West), with pieces by Phil Niblock, Heiner Goebbels, Justé Janulyté, Perttu Haapanen, Lotta Wennäkoski, Hannes Seidl and Daniel Kötter, and Carola Bauckholt leading the way.  There’s even ‘a street oratorio with orchestra and Warsaw residents’ choir, a sort of composed rally, a polyphony of citizens that feel ignored by social discourse’.  No-one can accuse the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ of resting on its laurels.

A brand-new and enchanting development is ‘Little WA’ (Little Warsaw Autumn), a programme of new music aiming to appeal to children 5-12 years old.  By the look of it, this is no hand-me-down nor dumb-me-down outreach.  As always with the ‘Warsaw Autumn’, the musical experience will be direct and stimulating, uncompromising in all the good senses of the word.

The 1961 ‘Warsaw Autumn’ 

This is all by way of introduction to a special anniversary that also falls today.  On 16 September, exactly fifty years ago today, a premiere took place in the opening concert of the 5th ‘Warsaw Autumn’ that was to mark a signal turning-point in the work not only of its composer but also, I would argue, in Polish music.  I’m not thinking of another work premiered six days later at the 1961 ‘Warsaw Autumn’ – Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960-61) – more monumental though its impact has been.  My focus is on Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens (also 1960-61).

This premiere of Jeux vénitiens was not as simple as that.  It was, in fact, its second premiere, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.  In brief, this short (13’) chamber orchestra piece had been commissioned by the dynamic and somewhat maverick Polish conductor Andrzej Markowski for performance at the Venice Biennale on 24 April 1961.  That performance went ahead, but evidently the piece was not to Lutosławski’s satisfaction, and between May and August 1961 he revised significant parts of it (notably the first and last movements) and added an extra (third) movement.  The ‘Warsaw’ version was, to all intents and purposes, a new piece.  (If you are interested in reading about the differences between the ‘Venice’ and ‘Warsaw’ versions, I can refer you to a book chapter that I wrote ten years ago for OUP’s Lutosławski Studies, even though the book’s cost price today – in the region of £136-£144 – is beyond exorbitant).

The significance of the finished Jeux vénitiens for Lutosławski was enormous.  He was trialling new techniques and modes of expression as part of the seething musical cauldron that was Polish music in 1958-62.  Composers 20 years his junior were pushing boundaries even further in their new pieces, Górecki’s Scontri and Penderecki’s Threnody first among them.  I’m in no doubt that Lutosławski thought it necessary to join this experimental stream, and Jeux vénitiens and, to a more moderate extent, its successor Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1961-63) fulfilled this need.

Lutosławski’s terminologies of chance (1960-68)

Lutosławski’s experiments lay less in his harmonic language, which he had been developing over several years prior to Jeux vénitiens, than in his loosening of moment-to-moment rhythmic ties and the concomitant rethinking of motivic material (I cover this in detail in the chapter mentioned above).  To describe this rhythmic loosening, Lutosławski searched for terms that would encapsulate his take on chance procedures that would make clear the difference with the compositional methods and aesthetics of other composers, especially John Cage.  (It had been a chance hearing of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra that ‘was a stimulus, a spark to ignite the powder keg in me’.)  Key to this search were two terms: objet sonore and the adjective ‘aleatory’.

In his recently published Zapiski (Notebook of Ideas), Lutosławski noted:

23 September 1960: ‘Instead of ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ there is a new element (perhaps not completely new in its essence, but new in use) – objet sonore – sound object’.

It is almost certain that Lutosławski’s adoption of this term, invented by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer, was caused either by meeting Schaeffer when he came to the 3rd ‘Warsaw Autumn’ and presented a programme of musique concrète on 17 September 1959 and/or by hearing Schaeffer’s Étude aux objets during the 4th ‘Warsaw Autumn’ two days before making this notebook entry.

Lutosławski’s use of ‘aleatory’ is more extensive and varied.  In 1965 he articulated his opposition to a more widespread, Cagean use of chance (‘absolute aleatorism’) or the use of chance in determining musical structure (‘aleatorism of form’).  But in 1960 he was just at the start of his process of formulation.

Initially, he preferred writing about rhythm and objets than about chance:

19 October 1960: ‘Thus two rhythmic flows in a piece: 1. local rhythm ‘small’ (mały) – inside the object; 2. general rhythm ‘large’ (duży) – i.e. the rhythm of a succession of objects’.

