Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meeting Lutoslawski

The Phiharmonia Quartet Berlin will be performing familiar works by Mozart and Beethoven on tonight’s performance with Market Square Concerts opening program – 8pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church – and in between, a work probably most listeners in the audience will be unfamiliar with: the String Quartet by Lutoslawski.

Most of my pre-concert talk tonight – which begins at 7:15 – will deal with listening to unfamiliar music, regardless of the style.

Since many of my posts here are more “audience enrichment” posts – like those things you see on PBS that say “to learn more about [such-and-such], go to [website]…” Some of the background information on Mozart and Beethoven might help illuminate what you’ll hear, but you can certainly enjoy the performances without knowing any of it.

Lutoslawski - photo by Marek Suchecki, 1984
The Lutoslawski, because it’s “different” from the standard repertoire, may present a problem to first-time listeners not familiar with “other ways of organizing musical sounds.” In this sense, some biographical background may help, particularly after a performance, like reading a novel, then maybe reading something about the novel which helps elaborate something about the author’s style or theme or structural approach which makes you want to read it again, to see what more you can discover about it, how it might affect you differently.

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Witold Lutoslawski (or officially, in Polish, Lutosławski with the diacritical mark softening the L) may not be a household name in America – like many 20th Century composers – but he is one of the leading Polish composers of the last century and regarded as a major figure in contemporary music for several of his works. His most frequently performed orchestral work is probably the Concerto for Orchestra (the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina performed it a few seasons ago) – if nothing else, at least paired in recordings with Bartok’s concerto which inspired it. There’s also the brilliant set of Variations on a Theme of Paganini (yes, that theme of Paganini’s which also inspired Brahms and Rachmaninoff, among others) for two pianos. His “mature” works, those that reflect his most individual voice, may not have the following of these earlier pieces, but they contain an original voice that is easily identifiable.

The String Quartet was written when he was 51 but it is one of the earlier of these mature works. In it, he continues working out the different ideas that had occupied his creative thoughts from the previous decades.

Lutoslawski’s biography is very much involved with the history of his native Poland. When he was born in 1913 – next January will mark the centennial of his birth, by the way – Poland was part of the Russian Empire and his father, a member of the Polish landed aristocracy, was involved in an on-going, underground independence movement that, once Russia was at war with Germany during the 1st World War, tried to negotiate an independent Poland once the war concluded. Unfortunately, before that, the February Revolution forced the Tsar to abdicate and in November, the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the provisional government and sued for peace with Germany. Though an independent Poland did in fact materialize out of all this, Lutoslawski’s father, then in Moscow, had been imprisoned by the communist police and executed by firing squad a few days before his scheduled trial.

The family returned to Poland to find the estate in ruins after the war. It was at this time, Witold, the youngest of three sons, began taking piano lessons when he was 6. In 1926, he heard the 3rd Symphony of Karol Szymanowski, at the time Poland’s best-known composer, and he decided to take violin lessons as well, attending the Warsaw Conservatory where Szymanowski was a teacher and its director. He also began to compose, but couldn’t balance his regular schooling with all his music lessons, so he dropped out of the conservatory and concentrated on mathematics (at least more practical, in such difficult times). But later, after he entered Warsaw University to major in mathematics, he started taking music classes and was soon studying composition with a former student of Rimsky-Korsakoff, then eventually dropped mathematics. He graduated in 1936 with a diploma in piano performance (he performed Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto) and a year later, another one in composition.

His plans to travel to Paris to continue his studies was interrupted by World War II when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 from the west and the Soviet Union invaded from the east. Lutoslawski served in a radio division in Krakow but was captured by German soldiers. Being marched off to prison camp, he managed to escape and walked 250 miles to Warsaw. His brother had been captured by the Soviet army and later died in a prison camp in Siberia.

In Warsaw, he joined with fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik, also a pianist, and played music for two pianos in cabarets. Concerts were banned by the occupying Nazis – organized meetings, they were considered – so these cabaret programs were often the only way many Poles could hear live music – especially of Polish music which was also banned (especially Chopin)! Lutoslawski and Panufnik made their own arrangements of many pieces and even wrote some songs to the Resistance. One of the works he composed at this time was the set of variations on Paganini’s 24th Caprice.

But the situation was rapidly deteriorating. Lutoslawski and his mother left Warsaw only days before the Nazi crackdown of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, escaping with only a handful of his scores. Of the 200 pieces he and Panufnik composed during this time, the Paganini Variations was the sole survivor.

(If you want to find out more about this period in history, I recommend Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist”and a very personal account of life growing up in Poland during the 2nd World War and Communist Poland in Wilhelm Dichter’s autobiographical novel, “God’s Horse,” written by the father of a friend and former student of mine: you can read my review, here.)

