Preludes and Fugue

orchestration: string orchestra
  archi (7-0-3-2-1)
dedicated to: Mario di Bonaventura
year composed: 1970-1972
awards: Nagroda Państwowa I Stopnia (1972)
about premiere
location: Graz
date: 12 X 1972
orchestra: Orkiestra Kameralna Radia i TV w Zagrzebiu
conductor: Mario di Bonaventura
edition: PWM, Chester Music

In 1972 Witold Lutosławski completed the Preludes and a Fugue, which was commissioned by Mario di Bonaventura. Their world premiere was given in the same year by the chamber orchestra of the Zagreb Radio-Television Chamber Orchestra, directed by Mario di Bonaventura himself, while the Polish premiere was given a year later at Warsaw Autumn by the Chamber Ensemble of the National Philharmonic, conducted by the composer.

The title suggests a reference to traditional Baroque form, but in reality it is deceptive (confirming the suspicion, due to the plural number of preludes, that it will not be the form expected by the listener),. In its first version the composition was to be called x+1 (to underline its polyversional form), or possibly Thirteen (to signify the number of string instruments in the score), titles which would indeed have come closer to the work's main idea. This is because while significant justification can be made for calling the seven introductory sections ‘preludes', the term ‘fugue' as used in regard to the second section is purely symbolic. Lutosławski wrote that "[...] [it] is certainly more of an allusion to the Baroque fugue, than a fugue in the strict meaning of the term. Nonetheless, there exist obvious analogies [between the two]. For example, the division into aleatoric sections, performed ad libitum, i.e. ones that present a rather static type of music, and sections that are strictly defined in time and performed a battuta, thus more active harmonically speaking, corresponds to the classic organization of sections maintained in one key and sections that are modulatory. The first of these constitute the exposition of subjects, while the second serve as passages between expositions".

Thirty-five minutes in length (when played in its entirety, which is only one of the possible presentations), the piece is composed of seven dovetailing preludes followed by an elaborate ‘fugue'. The work's novelty lies in the mentioned polyversional aspect, in this case referring to the possibility of performing it either in whole (with preludes played according to their order in the score), or in various abbreviated configurations (with free choice in the selection and order of the preludes, and even the possibility of a shortened version of the ‘fugue', which can be completely done away with). When asked whether this makes the composition realize a type of open form, in which chance (here, the conductor's decision) is allowed not only into the aleatoric performance of the musicians, but also to the formal shape of the piece, he did not abhor such a perception of the problem; thus strategies such as that of Kazimierz Serocki, applied by the latter in his orchestral piece titled Ad libitum (admittedly composed somewhat later than the Preludes and a Fugue), but also in A piacere, were alien to him. His view was that the freedom conferred upon the conductor stems from purely practical reasons, since having it take up the entire half of the concert could be inconvenient for the organization of a program consisting of a greater number of pieces. Moreover - to retain the example of to Kazimierz Serocki's Ad libitum - in contrast to the latter, Lutosławski did not require the performance of many versions of the work in one concert, and did not even mention such a possibility. However, no matter whether the variable form arose from purely practical reasons or constituted an idea of greater significance, this is the only composition by Lutosławski which on the formal plane can be treated as an open work. Another consideration is that in Lutosławski's music this strategy appeared only once and in none of his comments did he think of it as significant.

In an obvious manner the succession of pieces in Preludes and a Fugue is the next (and not last) realization of bi-partite form, which - starting with the String Quartet and the Symphony no. 2 -occupies an especially important place in the music of Lutosławski, and can also be noticed in earlier works, but without such an idea-based accentuation.

If we were to speak here of ‘preludes', then surely not those from the lines of Liszt, doubtfully those of Bach, but Debussy and Chopin - ‘yes'. And here, ‘yes' as a point of reference. Chopin placed his Preludes in a desired order while constructing his programs, and it is only the twentieth century that introduced the custom of ‘integral' performances of full compositional cycles. If we were to talk about the ‘fugue', then surely not that of Bach and not even the much admired late Beethoven.

Where one prelude ends, another begins; thus, a clear germ of the chain form particular to the 80s is to be discerned. Each of the preludes has a different ‘physiognomy': the first is a fanfare-like opening of the cycle, in the second one the pizzicato brings to mind the character of a scherzo, the third leads to associations with songfulness on account of its melody being played molto cantabile e espressivo, and a still further one exhibits a rather regular rhythm connected with a chorale-like expression, while the penultimate two seem like solo cadences of the contrabass and duet of cellos with the background of other instruments. The final prelude is a presto - furioso. It is also the longest, and one that opens directly into the fugue. If the idea of a classic fugue presupposes the existence of subjects and counterpoints, then what constitutes the subjects in this piece? Not the melodic lines, but bundles of individualized sonic ideas layered in heterophonic fashion. The subjects are connected with a certain kind of links or episodes, and the climax of the whole is created by all thirteen musicians playing ad libitum.

ach / trans. mk