• 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(‘Sound Language’, unpublished and undated typescript in English, included in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?

• WL100/27: 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”).

WL JV:II bb.64-72

WL JV:II bb.73-81

• WL100/26: Notebook, 13 March 1961 (2)

Lutosławski on Electronic Music

It might be said that, in the works which I am now writing, the influences of electronic music are evident. Maybe.  One thing is clear to me, that electr. and concr. music realises, to a certain degree, timbral and rhythmic elements which from early on have imposed themselves on my imagination.

Mozna by mówić, że w utworach, które teraz piszę, widać wpływy muzyki elektronowej.  Być może.  Jedno jest dla mnie pewne, że muzyka elektr. i konkr. realizuje w pewnym stopniu elementy dźwiękowe i rytmiczne, które od dawna narzucają się mej wyobraźni.

Witold Lutosławski, 13 March 1961  [my translation]

Lutosławski, who was in the middle of composing Jeux vénitiens at the time, was not alone among his generation in the early 1960s in sensing parallels between his music and the new sound-worlds of electronic music and music concrète.  In 1960, the year of her Sixth String Quartet and a year before the orchestral Pensieri notturni, Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) made a similar observation: “I am struck by electronic music: it invents new sound colours and new rhythms”.

• WL100/25: Notebook, 13 March 1961 (1)

Lutosławski on Feeling in Music

For the thousandth time: music does not express any specific feelings, it only constitutes the formal framework into which, during its performance, each person pours their own emotions, whatever they are. Hence a v. simple explanation for the tears of the Gestapo listening to Mozart.

Po raz tysiączny: muzyka nie wyraża żadnych określonych uczuć, stanowi tylko ramy formalne, w które przy jej odtwarzaniu każdy wlewa swoje własne emocje, takie, na jakie go stać.  Stąd b. proste wytłumaczenie łez gestapowców słuchających Mozarta.

Witold Lutosławski, 13 March 1961  [my translation]

• 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.

%d bloggers like this: