• Iwaszkiewicz on Górecki

The recently published third and final volume of diaries by the Polish poet, playwright and novelist Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 2011) has brought to light some interesting comments on music.  Despite showing intense bitterness and self-absorption on political matters (he had, to say the least, a controversial history of working with the communist establishment since 1945), Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980) had some keen insights on cultural matters.  His background in music went back to his early years when, as Szymanowski’s younger cousin, he not only suggested the idea for and wrote the libretto of King Roger (1918-24) but also provided Szymanowski with translations of Rabindranath Tagore for the Four Songs and his own poems for Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin, both written in 1918.  He also provided the verse for Szymanowski’s Three Lullabies (1922).

Here are three diary entries which have been drawn to my attention by a friend in Warsaw, who also kindly provided the translations.  The first, from 1966, is a tart nostalgia for the musical past.  The second (1969) and third (1977) entries contain somewhat surprising observations on two pieces by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, who was the only Polish composer to whom Iwaszkiewicz paid any detailed attention in these diaries.  I’ve added some contextual information to two of the three entries.

8 August 1966

W radio ostatni obraz Harnasi  i Infantka Ravela.  Wierzyć się nie chce, że oni byli, żywi, prawdziwi, dotykalni.  Karol!  Ravel!  Co za postaci półpowieściowe, nieuchwytne, niewyobrażalne.  Czy rzeczywiście nie ma już takich ludzi?  Czy tylko mi się wydaje, bo jestem stary i zmęczony, i nie widzę, co mam pod bokiem.  Lutosławski?  Penderecki?  Mój Boże, chyba tego nie można porównać.  Może  w ogóle teraz nie ma artystów.  Może tamci jako ‘artyści’ naprawdę należeli do XIX wieku?  Jak Chopin, jak Liszt?

On the radio, the last scene of Harnasie and Ravel’s Infante.  I do not want to believe that they were here, living, real, tangible.  Karol!  Ravel!  What characters, half taken from a novel, elusive, unimaginable.  Are there really no such people any more?  Or is it only my impression, because I am old and tired and do not see what I have close at hand.  Lutosławski?  Penderecki?  My God, surely one cannot make any comparison.  Perhaps there are no artists at all now.  Perhaps those men, as ‘artists’, truly belonged to the 19th century?  Like Chopin, like Liszt?

24 September 1969

Taka cudowna noc dzisiaj księżycowa.  I pomyśleć, nie mam nikogo, z kim bym mógł wyjść na spacer po ogrodzie.  Hania° nie wychodzi nigdy do ogrodu, zwłaszcza po zachodzie słońca.  Wysłuchałem tylko co Muzyki staropolskiej Góreckiego.*  Monotonne to, ale bardzo ‘wielkie’.  O szerokim  oddechu, prymitywne, z puszczą, z wiatrem, z mordem.  Nic z lukrowanego obrazka a la Wołodyjowski.†  Chyba taka Polska jest prawdziwa.

Such a wonderful moonlit night tonight.  And to think that I have no one with whom I could go for a walk in the garden.  Hania° never goes out into the garden, especially after sunset.  I have just listened to Gorecki’s Old Polish Music.*  Monotonous this, but very ‘great’.  Broadly breathed, primitive, with a primeval forest, with wind, with murder.  Nothing like the sentimental picture-book that is Wołodyjowski.†  Such is perhaps the true Poland.

° Iwaszkiewicz’s wife, Anna
* This must have been the live broadcast on Polish Radio of the world premiere, given by the National Philharmonic SO, conducted by Andrzej Markowski, as part of the 12th ‘Warsaw Autumn’ International Festival of Contemporary Music.
† Wołodyjowski: a reference to a recent feature film Pan Wołodyjowski (Jerzy Hoffman, 1969) which was based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel of the same name (1888).

8 September 1977

Iwazkiewicz at Baranów, 1977

Iwaszkiewicz gave the opening paper at a conference of musicologists and musicians at Baranów, 4-12 September 1977.  He made this diary entry after the delegates had listened on 7 September to a recording of Górecki’s Third Symphony ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).  This must have been a tape of the world premiere given in Royan five months earlier as the piece had not yet been performed in Poland (it was given its Polish premiere at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ on 25 September 1977).

[…] tak od czasu do czasu wpisywać jakieś laments daje fałszywe wyobrażenie o całym continuum wewnętrznym, które wcale nie składa się wyłącznie z lamentów.  Nie jest też tym continuum przerażającym, jakie wczoraj zaprezentował Górecki w swojej III Symfonii.  Beznadziejny powrót tego samego akordu w pierwszej części symfonii sprawia wrażenie psychopatyczne, maniakalne, a jednak wstrząsające – właśnie jako continuum wewnętrznego, czegoś bardzo głębokiego i tragicznego jakby w założeniu, bez dramatycznych zawołań, bez żadnego ‘teatru dla siebie’.  To bardzo dziwny i niepokojący utwór.

