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Novelette

image
parts:
  1. Announcement
  2. First Event
  3. Second Event
  4. Third Event
  5. Conclusion
orchestration: orchestra
  3(2picc)3(1ci)3(2clb)3(1cfg), 4331, timp, batt(3), cel, ar, pf, archi
dedicated to: Mścisław Rostropowicz, Washington National Symphony Orchestra
year composed: 1978-1979
about premiere
location: Waszyngton
date: 29 I 1980
orchestra: Washington National Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Mścisław Rostropowicz
edition: PWM, Chester Music
listen

Witold Lutosławski wrote Novelette in the years 1978-1979 and dedicated it to Mstislav Rostropovich and the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, which gave the piece its first performance in Washington on January 29, 1980, conducted by the composer. The programme of the concert also included the Cello Concerto, with the participation of Mstislav Rostropovich.

The formal concept of Novelette is to a large extent analogous to that of Livre pour orchestra, although – as always with Lutosławski – apart from significant similarities there are also many important differences. On the one hand it could be claimed that over decades the composer worked on one principal idea, as if he were constantly creating a single work. On the other hand, it is clear that Lutosławski never repeats himself: the reappearing elements of his musical language take a different shape each time. In Novelette, like in Livre and Venetian Games, the last movement is also the most significant in content and the most expansive, but it is preceded by four, not three, movements of introductory character. Looking at the formal structure of this piece in a different way, it may also be concluded that apart from following the principle of two movements (where the introductory sections function as the main movement), it is also an arch form: between the first movement (Announcement) and the last one (Conclusion), with analogous intriguing sequences of almost brutally dissonant seven-part wind instruments, there are three Events. Only the First Event follows a traditional, conducted metrical technique as a whole; all the other movements include alternate ad libitum and a battuta sections. In spite of this formal analogy with Livre, it would be a mistake to treat Novelette as a kind of symphony with a different name (which often happens in the case of Livre), as the expressive character of the whole work, including the final Conclusion, is definitely lighter in style.

Novelette introduces an aesthetic quality that was absent from Lutosławski’s scores for over twenty years, and which will appear more conspicuously (but not more intensely) in the third movement of the Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Chamber Orchestra, the composer’s next orchestral work. It is a tonal aesthetic rooted in neoclassicism, and is most distinct in the First Event. Although Lutosławski never admitted such intentions (on the contrary, he contradicted them), a certain frivolous ambience, an almost dance-like cheerfulness, “bird-song” motifs of the clarinet (rather un-Messiaen in nature), the grotesque part of the bass clarinet at the end of this section, a variety of musical humour, and pastoral-scherzo moods are reminiscent of French neoclassicism, with a hint of sensualism. This association comes first and foremost from the instrumentation, but also from the shape of melodic motifs, usually in semitones and tritones, coming from a twelve-note series (which seems paradoxical here, as the dodecaphonic system is generally far from the idea of neoclassicism). It is in this piece that the choice of intervals from which Lutosławski builds his chords, i.e. the harmonic shape of the composition, more and more often allows for very superficial (completely external, totally non-systemic) associations with the major-minor scale. When asked about this, Lutosławski used to say that such associations appear in the minds of listeners who are unable to free themselves from the features of functional harmony, which to him are entirely alien and in no way intended by him in the perception of his music. Nevertheless, this aspect is worthy of attention and – in the context of what happened in Lutosławski’s work in the eighties, especially with Partita, the Third and Fourth Symphony, the Piano Concerto and the cycle of orchestral soprano songs Songflowers and Songfables – records how even this last classic of modernism responded to the aesthetic shock of postmodernism.

It is also worth noting a very characteristic element of Lutosławski’s symphonism, namely his extremely sparing use of the full orchestral tutti and his rich and fanciful use of chamber-like sound material. The core of the orchestra is made up of solo voices treated individually and combined in duets, trios, quartets and chamber ensembles with an ever-exchangeable, mobile number of performers. In Lutosławski’s scores the bulk of the symphony constantly breaks down into individual lines, which then form beams, bands or streaks – layered, expanding or disappearing, increasingly vigorous or gradually fading away. The lines of the clarinet, the marimba, the cor anglais, the bassoon, both harps, the piano, the piccolo, the xylophone, which emanate from the groups of solo woodwind, brass and string instruments, relentlessly hold the listener’s attention in the alternate solo and chamber episodes. In this way Lutosławski’s symphonism becomes a festival of symphony orchestra instruments playing concertante. Paradoxically, through this technique the impression of orchestral wholeness is stronger than it would have been had the composer simply used the complete orchestra dynamically. Above all, Lutosławski requires the tutti for the climactic moments of his symphonic forms.

ach / trans. mk