• WL100/79: Jeux vénitiens conducting score

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the pitch designs for Jeux vénitiens (1960-61), here is Lutosławski’s complete conducting score.  It is a bit tattered, especially the back pages.  There was no indication of how long he had been using it, but it is quite possible that he marked it up for the first time that he conducted Jeux vénitiens, in Basle on 14 May 1968.  Lutosławski has tidily marked it up with conducting cues etc., some harmonic reminders in the first movement, rhythmic reductions in the second, timings and upbeats in the third, and sfpp sequences in the finale, and various other indications.

Jeux vénitiens was co-published by PWM in Poland and Moeck in (West) Germany.  Lutosławski’s score was the Moeck imprint (large format, 40cm tall), published in 1962.  I don’t remember how many of his other conducting scores were still there in his study in September 2002.  One that I did photograph, and to which I will return in due course, was of the Cello Concerto.

Meantime, here is the complete score of Jeux vénitiens, rather variably photographed (some are in black and white, although most show his blue-pencil markings), but I hope its 45 pages will be of some interest.

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• WL100/78: Jeux vénitiens pitch designs

Among loose manuscript paper in Lutosawski’s study in September 2002 were three rather special sheets relating to Jeux vénitiens (1960-61).  They are not preparatory material but rather a post-compositional aide-mémoire.  And the fact that they are written on English and not Polish manuscript paper confirms this.  Perhaps they were drawn out as preparation for a lecture to composition students.

On these three sheets Lutosławski has outlined the harmonic trajectory of the four movements of Jeux vénitiens. You will hardly find a more succinct summary of his pitch designs for this key work.

Sheet 1

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This contains material for the first and second movements.  The harmonic framework of the first movement is well-known.  He gives here the pitch structures for the components that are introduced successively in sections A, E and G; there is nothing for C as that is for (unpitched) timpani.  He then gives the harmonic progressions underlying sections B D F and H.

The second movement is less straightforward.  First, Lutosławski ignores the opening 29 bars, starting his notation at the moment when the strings stop playing and pursuing it to the end of b.36, just before the strings re-enter.  Secondly, he jumps to the next non-string section, bb.55-68.  What is especially revealing here is that the changing chords are not fully represented in the score.  Instead, they serve as wells from which Lutosławski draws his droplets of sound in woodwind, brass, xylophone, vibraphone and harp.  Although this movement is often regarded as the most conventional of the four, this was a technique that he used on many occasions as it maintained the notion of twelve-note harmony while giving the texture air and a sense of intangibility.  The rest of the movement is absent from this summary.

Under six of the chords between b.59 and b.67 are some capital letters.  These were Lutosławski’s private code.  He thought of certain types of chord, with characteristic intervallic constructions, as reminding him of some of his favourite twentieth-century composers.  Elsewhere, for example, ‘P’ refers to Panufnik and ‘Ro’ to Roussel.  Here there are D, R and S.  I leave you to divine which composers are represented by these initials.

Sheet 2

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Sheet 2 is devoted entirely to the third movement of Jeux vénitiens.  This was composed after the premiere of the other three movements in Venice (24 April 1961); the revised work was premiered in Warsaw later that year (16 September).  The concept of this new movement is to take the motivic cells from the woodwind in component A of the first movement, where they are treated harmonically, and unravel them gradually as a melodic line for solo flute. This line is absent from Sheet 2.

Instead, Lutosławski follows the two interlocking orchestral strands: (i) the developing continuum in  woodwind, harp and piano (A to W) and (ii), where ‘strings’ is written above the third system, the string chords that punctuate the sustained texture between letters D and W.  As can be seen in each of these strands, Lutosławski contracts and expands them, using the changing vertical space as an integral expressive device.  The string chords, for example, unfold outwards from the dense twelve-note clusters of L-P, but they reach their fully opened position not at the end of the movement but as the first chord of the fourth movement, as indicated here.

Sheet 3

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As with the material given for the second movement, this third sheet is also selective in what it contains from the fourth movement.  The top line (bb.6-14) intriguingly gives a linear presentation of what in the score seems to be more of a shifting harmonic sequence in the wind.  Pitch-rotational techniques seem to be in operation.  There is no reference to the sfpp accent that first appears in b.10.  The second system does something similar for the string passage that begins in b.38 and goes as far as the introduction of the first objet sonore (‘a’) of the nine that will lead cumulatively to the movement’s climax.  For some reason Lutosławski has not included the pitch material for the piano for ‘e’.