Rebuilding Poland – not just Warsaw – after this destruction, both physically and culturally, was a continuous challenge. In addition to salvaging his 1st Symphony, begun in 1941, Lutoslawski wrote “functional” music like the “Warsaw Suite” to accompany a silent film about the rebuilding of the Polish capital. He had met Danuta Bogusławska at one of his war-time café concerts and they married in 1946. The year before, Lutoslawski was elected an officer of the newly formed Union of Polish Composers but soon the same political fallout we’re familiar with in Shostakovich’s life – especially the 1948 Zhdanov decree denouncing “formalism in music” – hit Poland as well. The Union of Polish Composers was taken over by Stalinist zealots and Lutoslawski resigned. His 1st Symphony had finally been premiered in 1948 just in time for the Stalinists to declare it “formalist” and Lutoslawski found him and his music shunned by the political forces now controlling Polish culture and politics.

In 1954, Panufnik defected to England but Lutoslawski remained behind, composing “practical” music that fit the Communist guidelines and was embarrassed to have won the Prime Minister’s Prize (the Polish equivalent of the Stalin Prize) for a set of children’s songs. To him, it was a way of making a living, but at the same time he was exploring “serious art music” which resulted in his first major success, the Concerto for Orchestra which earned him two state prizes the following year.

Gradually, after Stalin’s death in 1953, things began to thaw and Warsaw became home to an annual contemporary music festival known as “Warsaw Autumn.” In 1958, Lutoslawski’s “Funeral Music,” in honor of Bartók’s death in 1945, also won an international prize, through UNESCO. Like most post-war composers, he began intrigued by serialism, the system of writing with twelve notes originated by Arnold Schoenberg, in which the linear and harmonic aspects of the music are created out of “rows” of 12 pitches placed in a particular order and its various permutations.

For some, this became a very stringently controlled way of composing, a system that was, unfortunately, easily abused, though in reality it’s not very different from the “system” behind tonal music’s concepts of harmony and melody with its own rules and regulations which could also be abused by composers with little talent – the difference between, say, Mozart, and any one of thousands of otherwise forgotten composer-craftsmen from the end of the 18th Century.

Ironically, Lutoslawski became interested in a certain randomness in his musical voice – the exact opposite of such tightly structured language. This was primarily in ways of synchronizing the linear aspects – melody, accompaniment, counterpoint – without being rhythmically rigid.

His adoption of serial technique in the ‘50s led to a creative crisis – you can almost hear someone saying “the start of his Middle Period” – which was resolved by his hearing a radio broadcast of John Cage’s Piano Concerto. It wasn’t the sound of Cage’s music or its philosophy, but the intrigue created by this “indeterminacy” which Lutoslawski started to apply rhythmic freedoms to his harmonic language, especially in the independence of the linear aspects.

(While there are so many technical terms that can be thrown around that sound intentionally off-putting, sometimes the idea of “linear aspect” might be better than saying “melody” when the average listener will hear this and react, “you call that a melody?!” So a “harmonic structure” – or worse, aggregate – could be a chord but it doesn’t work the same way a chord does in Beethoven or Wagner.)

Another term often applied in situations like this is “aleatory” or “chance,” especially as we think of John Cage’s musical aesthetic. But that can also be a world of wide-ranging possibilities: “improvisation,” the art of making it up on the spot, can be misunderstood. Yes, jazz musicians improvise and frequently make everything up on the spot, but pianists in Mozart’s day “improvised” their cadenzas and Bach or Beethoven had been famous for their ability to improvise variations or fantasies on given themes. But keyboard players in the Baroque era also filled in the harmony (the “inner voices” of a musical texture) according to the guidelines the composer supplied: they might be very specific about the exact chords that were to be used, writing out the all-important bass line underneath the equally-important melody, but these inner parts, not so much.

While improvised, it was a “controlled” improvisation of a harmonic nature to fit within the rhythmic and structural context supplied by the composer’s abbreviations, those little numbers underneath the bass line which any keyboard player worth his salt knew how to translate into exact pitches.

How and where those pitches were “realized” was less important, but there was no room for the keyboard player’s own creative flights-of-fancy. What we call “figured bass” is merely a kind of notational short-hand, like a master artist leaving the work-a-day realization of minor details in the background up to an assistant or apprentice.

There were many works in the 1960s and ‘70s where conductors were more like semaphore operators, signaling when an improvisatory section might begin and, perhaps, the musicians were left on their own. I remember one critic, listening to such a free-for-all composition, wishing the entire orchestra would’ve been spontaneously inspired to play Beethoven’s Fifth…

There is, in that sense – as well as in John Cage’s, considering his (in)famous 4’33” – a fine line between “art created by the artist” and “noise.” The problem for Lutoslawski and many other composers was how to maintain the artistic integrity of a composition while giving the performer an amount of independence. It was, above all, about the sound of the texture: how to get something that sounded random to not be random – or at least, too random.

In one sense, this led composers to notate rhythms so specifically and calculate tempos so intricately, you end of with an ultra-complex-looking score where you have 7 dotted 16th notes to be played against 5 eighth notes in a tempo with a metronome marking of something like ¼ note = 127.25 (it would be in relationship to a previous tempo which, is correctly established, should lead you to this tempo automatically, making it look much more complicated than it really is). The assumption is performers cannot function without a metronome and listeners cannot appreciate it without a “slide rule” (given this was big in the ‘60s and ‘70s before hand-calculators killed off that antique that was the bane of most math students everywhere).

