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Witold Lutosławski: Three Poems by Henri Michaux

Witold Lutoslawski
“I chose these three poems after I had already made a general outline of the entire work. The texts of the chosen poems then influenced the detailed development of the musical form. The verse, its sense and construction, and even particular words had to exert an influence on the music of my composition. This was, moreover, as I had intended. If I had proceeded otherwise, if the words of the text were to be merely one more sound-elemerit of the music, this would be a misuse of the poetry and artistically false, and at any rate it would be a wrong approach. As I have said, I had already made a general outline of my work when I chose the texts. On what did this choice depend, and what influenced me in choosing these texts? In order to find an answer to this question more easily let us examine the actual texts of Michaux’s Poems.
The first – “Pensées” briefly considers the theme of human thought. It is dominated by a sceptical tone from the first line “Penser, vivre, mer peu distincte” – “To think, to live, an indiscernible sea”, to the last, in which thoughts are compared to “dust” which only exists “to distract us and to seatter our life” – “Poussieres pour nous distraire et nous éparpiller la vie“. Only during a short passage in the middle verse are we momentarily animated by a vision of “thoughts of marvellous swimming which slides in us, between us, far from us”. – “Pensées a la nage merveilleuse qui glissez en nous, entre nous, loin de nous“. The second movement of my work is in sharp contrast to this introductory and reflective part. This part, because of its violent character and fast development lead ing to adramatic climax, fulfils a role within the entire composition which is similar to that played by the development of conflict and the catastrophe in classical tragedy. Michaux’s grotesque and macabre poem “Le grand combat” – “The great fight” provides the text for this movement. Certain words in this poem have been invented by the poet. These innovations are, however, entirely comprehensible, as they are placed among ordinary words. And the quality of their sounds suggests their meaning: “Il l’emparouille et l’endosque contre terre“. The fight ends in bloodshed. The words “Fouille, dans la marmite de son ventre est un grand secret” – “Excavate his belly, it holds a great secret” conjure up an image of the shouts of an enraged crowd which ruthlessly follows the course of “the great fight.” The third movement provides a complete relaxation of the tension. Here the text is provided by a poem of resignation and a seeming acceptance of human fate “Repos dans le malheur” – “Rest in sorrow”. “Dans ta lumiere, dans ton ampleur, dans ton horreur, je m’abandonne” – “In your light, in your fullness, in your dread, I abandon myself” – these are the words with which the poet ends his ambiguous apostrophe to sorrow.”) He makes a pact with it and dedicates his entire self to pay the price involved. Here I will not enter into an analysis of the music of my composition.
Like every composer I hope that the music will explain itself. I merely wish to draw attention to three points: firstIy, the vocal part includes other uses of the human voice apart from singing such as shrieks, speech and whispering. Here the interpretation of each vocal part has been clearly foreseen and notated. Secondly, I would like to draw attention to the freedom with which the timeconnections between sounds have been treated and which often appear transformed into “aleatory technique”. This means that in many places the performers can treat their parts with considerable freedom, as regards rhythmical values. This is to enable a very complicated rhythmical texture to be sometimes achieved while involving the minimum technical difficulties for the singers and musicians. The individual psychology of each perforrner is here, therefore, a factor which I have tried to incorporate into the means which the composer has at his disposal. This approach is contrary to a mechanical and abstract treatment of sound, and is aimed at reestablishing the pleasure which a perforrner experiences in interpreting a musical work. I have therefore tried to bring the individual capabilities and the particular talent of each performer into play, and have often demanded that they play or sing in a large ensemble with the same ease as when singing or playing themselves. The third and last point to which I would like to draw attention is the use of two conductors in my work. This was necessary in those places in which various types of rhythms and even in which absolutely different principles of time-organisation, appear simultaneously.” Witold Lutosławski

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