Jeux Vénitiens, Witold Lutosławski

by tacet

Jeux Vénitiens (or Venetian Games) represents a pivotal juncture in the artistic development of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Cited by the composer himself as his first mature statement, Jeux Vénitiens not only anticipates the character of much of Lutosławski’s subsequent musical output but also predicts wider developments in the European avant-garde. Despite employing only a modestly sized chamber orchestra, Lutosławski sculpts a wide array of lofty, vaporous soundscapes over the course of the work’s short duration, hinting at the static textural clouds that would later be conjured by György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis.

Completed in 1960, Jeux Vénitiens represents the first example of Lutosławski’s radical compositional technique of “aleatoric counterpoint”. Inspired in part by John Cage’s introduction of chance elements to his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Lutosławski developed his own approach to aleatoric music in the late 50s, hoping finally to capture the elusive aural worlds of his imagination. Although specifying the precise melody played by each instrument in a given passage, Lutosławski affords the performers freedom to decide on the tempo of their respective lines, culminating in a blurred coalescence of animated sounds and textures.

Lutosławski’s claim that “the composer remains the directing force” throughout such passages of aleatory may seem somewhat optimistic. Indeed, any concession to indeterminism inevitably diminishes the composer’s role in the realisation of a piece. Yet, with the only unspecified parameter being temporal, Lutosławski maintains strict control over the timbral and harmonic character of Jeux Vénitiens. The elements of chance merely influence the minutiae; independent, disconnected voices vitalise the musical texture whilst simultaneously merging together, subsumed into the wider aural vista. The conductor signals each segue between the successive aleatoric textures – at which point the musicians move on to the next set of melodies and lines – and as such Jeux Vénitiens is at once both minutely disordered and expansively controlled.

Throughout the piece, the dense, energised mass of individual instrumental lines remains constrained within the overarching musical structure in a thrilling synchronicity of order and chaos. By relinquishing influence over the finer details of his music, Lutosławski shifted his focus to the broader interactions which take place within Jeux Vénitiens: from wider structural arcs and harmonic shifts to the relationships between timbres and melodic contours. As such, this music is highly decorative, teeming with evocative and tactile textures; with Jeux Vénitiens’ aleatoric counterpoint, Lutosławski arrived at a new fusing of the traditional and the modern, the concrete and the abstract, opening up hitherto unimagined forms of musical expression.

Below is a recording of Jeux Vénitiens accompanied by a brief listening guide.

In the first movement, Lutosławski sets up a dichotomy between two contrasting aleatoric musical textures; the first to be introduced is airy and rhythmically vitalised, peppered with chattering woodwinds, and the second (first heard at 0:15) is an ominous brooding soundscape of sustained strings. Each of the numerous transitions is instantaneous, signalled by a single strike on the percussion, as if switching between two disconnected musical worlds.

The brief second movement contains no aleatoric music and acts almost as a transition into the more substantial third movement. The collection of fragmentary musical statements gradually builds in density until a piano chord at 1:08 interrupts the development, introducing a sparse and hesitant closing section.

Decorated by restless figures in the harp and a barely audible piano melody, the graceful, fluttering flute line which begins at 0:04 provides the focal point of the third movement. The musical progression is punctuated throughout by increasingly forceful chords in the strings (the first such disruption is heard at 0:39).

At the opening of the final movement the instrumental timbres of the woodwinds and strings interact conversationally, contrasting their strict separation in the first movement. The frenetic musical development – following the introduction of the piano and brass – is cut off at 2:16 by a wildly pounding piano, only to restart at 2:22. The mass of brass and woodwinds is halted abruptly at 2:31 by the introduction of percussion (recalling the transformative power of the percussion in the first movement). The clattering drums and cymbals drop out at 2:48 to reveal a halo of gently rippling piano arpeggios and re-enter a further three times with decreasing intensity. A brief coda, beginning at 3:47, then closes out the piece.

The recording above is conducted by Lutosławski himself and performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, presented on the out of print (but currently not hard to find) Philips collection The Essential Lutosławski. The composer also leads a performance by the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra on a three disc set of orchestral works on EMI.

No survey of Lutosławski’s work is complete without reference to his monumental symphonic cycle; both his Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4 are essential listening. For another chamber work which makes colourful and imaginative use of a limited palette try György Ligeti’s exhilarating Chamber Concerto of 1970.

Artwork: Zeichnung, Adolf Wölfli

by Thomas May