Three Poems of Henri Michaux

  1. Pensées
  2. Le grand combat
  3. Repos dans le malheur
words: Henri Michaux
orchestration: choir and orchestra
  coro misto, 3(2 picc)232,2220,timp, batt(4), cel, ar, 2pf
year composed: 1963
awards: I Nagroda na Międzynarodowej Trybunie Kompozytorów UNESCO (1964)
about premiere
location: Zagrzeb
date: 9 V 1963
orchestra: Orkiestra i Chór Radia w Zagrzebiu
conductor: Witold Lutosławski (chór: Slavko Zlatić)
edition: PWM, Chester Music

Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux were created in the years 1961-1963 on commission by the director of the Radio Zagreb Choir, Slavko Zlatić, and received its world premiere at the Music Biennale Zagreb on May 9, 1963. The radio orchestra of Zagreb was conducted by the composer, while the choir sang under Slavko Zlatić. On the occasion of this concert, Witold Lutosławski returned to conducting, which he had abandoned for many years. During the Polish premiere of the composition, at the Warsaw Autumn festival in September of the same year, the composer conducted the Choir of the Polish Radio in Cracow, while the Great Symphony Orchestra of the Polish Radio was directed by Jan Krenz.

The composition is scored for a 23-person orchestra without string instruments (although one could affirm that the part of two pianos is their equivalent) with an extended percussion section for four performers, as well as a 20-voice choir (five each in the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass section). According to a note in the score, the performing orchestral ensemble should be located at the left, and the choral ensemble at the right side of the stage, and that each should be lead by a separate conductor. In large concert halls the choir's voices can be doubled or tripled, but the object is not to have two or three voices perform one part unisono; the part should be sung asynchronously (with the use of aleatoricism). The score was published in two books, separately for the orchestral part with the abbreviated notation of elements from the part of the choir, and vice versa. In the work the composer used three relatively short poems by Henri Michaux (1899-1984): the collection Plume (Paris 1938) provided him with ‘Pensées' and ‘Repos dans malheur', while the collection Qui je fus (Paris 1928) supplied ‘Le grand combat', which he placed in the middle of the cycle. Lutosławski acquainted himself with the poems from the collection Plume in a Polish translation published in 1958 by the monthly Twórczość (Creative Works).

The Trois poèmes mark the beginning of Lutosławski's adventure with French surrealist poetry, the result of which, in addition to the discussed composition (the only work in which he called for a choir, excluding his functional music and the Lacrimosa of his student years, where the choir is optional), were three cycles of orchestral songs. He found in the verses of the Belgian-French poet certain values which not only fascinated him artistically speaking, but also greatly inspired him musically. These values concern the particular combination of verse and prose, the irregular form of the pieces, and the fact that their formal variegation creates a distance from the effect of poetic rhythm, which according to Lutosławski acts as a limitation to music. In one of his interviews he said: "For me, Michaux's poems are not circumscribed to a narrow, concrete meaning, so that they are not only a skeptical reflection on human thought (Pensées), a description of a two-person combat (Le grand combat), or an act of resignation (Repos dans le malheur). The foregoing are only an external physiognomy of such poems, one under which lies an entire richness of significations, imagination, thoughts, and emotions allowing for a subjective experience of the works and their subjective interpretation. In its specific polysemy certain types of poetry approach the nature of music itself, which is the most ambiguous of all the arts, or properly speaking an art that doesn't possess definite meanings, which is one and the same".

Expressionally speaking, the second movement is the cycle's chief section, where the choir takes on the personas of a group of people commenting and experiencing the conflict between two individuals, their struggle. Lutosławski employs the human voice in various ways that exclude singing, i.e. speech, whisper, shouting, and recitation, while furnishing the performers with an approximate register of the voice instead of defined pitch. It is particularly here that he uses words as material that not only transmits content, but also as timbre that evokes the emotional climate of the poetry. In this composition Lutosławski makes particularly wide use of his controlled aleatoricism, a technique for which he often sacrifices the comprehensibility of words lost in the chatter of 20 voices, but one that also allows him to show with special intimacy the emotional content of words that may even be incomprehensible.

All things considered, only this composition may be included within a list of styles with which the Polish music from the first half of the 1960s caught the world's attention. Although Lutosławski was always extraordinarily sensitive to musical colour and texture, this is the only work that can be considered to be sonoristic, and making a foreground expressive as well as formal quality out of colours and interchanging timbral textures that relegate melodic and harmonic qualities to the background. This approach was suggested by Michaux's poetry, full of striking metaphors, a lyricism that is more intellectual than emotional, casting forth ‘abbreviated' images that collide in paradoxical ways, suggestively helping complete the original, tri-partite conception of the composition as a succession of vocal-instrumental images, from the changeable and capricious textures of ‘thoughts' in the first link of the cycle, through the feverish unrest of dramatically perturbed shapes of the ‘great struggle' in the second link, to the contemplative, emotional quiet of the ‘rest in misfortune' in the final section.

ach / trans. mk