Book Review of Martina Homma’s Witold Lutosławski: Zwolftön-Harmonik – Tonbildung – ‘Aleatorischer Kontrapunkt’

Studien zum Gesamtwerk unter Einbeziehung der Skizzen.
Cologne 1995, Bela Verlag, XVIII + 758 pages.


Book Review

by Andrzej Chłopecki [1]

Translated by Anna Masłowiec and Richard Toop


This volume, Homma’s doctoral dissertation defended at the University of Cologne in 1998 was published in 1996 by Bela-Verlag. Over 750 pages of text hide under an elegant white cover which ` incorporates Lutosławski’s signature. The cover also bears an inscription of the series title: Texts in musicology and theory of music. I originally brought the book from Cologne in late autumn 1997 and used to open it, flick through the pages, search. Being short of time, I gave up. Running late as usual, I was in the process of describing all the orchestral works of Lutosławski for CD release by Naxos, so I wanted to be inspired, maybe to quote something, maybe to get something across and to add to my interpretation with outside prompting. Zero benefit for immediate exploitation, no instant inspiration. So the white Buch, failing to interest me, lay on the table patiently awaiting my attention. Like a hedgehog, which one skirts around carefully so as not to be pricked, one is intrigued and one knows that something is there on the table. As one sees, it’s a brick; it’s unreadable. Though unreadable, at least it is possible to browse and search through it. That’s what I tried to do—not much came of it. I promised Ruch Muzyczny a review—I thought that if I scrupulously turned the pages I would learn everything. In two weeks, or four, or six. It took even longer, because a normal hard-working person does not have time to read books which have a ž-thousand pages of dense analytical investigations. Finally, it turned out that this book reads well! That this bundle of stuff between two white covers draws one in, intrigues one just as if one were working things out like a detective. It is an exquisite read. But it is not easy: it’s not a bedside book, nor can one digest it in two evenings—too bad.

It is worth drawing attention here to a significant fact: within world musicography, the music of Witold Lutosławski has been described and interpreted with impressive profusion. So one cannot complain that the world does not take any notice of the Polish composer or that reception of his works falls below our national expectations. On the contrary: the international proliferation of musicology, theory and criticism shows us how inspiring the music of Lutosławski is—that it is not just a matter of promoting purely local values. Into this field, rich in literature, came this extraordinary book. An impressive and astounding book, for which the author earns the highest respect. Within the wealth of musicological writings on Lutosławski’s compositional output, this book is without doubt not only the most comprehensive but also the most concentrated in its theoretical-analytical-musicological considerations, and at the same time it is not like any other book—either generally or in detail. And from now on, any attempt to write seriously about the music of Lutosławski without knowledge of it will seem amateurish.

In essence, there are four treatises in one volume; this is made clear at first glance by the pagination (this is true of the whole book, as well as the numbering of the main chapters). The author is focusing on the three issues which are basic to the poetics of Lutosławski’s music and are found in the subtitle of her work. Describing this thematic triad (twelve-tone harmony – form shaping – ‘aleatoric counterpoint’) is the basis for codifying the compositional system, and portraying it as a complete set of procedures which have secured for Lutosławski separate and exceptional place in the history of the 20th century music. Actually, what is announced on the cover of the book comes out slightly differently in terms of both the chapter titles and their sequence: Form, Aleatoric counterpoint, Organization of sound (Tonordnung). The first of the four chapters is an Introduction, which is not only about the typical problems, methodology and aims of the work but also about the reception of Lutosławski’s music and its place in the 20th century music.

The basic method, according to Martina Homma, is a ‘rekursiv-analytischer Rasterbildung’. What this means is that we have a kind of a screen, a sort of net thrown across the problem; the problems caught in this net are analysed and what follows is cross-referenced to other observations made before and after. In other words, in each chapter Homma’s narrative proceeds consistently and persistently from general remarks to specific ones, which are recapitulated at the end in the form of tables and comparisons. From one page to the next, with uncompromising, steely consistency, the author does what she promised in her introduction. If issues are raised, the reader knows that they will not escape her analytical claws until she has dissected them into smaller particles and then, with audacious virtuosity, reconstituted them to form a whole. Homma has covered Lutosławski’s music—mainly from Five Songs and the Funeral Music, though earlier compositions are also referred to when necessary—with a fine-meshed net. She has made the catch, dissected it into the primary parts, taken a good look at them, and described everything that we see in the score and hear in sound.