He then jumps to the climactic chord at letter G, followed by the contracting harmonic span (celesta, harp and piano) that leads to letter J at the end of b.145.  The unlabelled, four-stave chord that concludes this sheet refers to the passages leading to and away from letter M.  Reading up from the bottom: cellos and basses, vibraphone and brass, celesta and piano, and violin and viola harmonics.  The harp cluster and dying embers of the flutes are not included.

There are several other posts on this site concerning Jeux vénitiens.  To find them, simply type ‘Jeux’ or ‘Jeux vénitiens’ into the blank (search) box in the header on the top right of any page and press ‘GO’.

• WL100/62: Notebook, 19 October 1960

Lutosławski on objet sonore

Lutosławski’s affinity with French music and literature is well-known.  But the connection with the pioneer of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, has largely slipped by unnoticed.  In truth, it is not Schaeffer’s tape music as such that caught Lutosławski’s attention but his discourse on the objet sonore.  Lutosławski referenced Schaeffer’s term in talks that he prepared for the Zagreb Biennale (1961) and the Tanglewood Summer School (1962), but his musing on the implications of objet sonore began earlier, in 1960, in his Notebook of Ideas (Zapiski).

There is no evidence that Lutosławski had read Schaeffer’s book À la recherche d’une musique concrète (1952). Almost certainly, he came across the term objet sonore from both fellow Polish composers and Schaeffer himself. Schaeffer came to the third ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival to introduce a programme of musique concrète (17 September 1959) that included a number of pieces, including his own Étude aux objets (1959).  It is more than likely that Lutosławski attended this concert (ground-breaking in the Polish context) and met Schaeffer during his visit.

Pierre Schaeffer

Just over a year later, on 21 September 1960, the fourth ‘Warsaw Autumn’ presented a lecture by Józef Patkowski, the head of the Experimental Studio at Polish Radio.  During his talk, Patkowski referred to Schaeffer and played Étude aux objets again.  Was it pure coincidence that just two days later Lutosławski made the first of two entries in his Notebook that elaborated on the idea of the objet sonore as it related to his own thinking?  Four weeks later, on 19 October, he returned to this theme.

Although Lutosławski subsequently stressed the prominence of chance procedures in his musical development in the early 1960s, he did not make any entries in his Notebook on alea and aleatorism for another year (the first appears on 20 December 1961).  In other words, it was Schaeffer’s visit in 1959 and the idea of the objet sonore that first drew his attention.  It was six months later that Lutosławski heard Patkowski introduce a recording of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra in his ‘Musical Horizons’ programme on Polish Radio (16 March 1960) – the event which Lutosławski subsequently credited as being the critical juncture in his compositional thinking.  Yet we must no overlook Schaeffer in these developments.  In combination, both Schaeffer and Cage gave Lutosławski conceptual support just at the moment when Jeux vénitiens (1960-61) was being conceived.

It seems that rhythm (in the broadest sense, as a division of time in which the action of a musical work takes place) is the hardest element of musical material to destroy.  The idea of the ‘eternity’ of this element is tempting.  Instead of ‘melody, ‘harmony’, there appears a new element (perhaps not entirely new in its essence, but new in application) – objet sonore – the sound object.

Wydaje się, że rytmika (w najszerszym pojęciu – jako podział czasu, w którym rozgrywa się akcja utworu muzycznego) jest najtrudniejszym do zniszczenia elementem tworzywa muzycznego.  Kusi myśl o “wieczności” tego elementu.  Na miejsce “melodyki”, “harmoniki”, zjawia się nowy element (być może niezupełnie nowy w swej istocie, ale nowe w zastosowaniu) – objet sonore – przedmiot dźwiękowy.

Witold Lutosławski, 23 September 1960 [my translation]

In connection with technique based on ‘objects’:
Object = a collection of sounds, between which there is a closer connection than between each of these s[ou]nds and sounds belonging to another object.  This closer connection ensures, above all, connectivity in time.  But it can also be similarity of timbre, rhythm, attack, harm[onic] profile, choice of intervals etc..
Hence 2 rhythmic currents in a piece:
1) local rhythm, ‘small’ – interior of an object
2) general rhythm, ‘large’ – i.e., the rhythm of a sequence of objects.

