TROIS POÈMES D’HENRI MICHAUX
Lutoslawski’s compositional life from the age of 26 to 43 was blighted by first Nazi, then Communist tyranny. But during the lean years he somehow managed to keep alive an artistic ideal which was natural to him, based on the traditional Franco-Polish polarity: a particular sort of elegance, a certain attitude to sonority, a distancing from Central Europe – a sort of Boulanger-like aesthetic. So when The Thaw came in 1956, whatever the shameless opportunism released by it in others, for Lutoslawski it meant that he could now advance more quickly along a line that he had already chosen for himself: he has named his masters – Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók and Varèse.
The Funeral Music of 1958 and the Three Postludes (1958-63) were avatars of his new style: Jeux vénitiens (1961), the String Quartet (1964) and this piece among its first fruits. Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux was written for the Zagreb Biennale and first performed there by the orchestra and choir of Radio Zagreb, conducted by the composer and Slavko Zlatic on 9 May 1963. It is composed for 20-part choir and an orchestra similar to that of the Symphony of Psalms, though without the lower strings of the latter: 3 flutes and clarinets, 2 oboes and bassoons; 2 each of trumpets, horns, trombones and pianofortes; a harp and a large percussion section including bells, vibraphone, xylophone and céleste.
The composer has said that the general outline of the work came to him first, and only then did he choose the three poems. These reflect his Francophile taste: Henri Michaux was born in Belgium in 1899 and later became a painter: the trenchant Le Grand Combat, with its onomatopoeic invented words, dates form the 1920s; the other two texts, which are more philosophic than pictorial, form the 1930s. Choir and orchestra need separate conductors even though throughout they alternate more often than they combine.
A description of the course of the music itself will be more useful than any discussion of its technical processes or of its notation. A quiet section of orchestral polyphony, which brass sforzandi punctuate with increasing frequency, frames the beginning and end of Pensées. After the choir’s first unaccompanied passage, the woodwind have a staccato section over which the female voices, singing downward glissandi, are superimposed (‘Ombre de mondes infimes…’). Then the woodwind and both pianos join in a lapping ostinato which illustrates the text of the next forte choir entry ‘Pensées à la nage merveilleuse…’ The climax of the movement comes as these characteristic woodwind figures alternate with the tintinnabulation of a gamelan-like ensemble of vibraphone, céleste, harp and pianos.
© Hugh Wood
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