Woven Words

  1. I. M.M. c. 84
  2. II. Quieto, M.M. c. 120
  3. III. Allegro molto, M.M. c. 160
  4. IV. Quieto, M.M. c. 160
words: Jean-François Chabrun
orchestration: tenor and orchestra
  ten solo, batt, ar, pf, archi (10-0-3-3-1)
dedicated to: Peter Pears
year composed: 1965
about premiere
location: Aldeburgh
date: 20 VI 1965
orchestra: Philomusica of London
conductor: Witold Lutosławski
soloists: Peter Pears
edition: PWM, Chester Music

Witold Lutosławski found Jean-François Chabrun’s surrealist poem Quatre tapisseries pour la châtelaine de Vergi (Four Tapestries for the Châtelaine de Vergy) in the Poésie collection, which was published in Paris in 1947. The author suggested two shorter titles for the composition, and the composer chose Paroles tissées for his work. The piece is scored for tenor and string chamber orchestra with harp, piano and percussion. It was completed in 1965 and first performed on June 20th the same year by Peter Pears (to whom it is dedicated) and the Philomusica of London, conducted by the composer at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall during the Aldeburgh Festival.

The poem’s title alludes to a medieval French romance telling the tragic love story of the Châtelaine de Vergy and the Duke of Burgundy, which ends with the lovers’ death. However, apart from the title there are no further links between the content of the poem and the centuries-old romantic story. The title of the poem can be seen as a dedication to the Châtelaine, while the title chosen by Lutosławski for the composition refers rather to the formal structure of Chabrun’s work, where the same motifs reappear in the subsequent four parts, like interwoven threads. The title does not, however, reveal another quality of the poem, which was extensively used by the composer: it contains dream-like allusions to a wholly intangible, unrealistic storyline, which – apart from having purely lyrical aspects – brings a dramatic touch to Lutosławski’s work. Chabrun’s work is clearly one poem in four parts rather than a collection of four poems; similarly, Lutosławski’s composition is not a cycle of four songs, but a poetic piece in four parts, whereby purely musical means are used to tell an unrealistic story which the poet had alluded to but never mentioned explicitly. Lutosławski openly confessed that his take on the poem was “deceitful – I wrote music to a story which did not exist in Chabrun’s text”.

Lutosławski took the first section of the poem to be dispassionately informative in nature – the entire first part of his work consistently uses an aleatoric ad libitum technique. The second part in Lutosławski’s interpretation resembles a quietly murmured lullaby: the orchestra, in a collective ad libitum, accompanies the dialogue of the tenor and the harp, which hold the same, unwavering beat of semiquavers. For Lutosławski, the third part represented conflict and catastrophe, a passionate and dramatic cry. In this part it is the vocal that has aleatoric character, and where it dies out, the composer introduces conducted orchestral sections. A kind of dramatic climax to the whole work comes in a long, purely instrumental fragment and the tenor phrase mille coqs hurlent ma peine (a thousand cocks cry out my sorrow), with a long melisma on the word peine (sorrow). The fourth part brings peace to the conflict by means of a broad, lyrical cantilena, which is nocturnal in quality. Again, this is performed ad libitum, using the composer’s characteristic aleatoric counterpoint technique. The four parts which make up the piece are distinctly different in character, and the vocal part ranges from syllabic recitation on one note to melismatic cantilena. In response to the suggestion that his music probably goes far beyond the scope of Jean-François Chabrun’s “woven words”, Lutosławski quoted a famous remark by Debussy (after Paul Valéry) that “music begins where words end”, and expressed his strong belief that music has no ability to unequivocally convey any extra-musical content.

The subtle flavour of this impressionist-at-heart lyricism, the sophisticated and intricate instrumentation, the accent on the interval of a third in twelve-note harmony, the hazy dramatism of sound events which as a rule occurs outside the spotlight, and the dominant euphony of the tone – all of these aspects make Paroles tissées one of the most beautiful of Witold Lutoslawski’s works, charming without being devoid of strong expressive and dramatic elements.

ach / trans. aw