Homma’s picture of the material from which Lutosławski built his music is unbelievably rich. Having read this book, I’m convinced about the fact that she knows more about the mechanisms of the music than its creator. In her system, Homma even rationalizes things which for Lutosławski, surely, were no more than spur-of-the-moment compositional tricks. For her the hero is not the piece but the procedures that are applied in different works. They rule the narrative of her story. The procedures are described with uncommon subtlety, both analytically and aesthetically, all of which contributes to one not having the impression of an analysis made for its own sake. The treatise combines pedantic exactitude with natural erudition.

Homma’s approach to Lutosławski’s music is not to describe the works, nor to provide a chronological account of the technical development of his compositional language. With computer-like logic, the author reduces the language to its elements, and groups them into more detailed individual entities: groups, subgroups, subsubgroups, typical, atypical and exceptional examples. The strategy underlying its analytical construction is revealed in a detailed and precise list of contents, which becomes a guide to the whole book (since the list of contents takes up eleven pages, the reader may prefer to take my word for it). However, Homma’s approach to the reader is via a narrative that—thorny as the issues may be—can only be described as reader-friendly. The author takes the reader almost by the hand. She frequently announces what will follow, signals what she will return to, and usually summarizes what she will present in the next part of the book. Given the discipline with which her whole argument is conducted, this is exceptionally valuable.

None of the previously published works on Lutosławski places his music in such a broad, convincing and completely documented context—especially, but not only, in relation to 20th century music. Usually, Homma’s support for her arguments is not limited to verbal statements—she documents them with specific musical examples, referring to particular pieces. This is particularly true in the opening chapter, but not only there. In each of the three theoretical segments she begins by presenting the main problem in terms of how the individual poetics of Lutosławski relate to the musico-historical situation. Thus, before her argument deals with where and why Lutosławski chooses to introduce explicit refrain forms or signal forms, before it shows what procedures assume central importance (e.g. how the verticality of his 12-tone thinking is transformed into horizontality in the Funeral Music or the Symphony no. 3), she gives us an historical overview of how the problem affects the output of other composers. Nothing that Homma writes about Lutosławski hangs in the historical vacuum so notoriously characteristic of composer biographies. Such carefully conceived work—a theoretical treatise dealing with individual details of composition technique—could have renounced such perspectives without anyone complaining. The location of theoretical thinking within a historical and musicological framework is one of this book’s many great merits.

Everyone concerned to a greater or lesser degree with Lutosławski’s music knows that to characterize it adequately it is necessary to touch on the three problems which divide Homma’s book (excluding the introduction) into its major segments. They contribute to the whole poetics of Lutosławski’s compositional output in the same way that melody, harmony and rhythm did in relation to music of the past epochs, where form, timbre and texture were not such ‘strategic’ factors. We might seem to know a lot about how these strategic choices in Lutosławski’s music relate to form, 12- tone thinking, and controlled aleatorism. Homma explains scrupulously how these strategies work. And this is not all. She describes them in such a way that the internal hierarchy of significance within of detailed outcomes forms a compositional system. I do not believe that Lutosławski saw his compositional technique in such a clear and logical form as is provided by Homma. This is characteristic of the author’s way of approaching the problem—she asks, in the light of historical diagnosis, what the system is. And even if it is difficult to establish one, so Homma writes, in relation to Lutosławski’s music it is well worth doing. In effect, she writes Lutosławski’s “Technique of my Musical Language’ for him.

Reading Homma’s analytical descriptions reveals the superficiality of previous publications in dealing with such key issues in Lutosławski’s technique as form, which was often reduced to a rather banal sequence of introductory part and main part, to trite, almost irrelevant accounts of chain form, and to indications as to whether the climax of the piece occurs after three-quarters or fourth-fifths of the piece, or somewhat later. The author detaches the issue of aleatoric counterpoint from the question of chance, which has minor relevance. Instead, it is seen in terms of texture, rhythm and timbre, all of which reveal the richly detailed operations underlying Lutosławski’s compositional concepts. Finally, we arrive at the organization of pitch both linear and chordal.

On the basis of Homma’s refined investigations one can state, in the most forceful terms, that Lutosławski was a dodecaphonist in nearly all his compositional output. Particularly intriguing is her comparison of the 12-tone metamorphosis in the second part of Funeral Music, in which the series is based on the semitone and perfect fourth, with the 12-tone metamorphosis of the second part of the Symphony no. 3, in which the series is based on the whole tone and perfect fourth. It never crossed my mind to check the soprano line in the song Lutosławski wrote for Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski’s 60th anniversary, Nie dla Ciebie (Not for You). The title comes from the chosen text by Kazimiera Illakowiczówna, and—here I continue in the spirit of Homma’s reading—it may be that in choosing this text and title, Lutosławski had a second, secret intention. Contradicting the leading theorists of the romantic song, in whose opinion the dodecaphonic series initiated the era of anti-song, Lutosławski writes a melody based on a 12-tone series whose second half is a retrograde inversion of the first. Homma points out that Lutosławski’s dodecaphonic thinking is particularly close to Webern’s, but that Berg’s contribution is also a factor . . .

