Dance Preludes

  1. Allegro molto
  2. Andantino
  3. Allegro giocoso
  4. Andante
  5. Allegro molto
orchestration: clarinet and piano
year composed: 1954
about premiere
location: Warszawa
date: 15 II 1955
soloists: Ludwik Kurkiewicz, Sergiusz Nadgryzowski
edition: PWM, Chester Music
orchestration: clarinet solo, harp, piano, percussion and string orchestra
  cl solo, timp, batt, ar pf, archi (8-8-6-6-4)
year composed: 1955
about premiere
location: Aldeburgh
date: 1963
orchestra: English Chamber Orchestra
conductor: Benjamin Britten
soloists: Gervase de Peyer
edition: PWM, Chester Music
orchestration: flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double-bass
year composed: 1959
about premiere
location: Louny
date: 10 XI 1959
orchestra: Czeski Nonet
edition: PWM, Chester Music

The inspiration for the Dance Preludes came from Tadeusz Ochlewski, the director of PWM Edition in Cracow, who wished to commission a cycle of easy pieces based on folk melodies for violin and piano to be used in secondary schools. Instead, in 1954 Witold Lutosławski composed a suite of five movements for clarinet and piano in the following tempos: Allegro molto, Andantino, Allegro giocoso, Andante, Allegro molto.

Lutosławski has said of the compositional process: "Somehow this violin writing wasn't working out, even though I myself played the violin for an extended amount of time. In view of this, I decided to write pieces for the clarinet. They were appropriate for young clarinetists, but posed difficulties for the accompanists".

The term ‘prelude' suggests the form of a piece that is an introduction to... the fugue, as in Bach; it suggests an etude-like sketch to a composition which develops its content in a more elaborated form, as in Chopin or Debussy. Alternately, it makes us think of a prolegomenon, or simply a musical illustration depicting a literary program as in Liszt. Since Lutosławski's cycle of miniatures contains ‘dance preludes', these can be understood as a folkloristic preludes to village dances, or an abbreviated sketch of such dances. Here, both types of reasoning can find their arguments. Although the provenance of this dance outline is evidently folkloristic, it is not easy to localize its origins in, for example, in particular quoted material or unequivocal models. The melodies in the Preludes are not derived from Oskar Kolberg's arrangements or any other songbook editions; they are rather generalized impressions revolving around the theme of folk-dance convention (while this intuitive remark could have been challenged by the composer himself, he did not do so; but a truly erudite and thoroughly competent ethnomusicologist could). In the successive preludes Lutosławski provides markings for only the tempos, and gives other additional word-based indications (especially in the orchestral version) regarding the desired types of articulation, dynamics, violinistic technique, and general expression, such as marcato, energico, forte ma dolce, poco sforzato, ritardando, perdendo, tranquillo, sostenuto e poi precipitando, etc.

Thus, the cycle is a type of five-piece suite, in which the even-numbered, ‘internal' pieces are maintained in slow tempos and exhibit even a nostalgic character, while the odd-numbered, ‘external' pieces are maintained in fast tempos and are lively, or even sprightly in character. The symmetrically shaped form made up of five pieces will - after many years - be taken up in Livre, Novelette, and Partita. Although the orchestral working out of the composition presents a completion of the extraordinarily nuanced solo version which makes very precise use of musical colour, there is also an exacerbation in the effects of the thick, step-by-step application of polymetry within the fast-paced sections. The changes in metre from triple to duple (2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4), which occur in proximity measure to measure, create a certain incertitude in determining the step (one asks whether the music is to be danced ‘in two' or ‘in three', and whether a particular rhythm is that of a krakowiak, mazurka, or kujawiak...). Polymetric shaping in the odd-numbered pieces imparts an almost spontaneous, folk-like spirit, and wildness of festivity to the music, while the even-numbered pieces are maintained in triple meter (the second in 9/8 and 6/8, the fourth in 3/4), more appropriate for their songful, also folk-like, but moreover dumka elegiac nature and expression that is more of a dolce than a con vigore.

Lutosławski called this composition his ‘farewell to folklore'. In fact, this is the last piece in his catalogue of works in which folk music material plays a significant role. Being very popular composition belonging to his most frequently performed repertoire (also favoured by young musicians for didactic reasons), it also seems to be a ‘swan song' of the Neoclassic-folkloristic Lutosławski of the first half of the 50s, a composer summing up the stylistic profile of his creative output to-date in the opus magnum of the times, namely the Concerto for Orchestra. What is telling is the fact that he did not want (or was unable to?) cut the emotional ‘umbilical cord' from the droll, alluring Dance preludes until when he had already finished working on Funeral music, but still did not complete their version for nine instruments for the world premiere given in Louny, close to Prague.

ach / trans. mk