W związku z techniką opartą na “przedmiotach”:
Przedmiot = zbior dźwięków, między którymi istnieje ściślejszy związek niż między każdym z tych dźw., a dźwiękami należącymi do innego przedmiotu.  Ten ściślejszy związek zapewnia przede wszystkim łączność w czasie.  Ale również może to być podobieństwo barwy, rytmiki, ataku, profilu harm., doboru interwali itd.
Stąd 2 nurty rytmiczne w utworze:
1) rytm lokalny, “mały” – wewnątrz przedmiotu
2) rytm ogólny, “duży” – czyli rytm następstwa przedmiotów.

Witold Lutosławski, 19 October 1960 [my translation]

• WL100/34: Jeux vénitiens, **24 April 1961

Today is the 52nd anniversary of the premiere of the first version of Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens (1960-61).  It was performed at the Venice Biennale on 24 April 1961 in the Teatro Fenice, Venice, by the Kraków Philharmonic CO, conducted by Andrzej Markowski.  Jeux vénitiens was a crucial turning point in Lutosławski’s music, notably for his first use of aleatory counterpoint.  This feature became one of the main characteristics of his music on which he and commentators placed considerable emphasis.  What is less explored is the range of ways in which Lutosławski realised this feature by melodic-rhythmic means.  He refined this aspect in subsequent works (Trois poèmes, String Quartet, Paroles tissées, etc.), but his first attempts were unsatisfactory insofar as he subsequently revised key passages in the outer movements of Jeux vénitiens.

I have written about these changes and the whole gestation of Jeux vénitiens elsewhere.*  But to mark this anniversary, I’m posting below – for the first time in public – the complete woodwind texture that occurs at the start of the piece (the lower image runs on from the first).  There are other aspects of this autograph manuscript that Lutosławski would change after Venice – here he simply crosses out the passage with a wavy line – and I will return to them in the future.  But anyone interested in comparing the motivic content in these two images with the woodwind parts in the printed score of the revised version will find much on which to ponder.

The somewhat enigmatic comment at the top of the first image reads: ‘ew. rozbicie na składowe różnej budowy’ – ‘poss. to be split into components of different construction’.

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WL JV:I 1st vers ww 2:2* ‘Jeux vénitiens: Working Methods at the Start of Lutosławski’s Mature Period’, Lutosławski Studies, ed. Zbigniew Skowron (Oxford: OUP, 2001), pp.211-43.

• 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.

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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?

• WL100/27: Notebook, 19 March 1961

Lutosławski and Rain

In order to justify classical rhythmic formulae, the argument has been used that this rhythm (i.e. ‘harmonic’, based on pulse) comes from nature: walking, the heartbeat.  Well, it is not correct to say that other rhythms have no counterpart in nature.  In fact, natural phenomena proceed for the most part in an irregular rhythm.  Example: the rhythm of the drops as rain begins to fall (pizz., in b.67 presto (II) from Jeux v.).

Dla uzasadnienia klasycznych formuł rytmicznych posługiwano się argumentem, że rytm ten (tzn. ‘harmoniczny’, oparty na pulsacji) pochodzi z natury: chodzenie, bicie serca.  Otóż nie jest słuszne twierdzenie, że inne rytmy nie mają odpowiedników w naturze.  Na pewno zjawiska natury przebiegają w swej większości w rytmie niepulsacyjnym.  Przykład: rytm kropel, gdy deszcz zaczyna padać (pizz., w t. 67 presto (II) z Jeux v.).

Witold Lutosławski, 19 March 1961  [my translation]

This is a rare example of Lutosławski linking extramusical observations to his music, aside from his several references to the theatre.  The passage in question (in the second movement of Jeux vénitiens, which he was writing at this very time and would complete nine days later) is interesting from a number of points of view.