In writing about Lutosławski’s 12-tone thinking, Martina Homma knows—and announces—that she is overturning a taboo that is deeply rooted in Polish musicology, according to which Lutosławski’s opinions of the Second Viennese School were not particularly favorable. This is not exclusive to Polish musicology, but it is particularly prevalent there. Homma takes the scores note by note and chord by chord. Not only this. She also refers to composition sketches and projects, and shows how the compositional thinking documents counting in 12s and the placement of transpositions. As Homma points out, in a characteristically scrupulous way, it is clear that Lutosławski’s personal poetics led him to reinterpret dodecaphonic doctrine in such a way that series can have not only 12, but also 11, and even up to 24 notes. She shows how this happens in the canons, the harmonies and even in glissandi. She explains how it works in major parts of a work, in its fragments, or its layers. And there are notes foreign to the serial thinking.

An exciting book. If I were not already over the limit given to me by the editorial board, I would happily continue writing. However, having almost all of Lutosławski’s music in my ears, and (let’s be honest) a fairly vague picture of the scores in my eyes, after a single, hasty reading I’m inclined to end my review with these informal remarks. Martina Homma has decomposed Lutosławski’s music, and she has dissected it with exemplary precision and detail. She does not, however, present us with a sliced-up corpse. She explains the rules and principles that give life to the sound configurations which create Lutosławski’s works. This book should be studied page by page, with Lutosławski’s scores in hand and recordings over headphones, obediently, step by step, as Homma guides us. In a way, one should decompose the book, constantly returning to the narrative about Lutosławski’s works, and recalling or getting to know music which the context demands: listening to Varčse, Perle or Babbitt.

Something else. This book contains also indispensable biographical information, as well as the Polish historical context. There is factual information about the year 1956 and about the origins of Warsaw Autumn, together with the program of the first festival. One advantage of this book is the fact that the author didn’t spoil her work by unnecessary and naďve descriptions of the communist regime, heard at fourth hand. This often becomes a mannerism in those Western authors who write about the culture of the Eastern outskirts of the continent. This is also one of the factors which I would happily reiterate to prove that the book, despite its concentrated factual information, is not only reader-friendly but also takes the reader seriously. Self-evidently, we have the whole documentary baggage: it provides perhaps the most complete list of Lutosławski’s works, including all the marginal pieces, and a near- complete bibliography, which—as is evident from the book—is completely familiar to Homma.

It is the privilege of a reviewer to make reservations, comments and assertions. What is it missing in a book? In this one—nothing. I happen to have written and commented on the majority of Lutosławski’s works. Although, in radio conversations with him in 1980, I really went through all the works written before the Symphony no. 3, and I talked to him many times about the later pieces, Martina Homma proved to me with her book how little I knew (and still know today) about his music. The wealth of knowledge contained in this book demands humbleness, respect and gratitude. I could still wish to receive more from Homma than I did. For instance, the philosophy of Lutosławski’s compositional output and its elevated, humanistic hermeneutics. All of this simmers under the surface of her descriptions, but is absent in the narrative. Why?: because this is not in the score—that’s what Homma would say. And because it would be an interpretative addition—she would certainly say that too.

Nobody else has given such an account of Lutosławski’s poetics so far, nor do I think anyone will do so in the near future. Now it has happened. One could surely discuss them in more detail, one could unravel many threads. But from what I know, and I think I know a little, I do not know of a more precise account of any of the 20th century classics. It is true that Lutosławski’s music ideally suits this kind of display. But: Homma has appeared. Of course the translation of the book into Polish is necessary. Composers will learn from it how to compose, theorists how to analyse and how to present their findings, and musicologists will learn how to place particular problems in a historical context. And the critics?: not to blabber nonsense about Lutosławski’s music.

For this book, in which Martina Homma has turned Lutosławski’s compositional kitchen inside out and then created unexpected order in it, I propose that she is worthy of the most prestigious and opulent prizes that the Third Republic of Poland can bestow on her contribution to Polish culture.