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Witold Lutoslawski (1913 - 1994)


Livre pour Orchestre

Witold Lutoslawski was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1913 into an intelligent, liberal family and as a boy learnt both violin and piano. He enrolled at Warsaw University to study mathematics, and also at the Conservatory to study piano and composition. On graduating in 1937 he was conscripted into the army for a year, and thus began his composing career in 1938. This career was rudely interrupted by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, which triggered World War 2.

Lutoslawski was re-mobilised into the army, but soon taken prisoner by the Germans. He managed to escape after a few days, walked home the 400 kilometres to Warsaw, and survived the rest of the war by playing piano duets in Warsaw cafes with fellow composer Andrej Panufnik. Between them, they composed or arranged about 200 pieces for piano duet, all bar one (Variations on a Theme of Paganini) destroyed in the final stages of the war.

After the war musical life in Poland gradually resumed, but in 1948 the Soviets stamped a grey uniformity on the arts of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Lutoslawski responded by exploring Bartok's music and its folk music heritage. This period resulted in a lot of short works showing a folk influence, and much good and useful teaching music, but only one major score - the fine Concerto for Orchestra of 1954.

In the late 1950s there was a relaxation of state control of the Arts, and music in Poland blossomed. Most of Lutoslawski's music since this time is for orchestra, chromatic in style and richly orchestrated, in a manner sometimes suggesting Debussy and Ravel. Most also include 'aleatoric' sections - these are where the composer gives the performers some freedom to play the rhythms as they wish, within tightly controlled parameters; the objective is to create a dense, complex texture without making the music unduly difficult to play. (Most of the final section of Livre is notated like this.) Lutoslawski died in 1994.

Livre (meaning "Book") was written in 1968 in response to a commission from the German city of Hagen for the Hagen City Orchestra. It is a work of great inventiveness and wit, in which the "book" is divided into four "chapters", separated from each other by brief interludes of a simple burbling texture. These interludes are for recovery and relaxation, and are to be treated like the gaps between movements in a symphony (i.e. rustle your bags of sweets, etc.) The first three chapters are fairly short collages of orchestral textures, while the fourth chapter is more substantial, working up to a considerable climax. The work is quite easy to follow, thanks to Lutoslawski's technique of using the orchestra in quite separate blocks - strings, wind, brass, keyboards (piano, celeste, harp), and percussion.

The first chapter begins on the strings with a liquid textured flow. After a while it is interrupted briefly by the brass and then by the percussion. The strings begin again but the brass immediately take over; after another percussion interruption the strings end quietly, with a footnote on the piano.

After an interlude on the clarinets, the second chapter begins again on the strings with a complex pizzicato rhythmic pattern. Gradually the tuned percussion and keyboards join in, and then the wind offer a contrasting section. Next comes a more fragmented section which ends with a dense wind pattern. The final part of this chapter is on strings again, gradually quietening and condensing onto a middle C, with a footnote on the percussion.

A second interlude follows, on clarinets and harp. The third chapter begins, once more on the strings, but the music is gradually taken over by the wind. The strings try again, this time over a rumbling piano and bass line. An attempt at a climax follows, but is frustrated by pauses and a curious pattering on the drums.

The third interlude features piano and harp and merges into the fourth and final chapter. The interlude gradually transfers onto strings (two solo cellos to begin with) and eventually becomes a string texture which is rich, dense and passionate. The wind and brass join in with faster passages superimposed, until cut off by piano and percussion. This brings in a series of short varied episodes which soon condense into single chords, which gradually accelerate and then hold back into a grand climax. The violent hammering of the brass soon stops; the flutes sing a gentle consolation, and the violins end the work, fading out of sight and sound into the ether.

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