Paroles Tiseés [Woven Words] (1965)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Chopin died in 1849. For more than one hundred years after that, despite a glorious creative tradition going back to the polyphonic masters of the sixteenth century, composition in Poland was something of a backwater. There were figures of middling rank, like Moniuszko, Wieniawski, and Paderewski, and then Szymanowski, born in 1882, won something like a worldwide reputation. But it was with the birth of Witold Lutoslawski in 1913, and of Andrzej Panufnik one year and Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Górecki twenty years later, that the picture changed radically. Along with many compatriots of lesser but still substantial success, these four men–Panufnik in self-imposed exile and the other three surviving at home through first Nazi and then Communist dictatorships–made Polish music again what it had not been since Chopin’s day: an art from which the composers of the wider world take as much in example and inspiration as they contribute to it.

If a “Polish School” with a widely diffused international influence really exists, we need nevertheless to remember that its representatives, though they sometimes use techniques with a recognizable family likeness, differ crucially in aesthetic. One aspect of the difference lies in the variety of foreign influences to which they in their turn have responded. Górecki has stayed the closest to home both biographically and in the spirit of his music. Panufnik found in himself a deep affinity for the music and, even more, for the poetry of his adopted country, England. Penderecki’s choice of subjects and the elemental darkness and brooding psychological intensity with which he renders them speak of an unmistakably Austro-Germanic expressionist taste.

In sharp contrast, Lutoslawski sounds in his fine artistic bones more French than anything else. There are, to be sure, other strands in the fabric of his style. These include occasional twelve-tone serial elements, akin to those developed by Schoenberg, but used, Lutoslawski remarked, “for quite different purposes.” He was influenced, like all his Polish colleagues, by Iannis Xenakis’s exploitation of glissando, “clouds” of sonority, and multiple subdivision of orchestral texture. And an encounter in 1961 with the music of John Cage, Lutoslawski acknowledged, “ignited a powder keg in me. In fifteen minutes, I had an insight into new possibilities open to me by incorporating into my music Cage’s ideas.” Most of the works he wrote between then and his death in 1994 incorporated what are known as “aleatoric” techniques–the term alludes to the throw of dice, and denotes chance elements in music; again, however, Cage’s essentially mystical and non-Western aim of eliminating the composer’s personality as a factor in shaping the listener’s experience differs fundamentally from Lutoslawski’s belief in a “clear delineation of duties between composers and performers”:

“I write out everything very precisely, even in the so-called aleatoric sections. The only difference is that the players are not supposed to coordinate their parts with each other and in these sections there is no common division of time.”

But alongside all of these varied stylistic sources, a more profound sense of artistic community associates Lutoslawski with older composers who either were French or were more French than German in their musical sympathies. “Everything I write,” he observed, “lacks any connection with the Viennese tradition (Schoenberg, Webern). I feel much more linked with the line Debussy–Stravinsky–Bartók–Varèse.” And if this is true of his musical preferences in general, it is still more strikingly true of the taste evinced by his choice of texts for vocal music. Of his five most important works for voice or voices and orchestra, four–the exception being the Five Songs to texts by Kazimiera Ilakowicz–are settings of twentieth-century French poets: Henri Michaux in the choral-orchestral Trois Poèmes, Jean-François Chabrun in Paroles tissées, and Robert Desnos in Les Espaces du sommeil and Chantefleurs et Chantefables.

In part this predilection is simply linguistic:

“I like particularly French sung, above all because of its nasal sounds that give pleasure to my ear, a pleasure that is purely in sound. It is because of these that French songs sound different from poems sung in any other language, because of the large number of vowels, but above all nasal vowels. Similarly the tonic accent on the last syllable determines a certain way of rhythmic writing.”

Beyond such considerations of sonority and technique, the fact that the three French poets Lutoslawski chose for setting were all surrealists is not coincidental. It harmonizes rather with his most passionately held views about the nature of musical communication. If we agree, he said,

“that music can signify anything extramusical, we should also recognize that we must consider music to be an art of many values. Man has, nevertheless, one single soul and events lived through must have some influence on him. If many has a psyche, then the world of sounds, while keeping its autonomy, is a function of this psyche.”

The psyche, as its -ology has taught us, operates with particular freedom and fertility in dreams. And artistically speaking the world of dreams is the world of surrealism.

It is the combination of apparently hard-edged words with the infinite suggestive power of dream logic that is particularly germane to Paroles tissées (Woven Words). In 1965, seeking a subject for a work commissioned by the English tenor Peter Pears, Lutos awski found what he wanted in Chabrun’s Quatre tapisseries pour la châtelaine de Vergy, “four tapestries” that memorialize the doomed guilty love of the medieval Lady of Vergy and the Duke of Burgundy. Each of the “tapestries” that constitute the poem has its own individual expressive tone, but a set of basic words and phrases is obsessively repeated and reordered: “shadow,” “wonders,” “a cat lost in wonder,” “the cry of the juggler and of the quail/of the partridge of the chimney-sweep/of the dead tree of the captured beasts.” In the end, the poet tells us, all these redoubled cries “will never put to sleep this song of pain/that others have repeated others will repeat it.” And the tale is marvelously enriched by Lutoslawski’s hypersensitive vocal line, supported by an orchestra of percussion, harp, piano, and 13 strings, its texture alternating moments of strict notation with stretches of an aleatoric flexibility that itself mirrors the elusive evanescence of dreams. His setting, the composer admitted, was “false, since I wrote music for a story that does not exist in Chabrun’s text”; but he found his justification in Debussy’s observation that “music begins where the words end.” As in poetry itself, so in music, imaginative suggestion is a far more potent means than bald statement toward achieving Lutoslawski’s purpose:

“I would like to find people who in the depths of their souls feel the same way as I do… They are the people who are closest to me, even if I do not know them personally. I regard creative activity as a kind of soul-fishing, and the ‘catch’ is the best medicine for loneliness, that most human of sufferings.”