It was not until 14 months had passed, and three months after the premiere of Jeux vénitiens, that Lutosławski first used the word ‘alea’:

20 December 1961: ‘Lecture on mus[ical] character, [… there then follows a series of subject headings] … alea …’.

Lutosławski first mentioned aleatorism by name only as he was drafting a series of lectures to be delivered during a forthcoming residency at the Berkshire Music Centre in Tanglewood, Mass. in the summer of 1962.  Under the heading ‘Attention: alea’, he wrote:

15 March 1962: ‘Terms: ‘small aleatorism’ (mały aleatoryzm) – concerning detail, ad libitum in performance itself, approximate treatment of rhythm, the methods of A etc. [‘A’ probably refers to the revised, ‘Warsaw’ version of the first movement of Jeux vénitiens]; ‘large aleatorism’ (duży aleatoryzm) – chance as the base for constructing forms, the alternation of sections, even of whole movements (Boulez’s III Sonata, Klavierstück XI, etc.)’.

Lutosławski seems to have first used his preferred term ‘limited aleatorism’ in 1963 when giving an interview about Trois poèmes:

What is this technique?  It is hardly, however, ‘classic’ aleatorism (‘klasyczny’ aleatoryzm) [this seems to be Lutosławski’s precursive definition for ‘absolute’], because the separate parameters of the piece are not completely abandoned to chance but rather are more or less defined.  This technique might be called ‘approximate’ (aproksymatywna).  The term ‘limited aleatorism’ (aleatoryzm ograniczony) might define it more accurately.

Four years later, writing about the imminent premiere of the complete Second Symphony (9 June 1967), Lutosławski broadened the vocabulary: ‘the technique called in general usage ‘controlled’ (kontrolowany)or ‘limited’ (ograniczony) aleatorism’.  This has led some translators and commentators to use ‘controlled’ to represent both Polish adjectives, which is unfortunate as there are subtle differences in meaning.  I suspect that kontrolowany came from ‘general usage’ rather than from Lutosławski himself.

One final observation on ‘aleatory’.  In Stockholm in 1965, he coined the term ‘aleatory counterpoint’, which neatly encapsulates the motivic marriage between rhythmic patterns and harmonic movement in his music.  Yet, once again, Lutosławski confused the terminological issue in 1969, when discussing Livre pour orchestre (1968).  He suggested that an alternative term to ‘aleatory counterpoint’ might be ‘controlled aleatorism’.

Lutosławski’s developing commentary on this signal new aspect of his technique that emerged in the two versions of Jeux vénitiens is witness to his creative vision in the 1960s.  It is also a confirmation of the validity and success of his experimental trials in Jeux vénitiens.  Its publication in 1962 by both the Polish PWM and the German company Moeck ensured that its raw energy and experimentalism achieved a wide audience of composers, performers and analysts.

The 1981 ‘Warsaw Autumn’

One of those analysts was me.  I had written about Lutosławski’s technical and expressive armoury during my Masters degree and had been particularly fascinated by Jeux vénitiens.  I had noticed two things that seemed unusual.  The first, and more significant, was the extraction of superimposed motifs from the ‘A’ section of the first movement (the revised version, though I did not know that at the time) to provide juxtaposed material for the flute cantilena in the third movement (new to the revised version).  Less important, but instrumental in the story that follows, was my realisation, in analysing the motifs and harmony of the first movement’s ‘A’ section, that there were misprints in the published score.  In other words, some pitches did not belong to the constant 12-note harmony of the background chord.

In September 1981, I went to the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ for the fourth time.  I was also going there to witness the extraordinary happenings in Poland, led by the Solidarity and Rural Solidarity trades unions.  It was a time of unbelievably activism, passion, belief in the future combined with fear of government and of the big bear to the East (remembering Prague 1968, only 13 years before).  And the fear was justified: martial law was declared three months later, on 13 December.  It was also a time when the authorities put pressure on every citizen by thwarting basic supplies: I remember walking into one huge new supermarket in which every shelf was bare and only blackened fish were on sale.  They were horrific conditions, although the ordinary Pole still managed somehow to find ways to buy bread, fruit and veg (it was harvest time) and, if lucky, some meat brought in from the countryside.

The 25th ‘Warsaw Autumn’ went on, however.  New Polish pieces included Lutosławski’s Grave (1981), Wojciech Kilar’s outrageously cinematic Exodus (1981), complete with audience ‘baa-baa’ at the end, and tributes to Kazimierz Serocki and Tadeusz Baird who had died that year.  Younger composers came to the fore: I recall the vivid impression of Ryszard Szeremeta’s Advocatus diaboli (1980-81) and feeling that Paweł Buczyński’s Music of Falling Leaves (1980) captured in its title and music the underlying sadness of that Polish autumn.  Xenakis made a triumphant visit with his Ais (1980) being a highpoint of the festival, while Penderecki’s most recent blockbuster, his Te Deum (1980), played to an over-packed St John’s Cathedral.  A lighter diversion was provided by a 15-year-old piece by my old teacher in Kraków, Bogusław Schäffer.  His gift for musical theatre was demonstrated by the hilarious Quartet for Four Actors (1966).