In another sense, composers like Lutoslawski might be “vague” enough to allow certain aspects of it to be determined by the individual musicians in how they choose their own rhythms or tempos within the given context.

The first solution would always sound the same, very precise and intricate (“can you play 7 against 13?”) where the second is more fluid and will never sound the same but will never be so different it couldn’t be recognized as an interpretation of what the composer wrote.

It’s interesting that Lutoslawski’s wife was originally a draftsman: in addition to becoming his copyist, writing out the final scores for publication or the individual parts for performance (a drudgery to any composer), she also helped him with some of these notational challenges. Together, they worked out a system of musical notation that is instantly recognizable.

She placed a given “cell” of notes in a box – the composer called these “mobiles” – which would then be played as long as the “wiggly line” (not an official technical term) went, creating a physical and spatial sense of time, compared to other events in other “mobiles,” sometimes determined by duration – “c.2 seconds” – or by conductor’s cue or, in chamber music, musicians’ nods.

from Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 2
In this page from his 2nd Symphony, written in 1967, Lutoslawski has the conductor cue the flutes, celeste and a percussionist at “No. 7” where they play their passage without attempting to synchronize with the other musicians. After the conductor feels they’ve concluded this passage, he cues “No. 8” with an indication of the tempo for two oboes and English horn, again playing their parts without synchronizing them, repeating them at will. When the conductor cues “No. 9,” the musicians continue playing till they reach the repeat sign and then stop. It’s unlikely they would all end at the same time. In this way, the composer controls the pitches and the registers plus the dynamics of what the musicians play, but not the rhythm, the meter (in some cases) or the specific tempo. He can control the specific instrumental colors (the sound of flutes, celeste and percussion followed by the sound of oboes and English horn), he can control the “harmony” created by their specific pitches, but the texture they create rhythmically is “indeterminate.”

In 1961, Lutoslawski composed his “Venetian Games” which explored this technique within the scope of a full orchestra, and again, in 1963, he wrote a work for chorus and orchestra, the “Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux.”

That’s fine when you have a conductor cuing members of the orchestra or a choir, but how would it work in a smaller context – in chamber music?

In 1964, he composed his String Quartet, a work in two movements which he described as an “introductory” movement followed by a longer “main” movement. Initially, there was no score – only the individual parts, as if the composer didn’t want the musicians to see what the others were playing and try to make them line up the way they would normally play Beethoven or Schoenberg.

The textures vary from segment to segment – and there are passages of striking octaves that must be perfectly synchronized (which makes them all the more striking) which becomes a kind of refrain, a recognizable sign-post for the listener. In and out of these, Lutoslawski builds structural tension and variety of his “color palette” with this sense of “controlled improvisation” but integrated traditionally notated and performed music with elements of “chance.”

Here is a performance by the New Budapest Quartet playing Witold Lutoslawski’s 1964 “String Quartet” (which was premiered in 1965). (I’m not sure what the graphic of a foggy cemetery has to do with it, but it’s difficult to find any good performance on YouTube much less one with a decent video of a performance.)

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The work starts off with a violin playing wisps of linear ideas (motives, fragments of melody). At 1:28, the other instruments enter with similar fragments, but imitative of each other though not played together. This stops at 2:04 when (I’m assuming) the other violin enters with a contrasting, more dramatic fragment. Again, the others return, building up an imitative texture, when at 2:50 two instruments start playing a more sustained line underneath the others’ more jagged fragments.

A new sound is heard: a dramatic octave at 3:11 setting off a skitterish response, but the repeated octaves travel through different registers of different instruments. This sets off another “new sonority,” the pizzicato (plucked) passage at 3:26 until the octaves return at 3:54, setting off yet another response, with long sustained chords superimposed over the occasional skittering fragment.

And so on.

He prepares you, in this introductory movement, with a new way of approaching his language, before setting you lose in the “main” movement: by then, you will have figured out that things, here, may be different from what you’re used to, but he gives you some pointers to be able to appreciate it better.

In this way, Lutoslawski sets up all the standard aspects of “traditional” classical music – giving us linear ideas (melodies or melodic fragments, shapes or gestures if not actually “tunes” as we know them), harmonic ideas with a sense of unity through re-occurrence, of contrast and variety, as well as structural unity: he creates tension by their juxtapositions and resolutions (harmonic, textural or otherwise) in the ways they lead from one to another, or, in some cases, alternate between “limited improvisation” and traditionally composed synchronized textures.

These resolutions may not be as dramatic as Beethoven or as satisfying as reaching a tonic chord at the end of the development section of a 19th Century symphony’s 1st Movement, but they create tension within the music’s own contexts.

Which is really what every composer does, regardless of what era he (or she) lived in or what musical language he (or she) used. You could approach Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Wagner or Schoenberg or Xenakis the same way.

It’s just another way of getting there.

Dick Strawser

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