For one thing, the string pizzicati are almost completely covered by a denser, more active texture in the woodwind, brass, pitched percussion and harp, so hardly of foreground interest.  For another, this is not the first but the third such passage in the movement: the first is led off by the bassoon at b.9 and the second (more briefly) by vibraphone at b.46, both against a background of scurrying muted strings played arco.  In each of these first two cases, the ‘irregular’ rhythms lead to fuller textures in the wind and pitched percussion, and it is the second of these that eventually runs in parallel with the string pizzicati cited by Lutosławski above.

This third and most developed passage extends from b.67 to b.82 and is given to the strings for the first time and marked pizzicato to make the point (the orchestration of these three sections is a good example of how Lutosławski thought of his music’s instrumentation in structural terms).  Bars 67-82 take the form of an increasingly dense rhythmic texture that is interrupted by the playing of cardboard tubes on the strings of the piano at b.83 (see WL100/24: Notebook, 11 March 1961 for details of this passage).  Given the dating of both this diary entry and of his work on the second movement, it looks highly possible that Lutosławski did have the irregular rhythm of a natural phenomenon like raindrops in mind when he composed not only bb.67-82 but also the two earlier passages to which this pizzicato section is the successor.  Incidentally, the movement is not headed Presto in the published score – it simply has the tempo indication of crotchet/quarter-note = 150.

Here’s a recording of the (unrevised) second movement from the premiere of the otherwise revised and completed version of Jeux vénitiens, given at the Warsaw Autumn on 16 September 1961, with the National Philharmonic conducted by Witold Rowicki.  The bassoon entry at b.9 is at 0’05”, while the vibraphone at b.46 is inaudible, as too is most of the string pizzicato starting at b.67 (0’46”).

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• WL100/24: Notebook, 11 March 1961

Lutosławski on New Instruments

New instruments, or the direction in which they should be investigated:
1) Piano enriched with different sounds (those that to date have been obtained by ‘preparation’ and others), achieved by means of mechanically moved nakładka on the strings, etc.. as well as percussive elements;
2) instruments which will fuse traditional instr. with electronic ones, e.g. double-bass, electr. guitar, etc.

Nowe instrumenty lub kierunek, w którym należałoby ich poszukiwać
1)  Fortepian wzbogacony o różne brzmienia (te, które uzyskuje się dotychczas przez “preparowanie” i inne) uzyskiwane za pomocą mechanicznie poruszanych nakładek na struny, etc. oraz elementów perkusyjnych;
2)  instrumenty będące połączeniem instr. tradycyjnych z elektronicznymi, jak np. kontrabas, gitara elektr. etc.

Witold Lutosławski, 11 March 1961  [my translation]

In mid-March 1961, Lutosławski was trying to complete Jeux vénitiens for its premiere in Venice on 24 April 1961. He had finished the final (fourth) movement just four days before he wrote this diary entry on 11 March, and he would complete the second movement two and a half weeks later (28 March).  At this pivotal point in his career, when he was not completely certain of how to develop his musical language ( although he had already started making use of aleatory procedures in the finale), he was evidently looking at a number of possibilities.

2)  instruments which will fuse traditional instr. with electronic ones, e.g. double-bass, electr. guitar, etc.

The idea for new instrumental construction never had any traction in Lutosławski’s further thinking.  He did, however, utilise extended oboe techniques in the Double Concerto (1980), written for Heinz Holliger and his wife Ursula.  But to my ears at least, this rare departure from his normal practice is not an entirely happy foray into untraditional sound sources.

1)  Piano enriched with different sounds (those that to date have been obtained by ‘preparation’ and others), achieved by means of mechanically moved nakładka on the strings, etc.. as well as percussive elements;

This observation is more interesting.  It implies that Lutosławski was aware of John Cage’s music for prepared piano. More intriguing is his use of the phrase ‘mechanically moved nakładka on the strings’.  Skowron (Lutosławski on Music, 2007, p.299) translates this as ‘mechanically moved objects placed on the strings’.  The first question is raised by ‘mechanically moved’.  What did Lutosławski have in mind – what type of mechanism?  Had he come across it in an existing piece by another composer or was it a flight of fancy on his part?  The second question – which I hope Polish readers may solve – is the meaning of nakładka.  It seems variously to mean flat metal or wooden objects (like fish-plates joining two stretches of railway rail, or the overlapping of planks on a clinker-built ship), or sheaths or covers to protect sharp objects.  I cannot work out quite how this transfers to piano preparation. Any ideas?