[…] writing down from time to time laments of some kind gives a false impression of the whole internal continuum, which does not at all consist solely of laments.  Nor is it a terrifying continuum, of the kind presented yesterday by Gorecki in his Third Symphony.  The hopeless return of the same chord in the first movement of the symphony makes a psychopathic, maniacal, and yet shocking impression – exactly like an inner continuum, something very deep and almost tragic in its assumption, without dramatic calls, without any ‘theatre for theatre’s sake’.  A very strange and unsettling piece.

• Lutosławski and Birdsong

I was intrigued to discover last week that Witold Lutosławski (right) had identified two passages in his music where he was willing to acknowledge the influence of birdsong.  The source was Bálint András Varga’s new book of interviews, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011).  Hungarian readers have had access to most of these interviews, plus a good few more that are not in the English edition, since its original publication 25 years ago as 3 Kérdés, 82 Zeneszerző (Budapest: Editio Musica Budapest (Zeneműkiadó Vállalat), 1986).  But for English-language readers this is our first opportunity to study the responses of a wide range of composers to three identical questions (with follow-ups) that were posed to them by Varga.

His three questions were:

1.  Have you had an experience similar to Witold Lutosławski’s?  He heard John Cage’s Second Piano Concerto [sic: Varga refers to the Piano Concert (not Concerto)] on the radio – an encounter which changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period, the first result of which was his Jeux vénitiens (1960-61).
2.  A composer is surrounded by sounds.  Do they influence you and are they in any way of significance for your compositional work?
3.  How far can one speak of a personal style and where does self-repetition begin?

Lutosławski’s response to 1. was already contained in Varga’s valuable interview with him that he conducted in Warsaw in 1973 – Lutosławski Profile (London: Chester Music, 1976), the first extended dialogue with Lutosławski published in English.  Lutosławski’s reaction to 3. came in written form and is too guarded to be revelatory, except for his acknowledgment that Varga was right to spot a motivic connection [a fairly minor one, in truth] between the central section of ‘Capriccio notturno e Arioso’ in the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) and the opening and closing bars of Novelette (1978-79).

Lutosławski was the most reticent of composers when it came to acknowledging extramusical connections in his pieces, but in answer to question 2. he cites the blackbird, again in Novelette.  He says that “in the fourth movement [‘Third Event’], I have recognized the blackbird in the rhythm of the main subject as played by the violin[s] [fig.26]”.  Varga includes a reproduction of the theme (p.163), which Lutosławski wrote out for him on his Budapest hotel’s headed notepaper.  It was apparently a Norwegian blackbird!

An even more tantalising prospect is raised by Lutosławski’s second example, the opening solo flute phrases of the third movement of Jeux vénitiens (1960-61): “They do not recall the song of any particular species, yet they do make the impression of birdsong”.  The flute solo dominates this movement (written solely for the revised, Warsaw version of  Jeux vénitiens) and plays variants of nine different motifs – could its entire cantilena have some coincidental link with birdsong?  Or was a greater part or all of it an unrevealed inspiration for the composer?

This is a fascinating proposal, because all of these nine motifs also appear – again in variation, but this time superimposed – in the seven-voice woodwind texture in section A of the first movement.  Could this texture be a bird chorus?  It is surely no accident that the motif which Lutosławski picks out is the sole survivor (it’s the opening motif of the first flute part in this Warsaw version) from the discarded Venice version of section A, where it appears as the third motif in the second flute.

Bird chorus?  I am surely not the only listener to have heard echoes of Ravel’s ‘Dawn Chorus’ from Daphnis et Chloé – and even perhaps of the fantastical sylvan opening of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto (1916) – in the opening of Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto (1988).

This woodwind texture is also presaged in the first movement of his Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1961-63) at Figs 85-89.  Listen elsewhere in this movement, to the elusive woodwind texture (again!) between Figs 35-84, and the aural equivalent of starlings flocking at dusk springs to mind.  During this section, the chorus sings of ‘Ombres de mondes infimes, ombres d’ombres, cendres d’ailes‘ (‘Shadows of infinitesimal worlds, shadows of shadows, ashes of wings’).

Such avian speculations are not as idle or as inappropriate as they might seem.  Lutosławski’s first observation in 2. is: “I do not use the sounds of nature consciously in my musical work but they must exert a subconscious influence because, when looking through the finished score, I have in the past come upon traces of them in the themes of some of my pieces”.

Which pieces might these be?  Mi-parti (1976)? Would we be looking exclusively for woodwind textures?  Not if Lutosławski’s observation about Novelette is taken into account.  So how about the String Quartet (1964)?  Or Paroles tissées (1965)?   And what of Partita (1984), Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1989-90), both composed after Lutosławski’s responses to Varga’s questions?

”Birds are sometimes genuine artists commanding respect.  Near Warsaw, around three o’clock one summer night, I heard one which possessed a breathtaking facility of variation.”

Was this Lutosławski’s epiphanic moment, akin to Szymanowski’s evocation of ‘a nightingale singing spontaneously in the fragrant May nights’?

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