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Charles Bodman Rae

Lutosławski's Music For Children


Lutosławski's Music For Children

When we think of Witold Lutosławski's expansive large-scale works, such as his Four Symphonies, Mi-Par , Les espaces du sommeil, Livre pour orchestre, or the Concerto for Orchestra, we recall rich and powerful orchestral sonori#es, the unfolding of a musical drama, and overwhelming climaxes. These are works where the composer painted on a large canvas. But there is another Lutosławski, where he paints in miniature. He also had a quiet, in#mate voice, one that speaks with charm and carries a gentle, understated humour. Many of these miniatures are pieces for children. When we meet a child in the company of its parent do we stand tall and distant and speak down to the child from a forbidding height? No, of course not. Only a pompous, insensi#ve 'grown up' would do such a thing. If we wish to make contact with the child we ins#nc#vely bend our knees, fold our long adult legs and descend to the child's level, so that the rela#onship is not distant, unfriendly or threatening. So it is with music. And when we speak to a child, do we speak of our adult worries, our struggles, our anxie#es, our torments, our adult fears? No, of course not. We try to tune in to the child's own world of imagina#on and experience. So it is with music. Lutosławski's pieces for children may at first glance appear to be of marginal significance. They are not great u/erances. They are not cast as large-scale, developmental forms. They do not speak of worries, struggles, anxie#es, torments or fears. Instead, they speak of animals, birds, insects, flowers, trees, woods, water nymphs, rivers, streams, and the seasons, plus angels, shepherds and the birth of Jesus. Should we regard these pieces as being merely marginal? No, not if we wish to understand the full range of the composer's musical expression and the full breadth and depth of his crea#ve personality. Lutosławski's pieces for children span a much longer period than is generally understood: from 1934, when he was only 21, to 1990, when he was 77. They can be grouped in three categories: pieces for children to play; pieces for children to sing; and se;ngs of children's poetry for professional performance.


The first category includes two works for solo piano: the Melodie ludowe (Folk tunes) of 1945; and Three Pieces for the Young, from 1953. The Melodie ludowe were wri/en long before the communist regime imposed principles of socialist realism on music. So we should not view them as responses to a poli#cal 'requirement'. They are perfectly genuine. The 'Twelve easy pieces for piano' were wri/en primarily for publica#on, and for children to play. They were later prescribed as syllabus pieces for Poland's specialist elementary music schools. Similarly, the Three Pieces for the Young are unpreten#ous li/le studies. The second category, of pieces for children to sing, may be taken to include not only the various collec#ons of pieces #tled as 'Children's Songs', but also the set of Twenty Polish Carols of 1946. The composi#onal sophis#ca#on of the Carols lies in the arrangement of the instrumental parts, but the tradi#onal melodies are preserved, and can be sung in unison by a children's choir. Over the following twelve years, from 1947 through to 1959, Lutosławski produced a further 45 children's songs in which he set poems by Julian Tuwim (10), Oskar Kolberg (4), Janina Porazińska (7), Lucyna Krzemieniecka (9), Agnieszka Barto (2), Roman Pisarski (3), Benedykt Hertz (3), Janina Osińska (2), and others. The third category is perhaps the most interes#ng of all, because it includes both the earliest and the latest of Lutosławski's se;ngs of children's poetry, plus one of the most significant works from the middle of his career. In 1934, when Lutosławski was only 21, he set two poems by Kazimiera Iłłakowicz, from her 1927

collec#on of

children's

poetry,

Płaczący

ptak

(Weeping

bird):

'Wodnica' (Water nymph) and 'Kołysanka lipowa' (Linden lullaby). These songs were performed during the Nazi occupa#on of Warsaw, in 1941. Unfortunately, however, they did not survive the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Lutosławski returned to the children's poetry of Iłłakowicz in 1957, to set five poems from her 1922 collec#on of Rymy dziecięce (Children's rhymes). These Five Songs are of considerable significance, because it was here that the composer tested for the first #me a new harmonic vocabulary (based on different types of twelve-note chords) that was to define his musical language for the rest of his career. Outside Poland these songs are very rarely performed, either in the original version, for soprano and piano, or in the slightly later, orchestral version. This is a shame,


because they are pearls. Even in Poland, they are li/le known, and their significance is oIen overlooked. Part of the problem is that they are short, so it is difficult to know how to programme them. AIer the Five Iłłakowicz Songs the composer produced three more sets of children's songs in 1958 and 1959. Then a long gap of thirty years ensued. He no longer had to fulfil li/le, immediate commissions, but was able to focus his a/en#on and his crea#ve energies on large-scale concert works, mostly for orchestra. From Jeux véni ens of 1961 to the Piano Concerto of 1988 one could be forgiven for thinking that his interest in children's poetry had been leI behind. One might even be forgiven for thinking he had wri/en music for children because it was poli#c to do so during the post-war period when the authori#es were busy building the 'People's' Poland (a socialist utopia to some, but a totalitarian dystopia to most). But the interest had not gone; it was merely lying dormant. Out of the blue, in 1989-90, came one of the composer's most delighLul later works: the Chantefleurs et Chantefables. For this song cycle he took a selec#on of nine poems from the full collec#on of eighty Chantefables et Chantefleurs by the French surrealist, Robert Desnos. One of his greatest works, Les espaces du sommeil, for baritone and orchestra (1975), also sets the poetry of Desnos, but poetry of an en#rely different kind. Here we have five songs about flowers, and four about creatures (grasshopper, tortoise, alligator, and bu/erfly). The tortoise and the alligator are depicted with gentle humour. The flowers inspire some ravishing moments of great beauty, both in the harmony and in the melody of the soprano line. Who would have expected that the composer of the Second Symphony, or the Cello Concerto would, towards the end of his life, return to the enchanted world of children's poetry? But he did, and it shows the interest was not only genuine it was long las#ng, simply wai#ng for a chance to re-surface.

Charles Bodman Rae


'Lutosławski's Music for Children', by Charles Bodman Rae