Lutosławski Les espaces du sommeil

In his first Manifeste (1924), André Breton, father of the surrealist movement, pronounced Robert Desnos (1900-45) the quintessential surrealist poet: ‘Desnos speaks Surrealist at will… He reads himself like an open book, and does nothing to retain the pages, which fly away in the windy wake of his life.’ Desnos practiced automatic writing, and he developed the ability to fall asleep at will in order to enter his dreamscapes. His best work is to be found in Corps et biens (1930); the language of these poems is distinguished by bizarre imagery and the hypnotic repetition of words and rhythms. It was here that the prose poem Les espaces du sommeil, written in 1926, first appeared.

Exactly as in Paroles tissées, the structure of the poem afforded the composer a four-part musical design in which the first two parts are introductory, the third contains an orchestral climax, and the very brief fourth serves as a coda to the whole work. The similarity to Paroles tissées extends further to the style of text setting (mainly with reciting tones and syllabic cantilena), and to the role of the orchestra, which ‘surrounds the poem with a mysterious aura’ of delicate sound in a ‘wonderful tapestry of silken reflections’ (Jacques Doucelin). The full resources of the symphony orchestra come into play only in the climactic third section.

Parts 1 and 2 establish a mysterious, nocturnal setting inhabited by dark rustlings, sudden, evanescent illuminations, eerie chirpings and twitterings. The effect can be compared to Bartók’s ‘night-music’ style. A series of tiny gestures marked by frequent changes of texture and orchestration and frequent pauses, like the poem’s opening lines, reflects a jumble of fragmentary, discontinuous images. Part 2, the work’s ‘slow movement’, unfolds as a series of five phrases; each begins with sustained string harmonies, against which little trios of wind and percussion produce wisps of sound like the Desnos ‘strange shapes’ that ‘are born at the moment of sleep and disappear’, ‘phosphorescent flowers’ that ‘appear and wither and are reborn’. Part 3 brings the first lively tempo and agitated musical development in the orchestra. The choice of this part of the text to support a musical climax may have been somewhat arbitrary, but, once chosen, the language lends itself to interpretation as a kind of cosmic dream, an escalating phantasmagoria leading to an agitated outcry. As Nicholas Reyland cannily observes elsewhere in these pages, the dreamscape has moved ‘from surrealism to eroticism to nightmare’.

But the most extraordinary passage in Les espaces du sommeil is not its climax but rather its brief fourth part, the coda. The ending is brilliant and for LutosŠ‚awski unprecedented. The baritone sings ‘Dans la nuit il y a toi. Dans le jour aussi.’ (‘In the night there is you. In the day also.’). Suddenly the orchestra bursts in with a forceful chord, which immediately fractures into quickly dwindling splinters of sound, shattering the dream world in which poet, composer and listener have been immersed together. The shocking light of day has intruded to break the nocturnal spell, and the fantastic visions of sleep vanish irretrievably.

Les espaces was very much inspired by the artistry of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. LutosŠ‚awski heard the baritone perform Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder with Sviatoslav Richter in Warsaw in October 1973, met with him after the concert to discuss a new project, then went home to record in his diary, ‘He is like a gigantic glass, magnifying the composer’s work. How many there are, unfortunately, even among the great, who are only a distorting mirror.’ Although the score was ready in late 1975, Fischer-Dieskau’s heavy schedule postponed the première until 12 April 1978, with LutosŠ‚awski conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. The composer conducted John Shirley-Quirk and the BBC Symphony in the UK première at the BBC Proms in July 1979.

© Steven Stucky

  • Les espaces du sommeil (sample)