Chantefleurs et chantefables

  1. La Belle-de-Nuit
  2. La Sauterelle
  3. La Véronique
  4. LEglantine, lAubépine et la Glycine
  5. La Tortue
  6. La Rose
  7. LAlligator
  8. LAngélique
  9. Le Papillon
words: Robert Desnos
orchestration: soprano and orchestra
  sop solo, 1111, 1110, timp, batt, pf(cel), archi (minimum 8-6-4-4-2)
year composed: 1989-1990
about premiere
location: Londyn
date: 8 VIII 1991
orchestra: BBC Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Witold Lutosławski
soloists: Solveig Kringleborn
edition: PWM, Chester Music
transcription by: Eugeniusz Knapik
orchestration: soprano and piano
edition: PWM

Chantefleurs et chantefables (Songflowers and songfables) is a cycle of nine songs for soprano and orchestra with a single set of wind instruments, composed in 1989-1990 to the poetry of the French surrealist Robert Desnos (1900-1945). It is Lutosławski’s second piece, after Les espaces du sommeil, written to words by this poet. The song lyrics were chosen from a collection of eighty poems about flowers, birds, insects and animals, published in Paris in 1955 under the same title as Lutosławski’s composition. The poems are intended for children. “I cannot say the same about the music I wrote,” said the composer, “although it does reflect their ‘childish’ character”. The piece was first performed on August 8, 1991, by Norwegian vocalist Solveig Kringlebotn during the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The composition was played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. On September 29 the same year, the work was performed for the first time in Poland, at a concert concluding the Warsaw Autumn festival. Solveig Kringlebotn performed with the Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra, conducted by the composer. The work then entered the repertoire of many singers, e.g. Gwendolyn Bradley and Olga Pasiecznik. The piece was adapted for soprano and piano by Eugeniusz Knapik in 2007, on commission from the Witold Lutosławski Society.

Chantefleurs et chantefables is a cycle of orchestral soprano songs that belongs to the last stage of Witold Lutosławski’s creative work. It appeared after the Piano Concerto, just as the composer was beginning work on his last orchestral work, the Fourth Symphony, which he began in 1988 and completed in 1992. After that, only Subito for violin and piano (1992) was added to the catalogue of Lutosławski’s completed works; the unfinished Violin Concerto remains among the composer’s papers.

Chantefleurs et chantefables consists of poetic sound scenes drawn with extraordinary subtlety; it is a masterfully crafted, seductive collection of musical moods, feelings and emotions. The sequence of the songs is as follows:

La belle-de-nuit (The Marvel of Peru) describes a mysterious plant that blooms after dusk.

La sauterelle (The Grasshopper) is a hilarious illustration of the grasshopper’s leaps, reminiscent of children’s counting-out rhymes.

La véronique (The Speedwell) depicts the mutually marvellous encounter of a bull and a flower (genus Veronica, or Speedwell).

L’Eglantine, l’aubépine et la glycine (The Wild Rose, the Hawthorn and the Wisteria) – the fourth song is about a singing bird which flies over three plants of intense colours and scents: a wild rose, a hawthorn and a wisteria.

La tortue (The Tortoise) is a portrait of a tortoise which is half-grotesquely, half-lyrically narcissistic.

La rose (The Rose) is a portrait of a sweet-scented rose.

L’alligator (The Alligator) is a humorous scene about an alligator and a little Black boy’s meeting on a bank of the Mississippi river; but in the end the alligator goes without dinner.

L’angélique (The Angelica) is a charming picture of a tit which is touchingly delighted with the angelica plant.

Le papillon (The Butterfly) – an invasion by a swarm of butterflies hungry for the beads of fat on a broth that the citizens of Châtillon would like to consume is not – as it may seem – an apocalyptic vision.

Lutosławski’s music, which from Funeral Music to the Fourth Symphony is often treated as homogenous, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s crossed the threshold of aesthetic change as far as the division of stylistic accents goes. At that time there was a minimization of those elements of composing technique which had become distinctive features of Lutosławski’s poetics. This was especially true of controlled aleatoricism, the expressive function of the twelve-note harmony, the characteristically airy orchestral textures and – last but not least – the dogma of the two-movement form. None of these stylistic features can be found in the soprano songs to the poems of Desnos. On the contrary, it seems that towards the end of his late creativity Lutosławski does justice, as it were, to his own work from the mid-50s – as if confirming, after forty years, the artistic honesty of attempting to create works portraying the sensitivity of the child. As if wishing to prove that this world was not exactly a surrogate one, and that his past decisions had not been purely opportunistic. One may suppose that for Lutosławski this song cycle may have served as a kind of preamble to his idea of writing an opera, along the lines of Maurice Ravel’s surrealist opera L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells).

ach / trans. aw