Three Poems of Henri Michaux for 20-voice mixed choir and orchestra (dir. W. Lutosławski)
In the chronology of Lutosławski’s works, Trois poèmes is between the Venetian
Games and the String Quartet,
thus it dates from a period in which the composer emphasised dense, dissonant
chords in his music and an aleatory approach to various parts (loosening the
coordination between them). The text of the work is provided by three lyrics by
French surrealist poet Henri Michaux (1899–1984), scored for 20 singers
accompanied by an orchestra comprising winds, two pianos, harp and percussion.
The first movement is a setting of the poem Pensées (Thoughts). It begins with a slow passage in the winds (referred to by the composer as “chorale”) from which stand out individual notes of trumpets, trombones and horns. After this instrumental introduction, the choir sings the first stanza: “To think, to live – the sea is rather vague”. In accordance with the suggestion offered by the text, melodies of the voices are linked in a way that makes their outlines vague, blurred. In the next section, short notes played by the woodwind combine to create a quivering block of sound serving as background for the entry of solo voices with the next stanza (“Endless shadows of shadows, [...] ashes of wings”). Lively figures in the woodwind section and the pianos are then joined by the choir singing the words of the third stanza (“Thoughts of a marvellous swim, sliding inside us”). The ending of this episode features “bright” sounds of pianos, harp and percussion, with the first movement ending with a return of the “chorale”. The choir weaves in the last stanza between two appearances of this strand: “[...] strangers in our homes, [...] specks that are to amuse us and distract our lives”.
The second of the Three Poems is Le grand combat (The Big Fight). A peculiar feature of this movement is the fact that the composer gives up singing in favour of speech, whispers and shouting. This is related to the content of the poem – a fight between two men watched and commented on by a crowd of onlookers.
The first stanza (“He grabowerates him and grabacks him to the ground; / He rads him and rabarts him to his drat” [translation by David Ball]) is shouted by the unaccompanied choir. After a while it is joined by four vigorously playing percussionists together with trombones and pianos, and continues its account: “The other hesitates; he is bittucked, unapsed, torsed and ruined. / [...] The arm has broke! / The blood has flowed!”. In the meantime there emerges a dialogue between winds and brass, pianos and percussion, leading to a climax of the movement and the entire work. At the end – first to percussion accompaniment and then a capella – the choir recounts the desecration of the body of the vanquished man: “In the big pot of his belly there’s a great secret. [...] We’re amazed, we’re amazed, we’re amazed, / We’re watching you / We’re looking for the Great Secret too.”
Now comes the third movement – Repos dans le malheur (Repose in Misfortune). A slow tempo and lack of dynamism make it similar to the first link in the cycle, creating a sharp contrast with the middle movement.
“Glassy” sounds of pianos and harp are intertwined with a “veiled” singing of the choir: “Misfortune, weeping, my great ploughman, / [...] Let us both have a rest, / [...] You find me, you try [...]. / I am your ruin. / My great stage, my harbour, [...] my golden cellar”. As the choir sings: “In your brightness, in your vastness”, melodies of the voices make up a ringing, “luminous” chord comprising 11 different notes. The one note missing from a full 12-note chord (F sharp) appears when the singers chant on the same pitch the words “In you ghastliness”, summed up by a sudden and increasingly soft “explosion” of the orchestra (again in F sharp). A static ending, full of resignation, comes with the last words of the poem: “I give up”.