Les espaces du sommeil

words: Robert Desnos
orchestration: baritone and orchestra
  bar solo, 3(2pic)33(1clb)3, 4331, timp, batt, cel, ar, pf, archi
dedicated to: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
year composed: 1975
about premiere
location: Berlin
date: 12 IV 1978
orchestra: Orkiestra Filharmonii Berlińskiej
conductor: Witold Lutosławski
soloists: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
edition: PWM, Chester Music
transcription by: Edward Sielicki
orchestration: baritone and piano
year composed: 2009

In Paroles tissées (based on a poem by Jean-François Chabrun) and Les espaces du sommeil (based on a poem by Robert Desnos) it is worth noting how Witold Lutosławski’s music reacts to poetic descriptions of sounds. In the first section of Chabrun’s work, there is le cri du bateleurr et elui de la caille celui de la perdrix celui du ramoneur celui de l’arbre mort celui de bêtes prises (“the cry of a juggler and a quail, a pheasant and a chimney sweep, a dead tree and captured animals”). The text is accompanied by twelve-note chords played pianissimo. When analyzing Desnos’s work, Lutosławski asked himself the following question: what is a composer to do with expressions such as “a song”, “a little piano aria”, “the sound of the voice”, “the slam of a door”, “a clock”? The simplest approach, that of illustration, leads to the abyss of banality. This text is sung, or rather recited on a single short note, and particular sentences are separated by fermatas. The soloist is accompanied by a sustained chord, which forms a kind of uneventful musical background. We alternately hear the recited text and silence. The interpretation is as follows: the performer tells the audience his dream. The recited text is therefore an account, an expression of what is going on in the performer’s mind, whereas the fermata, the silence, is the moment when he listens to sounds which are inaudible to others. However, in reality neither he nor the audience can hear anything – it is, after all, just a dream – so the sustained chord becomes a symbol of “the inaudible”.

Witold Lutosławski composed Les espaces du sommeil for baritone and symphony orchestra in 1975, ten years after Paroles tissées. It was written to the words of a poem by Robert Desnos (bearing the same title), first published in 1926 in a collection of surrealist poetry entitled A la mysterieuse, and then in Corps et Biens (Paris, 1930). The poem comes from a time when Desnos – who was close to such figures as André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard – took part in hypnosis sessions which aimed to reveal the subconscious in sleep. During the Second World War, Desnos – a member of the French Resistance movement – was arrested by the Gestapo and died of typhus in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) concentration camp shortly after its liberation. Lutosławski’s work was first performed on 12th April 1978 in Berlin, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (to whom it was dedicated) and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer.

Unlike Paroles tissées, Les espaces du sommeil is in one movement, but its inner structure reveals a three-part scheme, though without clearly marked caesuras. Like Chabrun’s “woven words”, Denos’s dream-like images contain recurring key expressions, which impose a refrain order upon the dream visions, surreal images and subconscious afterimages: dans la nuit (in the night) and il y a toi (there is you). The composer was attracted by the poetry of feelings, images and impressions, as opposed to the poetry of ideas; he was also attracted by the rhythmic freedom of the verse, in which he saw a place for his music – rather than metric rigidity which left no room for anything else. He explained that Les espaces is neither a song nor a set of songs, but a symphonic poem with a baritone solo.

The first part of the composition is the introduction and four episodes, a kind of gentle Allegro sung as if in a whisper – against a background of forest visions, a female silhouette appears, and dream images connote the sounds of someone’s steps, a murderer, a policeman and the light of a streetlamp – and her; where trains and boats pass by, and fantasies involve unknown lands – and her; where doors bang, the piano plays, the clock ticks and voices can be heard. The second part of the composition is Adagio, the third returns to Allegro, in which, after various descriptions and enumerations of the female figure (the dream’s heroine), the climax of the work appears with the words des poumons de millions et millions d’êtres (the lungs of millions and millions of beings) and the final Dans la nuit il y a toi / Dans le jour aussi (In the night there is you / In the day, too); as if in the final words and bars, the night – with its often horrid visions – was giving rise to an optimistic day.

Almost throughout the entire work the baritone part is syllabic, which forms the narrative of a recitative emerging from the expression of the spoken voice. This narrative is normally told in fast recitative sections and slower, reflective cantilena sections. Another lyrical subject of this musical poem is the orchestral part, the colour of which delights with a sensual beauty emerging from the combination of the abstract twelve-note harmonic material and the sensual instrumental material.

ach / trans. mk