There is one unconventional technique that Lutosławski does employ.  It’s in Jeux vénitiens.  He does so in the two movements whose composition chronologically flanks this diary entry of 11 March 1961.  In the otherwise stylistically conservative second movement, which was not changed between the Venice premiere and the revised version that we know today, he uses ‘cylinders of stiff cardboard’ in bb.83-103.  The device also reappears in the finale, at letter H and from letter M to the end (although, as I have not seen the first version of this movement, I cannot say if the cylinders were used here originally).

In the second movement of Jeux vénitiens, six different lengths of cardboard tube are required for the two pianists (on one piano).  At b.83 (marked p), Player I depresses the white keys between specified pitches with a 60cm tube, the black keys with one that is 59.5cm long.  A moment later, Player II uses a 54.5cm tube for the white keys, 52.5cm for the black.  At b.87, Player I starts a series of p clusters at varying pitches using shorter tubes, 14.4cm for the white keys, 15.6cm for the black.

WL JV:II b.83

At letter H in the finale (part of the movement’s climax), the two players are instructed to use the (longest) tubes ff.

WL JV:IV letter H

Lutosławski’s technique at letter M in the finale is different.  Just one player is implied – the score does not indicate that a second player is required, although it might make it easier if two were involved.  Three and a half octaves are to be suppressed silently by the tubes (no length given): ‘hold them down with the elbow and left hand until the end’. On top of this, the right hand plays a little five-note riff.

WL JV:IV letter M

It seems to me that these three passages in Jeux vénitiens link in directly with Lutosławski’s first musing on 11 March 1961, even if he took his observations no further in subsequent pieces (not even in the central, percussive movement of his next work, Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux).

• 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.

• Jeux vénitiens: R3’s 50th Modern Classic

I’ve just caught a fine performance of Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens (1960-61) on BBC iPlayer (Radio).  It was from last Saturday’s Hear and Now on Radio 3, so it’ll be available for another 96 hours.  For the past year, Hear and Now has been using part of its precious hour and a half each Saturday night to highlight a composer and a work which has brought something new to music in the second half of the 20th-century.  It has been an absorbing series, with many well-known names and pieces passed over in favour of something more radical, curious or forgotten.  You can download the spoken introductions to all 50 ‘modern classics’ here.

At one stage, the producers were thinking of including Górecki’s Symphony no.3 in the roster, but in the end the only Polish piece to make it onto the list was Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens.  No, there wasn’t even a space for Penderecki’s Threnody, one of the iconic works from the 1960s.  Ah well.  But Jeux vénitiens is a good example of Polish experimentalism at its height (it’s contemporaneous with the Penderecki).

On the podcast, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Paul Griffiths give succinct comments, mainly on the (then new) aleatory component in his musical language, though its twelve-note harmonic aspect is not neglected.  Curiously, the words ‘aleatory’ and ‘ad libitum’ are mentioned by neither Salonen nor Griffiths (maybe ‘random’ and ‘uncoordinated’ have displaced terms which now may be thought as too unfamiliar).  Equally, ‘twelve-note’ (harmony) is notable by its absence.  It’s a pity, perhaps, that other aspects specific to the piece are given short shrift, or not mentioned at all. There is no reference to how the music develops in any of the movements (brutal intercutting in the first, accelerated superimposition in the fourth), no mention of thematic connections between the first and third movements, no notice given to the way that Lutosławski links the third and fourth movements harmonically.

It is very nice to hear Lutosławski himself talking (he, however, does mention ‘ad libitum’ and ‘aleatoric’), from an interview made with an unheard Thea Musgrave in 1973.  By that time, he had already adopted his defensive posture against being associated closely with Cage (and other ‘more radical’ composers).  He makes his point with some force in this interview, which suggests that he was already somewhat impatient with such links being made on a routine basis by commentators.  His closing comments about the future direction of avant-garde music also make for interesting listening.

The timing of this broadcast is opportune.  Not only does Jeux vénitiens complete the ’50 Modern Classics’ series, but its position looks ahead to 2013 and the centenary of Lutosławski’s birth on 25 January.  I hope he’ll receive a good hearing on Radio 3 next year, as long as Britten, Verdi and Wagner don’t hog the limelight.

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