Venetian Games

  1. Ad libitum
  2. MM=150
  3. MM=60
  4. MM=60
orchestration: chamber orchestra
  2(1 picc)13 (1clb), 1110, timp, batt(4), ar, 2 pf, archi (4-0-3-3-2)
year composed: 1960-1961
awards: I Nagroda na Międzynarodowej Trybunie Kompozytorów UNESCO (1962)
about premiere
location: cz. 1, 2 i 4 Wenecja / całość, Warszawa
date: 24 IV 1961 / 16 IX 1961
orchestra: Orkiestra Filharmonii Krakowskiej / Orkiestra Filharmonii Narodowej
conductor: Andrzej Markowski / Witold Rowicki
edition: PWM, Moeck Verlag

The idea of using chance in his creative work occurred to Witold Lutosławski when he was listening to John Cage’s Piano Concerto from 1958 on the radio. He later sent John Cage the manuscript of Venetian Games to express his gratitude for the inspiration, even though it only concerned the idea, and not specific musical consequences of its use. Venetian Games mark the beginning of playing with aleatoricism in Lutosławski’s music. The score was written for wind instruments, a harp, a piano duet and twelve stringed instruments (their number is connected to the twelve-note harmony).

The composer repeatedly stressed the fact that the title (Venetian Games) refers solely to the place of the work’s first performance – at the Venice Biennale in 1961 (Lutosławski had never visited the city before). The title is therefore not supposed to serve as a guide to understanding the internal workings of the music, nor is it meant to point to non-musical sources of inspiration. The work was commissioned by Andrzej Markowski and the Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra for part of their concert at the Biennale, in Teatro La Fenice, on April 24th. The performance was an incomplete version of the piece, minus the third movement. The entire work was first performed at the Warsaw Autumn on September 16th the same year, by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Witold Rowicki. In 1962 the piece was awarded first place at the International Rostrum of Composers, which has been organised since 1954 by UNESCO’s International Music Council in Paris.

The first movement of the Games is made up of eight sections, written in frames marked with letters from A to H in the score. The form of this movement is a result of using refrains and episodes, where the refrains are played aleatorically ad libitum, while the episodes are traditionally conducted (a battuta). The second movement, a short scherzo, is in traditional triple metre. In the third movement, a twelve-note series built solely from intervals of a fourth and a fifth is introduced into the piano part thirteen times; it appears in its basic form eight times in the first section, and reappears in inverted form five times in the third section, while the middle section (expressively enigmatic and made up of fragmented motifs) is free from this dodecaphonic model. It is only in the fourth movement of the Games that the narrative pattern of the whole work becomes apparent, as it reveals the formal concept of the composition, which consists of the introductory, transitory, narrative and concluding stages.

Of all Lutosławski’s works, Venetian Games can easily be called the most avant-garde. It is also undoubtedly his most innovative score. Here Lutosławski introduces yet another element (after the twelve-note harmony) into his new musical poetics: aleatory counterpoint (also known as controlled aleatoricism). In this technique (which has nothing to do with improvisation), all the orchestra’s musicians play their parts solo, non-synchronically, resulting in a new quality in musical texture, which is entirely characteristic of Lutosławski’s scores. This creates a fabric of fine, ethereal strands of contrapuntal voices with an indefinable, yet rich, shimmering microrhythm. This interplay of accidentally entangled instrumental voices is the subject of the four-movement Venetian Games. The first movement (ad libitum; the other movements are only marked metronomically: Part 2 – MM=150, Part 3 – MM=60, Part 4 – MM=60) is the most experimental of Lutosławski’s scores. Its sections are placed in frames and the layers constituting the refrain are written separately, together with performance annotation.

Another signature feature of Lutosławski’s aesthetics, used consistently from the String Quartet, written in 1964, up to the 1980s, can already be seen in Venetian Games: it is the principle of two-part form as an overriding idea. The first three movements of the work can be treated as “introductory”, together constituting the first part of the piece, while the last, fourth movement functions as the main part. The phantasmagoric sound shapes which abandon the clearly defined motifs of the instrumental voices, the drifting rhythmic blatancy, the hazy illusory nature and fluid ambiguity of sound contours – these features make Venetian Games one of the most intriguing scores of new music, evoking beauty through the surprising strangeness of its elements. The aesthetic shape of the work caused a well-known German critic, Heinz-Klaus Metzger, to suggest that the pervading theme of the piece is a certain conceptual reflection of the mannerist style of architecture and the capricious spirit of Venice (although the composer refutes this interpretation).

ach / trans. mk