• WL100/36: Le songe de Desnos (1938)

When I was preparing for a talk on Lutosławski and French poetry for a Woven Words study day in March, I came across a recording of the voice of the surrealist poet, Robert Desnos (1900-45).  Lutosławski turned to Desnos’s poetry on two occasions: for Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) and for Les espaces du sommeil (1975) (see also WL100/32: Les espaces, **12 April 1978).  But I’d been unaware of Desnos’s passion for the medium of radio and for a series of programmes – La clef des songes (The Key of Dreams/The Dream Book) – in which he was closely involved in 1938-39.


Here’s a surviving excerpt from a radio programme of 1938 in which Desnos himself narrates a dream.  It seems uncannily prescient of tape experiments that would be carried out by French composers just ten years later.  The transcript is mine (I am very grateful to Michèle Laouenan for helping with the less audible fragments, although a few are still quite difficult to make out.  She also identified the opening song as Sur la route de Dijon.  Merci Michèle!).

[wind machine]
Desnos: “I find myself suddenly in a strange country where the wind is blowing violently. [music: ‘Sur la route de Dijon’*]  We were all in a group, walking and singing.  The others were walking very fast.  I couldn’t manage to keep up with them, despite my efforts.”
[another male voice] “Wait for me! Wait for me!”
Desnos: “Suddenly…” [animal roar, followed by music (unidentified)]  “In front of  us, there was…”
[two voices] “But what is that dirty beast [?], a hippopotamus?” “It’s a hippopotamus.  Gosh, that’s extraordinary.”
Desnos: “They begin to run away.  I couldn’t move my legs any more.”
[another voice] “And, all of a sudden…”  [human howling]
Desnos: “I was in the process of stepping on Max Rénier**, who was stretched out on the ground and who was thirty metres long and covered with spots like the body of a giraffe.”  [more roaring]  “The two hippopotamuses were rushing straight at us and, just as they were going to flatten us, …”.  [continued roaring]  “I saw from behind my tree a surprising parade. All the wild animals in the world, a real menagerie.”
[more roaring]
“But at that moment a gale blew up.  The wind, the rain, the storm, made the wild animals run away.”  [wind, followed by music: an excerpt from Wagner’s ‘Tannhäuser’ overture (Venusberg music)]  “But the gale had become a gale of music.  The forest had become a bathroom.”  [‘Tannhäuser’ continues, followed by applause]  “People were clapping and yet there was no-one in the room.  The applause became deafening.  It was like a fusillade.”
[female voice] “Help!  Help!”
[male voice] “Help!”
[second female voice]  “Come in here, you’re safe.  Come here.  But come in.
Desnos: “It was the usher at the concert hall, who shoved us into a padded loge.  The loge was a concrete shelter where all the spectators found themselves again, packed like sardines.  Above us, the concert hall was collapsing, the firing continued.”  [crowd noises]  “In the shelter, everyone was complaining that they were suffocating.”
[female and male voices] “Help!”  “Air!”  “To me!”  “Help!  Help!” [?]
Desnos: “I myself was about to suffocate, when I woke up gasping, my pillow over my head.”

Sur la route de Dijon is a soldier’s marching song dating perhaps as far back as the 18th century.  It became popular as a drinking song in late 19th-century France.  I discovered that this recording was made by a tenor called Stello, who sang at the famous Cabaret au lapin agile in Montmartre between the wars.  Desnos probably heard him there.  The full track is available on Spotify under the title Aux oiseaux.
** Max Rénier (b.1916): French journalist, deported to Auschwitz in 1944, along with Desnos.  Rénier survived, but Desnos died of typhus in Theresienstadt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. La poésie Surréaliste 146-7 Desnos

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


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


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

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