String Quartet

  1. Introductory Movement
  2. Main Movement
orchestration: string quartet
  vno I vno II vla vc
year composed: 1964
about premiere
location: Sztokholm
date: 12 III 1965
zespół: LaSalle Quartet
edition: PWM, Chester Music

The String Quartet was commissioned by Swedish Radio for the tenth anniversary of its series of concerts entitled “Nutida Musik” (co-organised by a radio periodical bearing the same name). It was first performed in Stockholm on March 12, 1965, by the famous American LaSalle ensemble.

In a letter (printed in the score) to Walter Levin (the ensemble’s first violinist) Lutosławski wrote: “The work consists of a sequence of mobiles, which are to be performed one after another and – if there are no other directions – without any pauses. Within certain sections of time, particular performers play their parts completely independently from others. They must individually decide on the length of pauses and the way of introducing agogic changes. However, similar material in different parts should be treated in a similar way. (…) All the musicians should play as if they did not know what the others are playing, or at least as if they did not hear anything apart from their own performance. They must not worry that they are slower or faster than the others. This problem simply does not occur, as there are means at work that prevent any unwanted consequences of such freedom. If all the performers strictly adhere to the instructions included in their written parts, there cannot appear anything that the composer had not foreseen. A possible shortening or lengthening of the duration of any particular section of any instrument’s part cannot change the end result in any significant way.”

The composer sent the ensemble a notebook of separate instrumental parts. When asked by Levin to send a full score, Lutosławski replied: “if I wrote a standard score, mechanically transferring all the individual parts into it, I would be misleading you, offering a false image of my composition – it would simply be a score for a different work. For example, it would suggest that the notes appearing vertically in the same position should be played simultaneously, which contradicts my intentions. It would deprive the work of its ‘mobile’ character, which is one of its most important traits.” The problem was finally solved by the composer’s wife Danuta, who was in charge of preparing the scores of individual instruments in Lutosławski’s ensemble works. She stuck the mobiles onto paper in approximate order and separated them by frames, thus eliminating the problem of synchronisation of different instrumental parts. Still, the case of the intended lack of score shows the significance of the problem – not only in its technical aspects, but also aesthetically. For a long time the composer had considered the written score a necessary although unwanted compromise between his ideas and the practical requirements of the performers, who in their individual written parts were given instructions on how to communicate, moving from one section to another within the work.

The problem concerns the composition technique used by Lutosławski for the first time in 1961 in Venetian Games, which were spurred by John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, accidentally heard by Lutosławski in a radio programme. The aleatoricism used by Cage aroused the composer’s great interest – not because of the introduction of chance procedures or because of the use of chance in the composing process, but because of its results for the timbre or – to be more exact – for the texture that these procedures enabled or even conditioned. In this way Lutosławski’s composition technique acquired one of its most important traits: controlled aleatoricism, also known as aleatory counterpoint. Its practical functionality was described in the above letter to the violinist of the LaSalle quartet, but it does not explain the aim of this procedure, which was completely different from that of Cage. Lutosławski’s goal was not to make music less subjective, but rather more subjective. To be precise, the aim was to achieve original and recognisable texture of the composer’s orchestral works, especially in their rhythmical aspects: the sounds of melodic phrases performed by the musicians follow one another in sequences that are not exactly unpredictable, but rather impossible to transcribe in the traditional way. What makes it impossible is their non-metric character, which results in textures that are fragile, capricious, loosely scattered and forming groups in time. It is a substance of ethereal beams of counterpointing instrumental parts with an indeterminate, but rich and shimmering microrhythm. This is what the texture of the Quartet is all about.

It might seem that this technique has little to do with harmonic language, as it should also then be governed by chance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mobiles entrusted to four musicians use only such classes of intervals that could never result in an undesired effect (such as a major triad or a sequence of parallel fifths), even in a most unfavourable clash. In the sphere of harmonic language, Lutosławski’s Quartet follows the same path that was introduced in Funeral Music, a composition which had nothing to do with the working of chance. The harmonic plane of using chord aggregates that Lutosławski introduced in Funeral Music, was then upset by the composer in Venetian Games and in the Quartet (to mention his most outstanding achievements of the early 1960s), by introducing a harmonics that works not only “vertically”, but also “diagonally”, yet without really disturbing the overall plane.

Thus, in terms of texture, the Quartet is a continuation of Venetian Games, while in terms of harmony, it is heir to Funeral Music. There is, however, another element here, in which the work is pioneering – it is the concept of a two-movement form. The composition consists of two movements, marked simply as “Introductory movement” and “Main movement”. The concept of the two-movement form was most clearly expressed by the composer in his Symphony No. 2, whose two parts were marked Hésitant–Direct. Taking into account the listeners’ perceptive ability and looking critically at the romantic symphony, Lutosławski decided that the most convenient formal situation of a musical work is a sequence of the preparatory phase (impressionistic, encouraging, engaging, to a large extent trivial, realized through a series of episodes that are not connected by a principle of necessity and do not result from one another) and the main phase (decisive, holding attention, leading to the climax, conceived as a kind of a narrative continuum, realising the main expressive premises of the work and providing the fulfilment of the aesthetic expectations).

When constructing the form of the Quartet, Lutosławski was inspired by Alexander Calder’s principle of mobile sculptures, and started using the same term (“mobiles”) for visually marking his own sound objects, mobile not only in their internal sound, but also in the sense that in any given performance they may last for longer or shorter periods of time, may be played faster or more slowly – as if suspended in space of time and on the pages of the (nonexistent) score. For Lutosławski, the association with Calder’s mobiles also concerned the effect of texture – “flowing”, like a shimmering piece of constantly moving fabric. The first movement of the Quartet consists of thirteen such mobiles – individualised and strongly contrasted episodes, starting from the first one, where the first violin delivers its quite indifferent soliloquy “in an aside”, through pointillistically pulverized material, and static, rustling or flickering objects. The role of the refrain, a recurring motto, chorus or a regular interlude (which is a kind of trick played by Lutosławski when he wants to attract or bring back the listener’s attention by using an element as if from a different stylistics) is given to a motif of an energetic sequence of octaves realised by a harmonious succession of the quartet’s instruments.

While the form of the introductory movement has a mosaic character, the second movement develops much more fluidly towards specific goals. There is no single goal, as this movement itself can be divided into three formal sections: a furioso played pizzicato, an appassionato leading to the climax, and a funebre, played glissando and freezing in long rhythmical values. This final part may be seen as a commentary on the whole work – it is a glow of sounds played in high register.

Witold Lutosławski wrote only one String Quartet, but the number of ideas contained therein could constitute a whole collection. For this reason, it is one of the most important quartets of the twentieth century.

ach / trans. mk