• WL100/30: Notebook, 7 April 1960

Lutosławski on Cage

The bottom of this pot, from which we all draw, is already visible.  The zealous ones (Cage) have already scraped it.  As for me – I’m not particularly hurrying towards that moment, to which our history of music is unavoidably heading, i.e. the absence of all music.

W tym garnku, z którego wszyscy czerpiemy, już widać dno.  Co gorliwsi (Cage) już się do niego doskrobali. Co do mnie – nie śpieszę się tak do tej chwili, do której zmierza nieuchronnie nasza historia muzyki, tj. do braku wszelkiej muzyki.

Witold Lutosławski, 7 April 1960 [my translation]

This reaction to Cage, and what he stood for, was indicative of Lutosławski’s essentially traditional frame of mind, even when he was trying to break free of the past in early 1960.  What is strange about this comment is that only three weeks earlier Cage had had a liberating effect on Lutosławski’s music.  It has been known for a long time that Lutosławski heard a performance of Cage’s Piano Concert (1958) on the radio in 1960.  This chance hearing was a bolt from the blue for Lutosławski’s subsequent development, but commentators have never pinpointed the date.

The broadcast details are contained in Danuta Gwizdalanka’s commentary on the Lutosławski Guide to Warsaw app (Routes>Warsovian>Saskia [sic] Kępa, Zwycięzców 39>’From (controlled) accident to accident’):

This event took place on 16 March 1960 at 10.10 p.m., when Polish Radio 3 broadcast a programme featuring the music of John Cage as part of the series Music Horizons.

Here is but one of a number of Lutosławski’s more positive public responses to Cage’s liberating significance:

[…] I heard on the radio a short fragment of John Cage’s second Piano Concerto [i.e., Concert for Piano and Orchestra].  The use of the element of chance opened for me a way to use a lot of musical ideas, that were kept ‘in stock’ in my imagination without any way to use them.  It was not a direct influence of Cage’s music, but the impulse, which enabled me to use my own possibilities.  So I wrote to him that he was a spark thrown on a barrel of gunpowder inside me. 

(‘Sound Language’, unpublished and undated typescript in English, included in
Zbigniew Skowron, Lutosławski on Music, Lanham MD, 2007, p.99)






• 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?

• 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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