Meeting Lutosławski (October 1981)

During an interval in one of the concerts I approached Lutosławski with a request to talk to him about Jeux vénitiens.  I said that I was writing an article (‘Jeux vénitiens: Lutosławski at the Crossroads’, Contact, 24 (Spring, 1982), 4-7, since largely subsumed into my chapter of 2001).  I had found some misprints.  His interest was piqued.  We arranged that I would visit him one evening after the festival.  It turned out to be the night before I was due to return to the UK and on to Belfast for the start of the new academic year.

I’d been advised that Lutosławski liked his single-malt Scotch whisky, so armed with a bottle I turned up at the modernist cubed house that he and his wife owned in north Warsaw.  He ushered me into his downstairs living room, which had a large L-shaped sofa with a coffee table nestling in its crook.  I gave him the whisky – which seemed to please him enormously – and he opened up a large nearby chest on the parquet floor and placed it inside among what looked to me like dozens of other bottles.  We sat down on the two sides of the sofa, he to my left.  “So, what’s this about misprints?”, he asked.

I took out my score and pointed to section ‘A’ of the first movement: fl.I, motif 3, A natural [should be B natural?]; fl.II, motif 1, A flat [should be B natural or F sharp?]; fl.II, motif 4, A flat again; cl.I, motif 8, A natural [should be B natural or F sharp?].  Four errors in the score.  He was puzzled.  “Wait a minute.  I must go and get the sketches”.  I held my breath.  This was more than I could have hoped for.

When he returned, I saw that each of the four movements had its own envelope.  He got out the sketches for the first movement.  He leafed through them.  “This isn’t of interest, this isn’t of interest, this isn’t of interest.”  Even at right angles I could tell that these were gold dust: rhythmic sketches, harmonic possibilities, strange drawings which looked like circuit diagrams.  Of course they were of interest – to me!

From somewhere, I don’t know where, I plucked up the courage to ask a question.  “I’m unfortunately flying out of Warsaw before dawn tomorrow morning.  Could I study these sketches overnight before I go?   My friends could return them to you tomorrow.”  I’ll never forget Lutosławski’s reply: “Of course you can.  Why don’t you take them with you to England, copy what you wish and post them back to me when you’ve finished looking at them.”  I was dumbstruck, but not for long.  “I can’t do that,” I said, “They’re too precious.  If I may take them to where I’m staying, I’ll study them overnight and then they can be returned safely into your hands.”  Lutosławski agreed.  “Do you want to look at all of them?”  I knew that I didn’t have enough time to do that, so I reluctantly asked if I could take the envelopes for just the first and third movements (how I wish now that I’d also taken the fourth!).  As a parting gift for one of my MA students who was studying his music, Lutosławski gave me a clutch of miniature scores of his music.  Six years later, that student would be able to thank Lutosławski in person when he played in a concert of his music to celebrate the conferment of an honorary DMus on Lutosławski by Queen’s University.

I think that I have never carried such a treasured package on trams across Warsaw than I did that autumn night in 1981.  I reached my friends’ flat about 23.00 hrs and immediately set about studying and copying onto my own MS paper the relevant sketches so that I could study them at leisure when back in the UK.  This was before digital cameras, so no shortcuts there.  And, because the Polish state regarded photocopiers as agents of dissension, there were no services available on that front either.  So there was nothing to be done except spend the next seven hours furiously writing by hand (I had to do the same again, over ten years later, with some Górecki materials).  I left Warsaw the following morning, exhausted, with a cramped right hand, but marvelling at Lutosławski’s generosity and my good fortune.

There is something about sketches of early and ‘transitional’ works that reveals more about their creator’s thought processes than perhaps other pieces do.  It’s not a watertight observation, as I know from studying the sketches of his Cello Concerto (1969-70).  But, in the case of Jeux vénitiens, I was privileged to be the first to see his mathematical tables (whose rationales have still not been revealed), his ‘circuit diagrams’ of the pitch designs of sections B, D, E and F in the first movement, designs which are intricate, purposeful, but barely audible without the prior knowledge that these preparations revealed.  Above all, these sketches demonstrated, if demonstration were needed, that Lutosławski worked methodically, precisely, though without dating his many separate sheets.  Chronology therefore had to be a matter of intelligent conjecture.

This was a special moment in my life with Polish music.  There would be many others, including a second visit to Lutosławski’s house 21 years later, of which perhaps more at a future date.  But this moment, in those heady yet bleak days of autumn 1981, twenty years after the full premiere of Jeux vénitiens and thirty years ago from now, has remained the most memorable.

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