Recording not available.
The list of works which Lutosławski did not complete is quite long and encompasses many intriguing projects. They were not completed for a variety of reasons – not only external reasons, like the outbreak of the war or illness and, finally, death, but also internal, purely musical reasons: above all, a lack of compositional devices that would allow the composer to pursue his creative ideas in a satisfying manner.
The work on the Kurpie Suite was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Lutosławski’s illness and death prevented him from finishing the Violin Concerto, on which he worked until the last days of his life. A lack of means to highlight the cantilena discouraged the composer from completing an Oboe Concerto, which he was writing in the 1970s for the German oboist Lothar Faber. Loose ideas were what was eventually left of a planned work for two solo voices, chorus and orchestra or electronic sounds after Kafka’s story Before the Law. However, the biggest of the composer’s unfulfilled projects was an opera.
The tradition of the genre, especially in the 19th century, aroused a strong aversion in Lutosławski. He found replacing speech with singing and frequent association of music with ordinary situations offensive and laughable, an attitude he expressed by saying that “I see no reason why the sentence ‘Please, give me some more water’ should be sung”. Making the action unreal removed, as he believed, the whole staged nonsense, which is why he thought that an ideal opera was Ravel’s L'enfant et les sortilèges, in which singing characters included a cat, an armchair and a cup. Impressed by Ravel’s idea, Lutosławski intended to use Wilde’s story The Remarkable Rocket; he also considered a collaboration with the master of nonsense and the grotesque, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński.
The composer revealed his operatic plans in the late 1980s: “I must find myself in this opera and I’ve even come up with a way to avoid its faults. The first thing is the duration of an operatic performance [...] an opera cannot be tiring for me – not as the composer but as a listener – and for people like me, who can’t listen to Götterdämmerung without getting a headache. Another extremely important thing is the genre of the vocal part. On one hand, I would like the vocal part to stem directly from speaking the text. [...] I would create a recitative modelled on recitation of the text. Repeating the words again and again, I would find the right pitches and lengths of notes. [...] On the other hand, singing would be absolutely key, like in my vocal works. That is, there would have to be parts that would be suited to it from the point of view of drama and the text itself. There would be no spoken parts. Shouting – yes, but organised, of course. So I have quite a good idea for a beginning of this opera”.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Lutosławski made a preliminary choice of his libretto: The Conference of the Birds (La Conférence des oiseaux), a medieval Persian fairy tale adapted for the stage by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière. The story was summarised by Jorge Luis Borges in one of his works (in Andrew Hurley’s translation): “One of the splendid feathers of the distant King of the Birds, the Simurgh, falls into the centre of China. Other birds, weary with the present state of anarchy, resolve to find this king. They know that the name of their king means ‘thirty birds’; they know that his palace is in the Mountains of Kaf that encircle the earth. [...] But at last the birds undertake the desperate quest; they cross seven valleys or seven seas. The penultimate of these is Vertigo; the last, Annihilation. Many pilgrims abandon the quest; others perish on the journey. At the end, thirty birds, purified by their travails, come to the mountain on which the Simurgh lives, and they contemplate their king at last: they see that they are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is in each of them and all of them.”
Lutosławski’s Conference of the Birds
was not written in the end was probably due to external circumstances: the
composer’s advanced age and previous commitments. His style had been refined
enough and Lutosławski himself admitted that he was “at the height of his
powers”. It is, therefore, a great pity that another masterpiece was not added
to the operatic repertoire...