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About this Piece

Composed: 1975
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd & 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bells, bongos, cymbals, glockenspiel, marimba, side drum, tam-tam, tom-toms, vibraphone, & xylophone), harp, piano, strings, and solo baritone

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 3, 1983, Witold Lutosławksi conducting, with baritone John Shirley-Quirk (U.S. premiere)

“In December 1974 in Warsaw, after a recital that he had given with Sviatoslav Richter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau asked me if I had ever composed anything for baritone,” Lutosławski wrote about the inspiration for Les espaces du sommeil. “I have always been an admirer of his and the prospect of hearing my music performed by that outstanding artist was a tremendous stimulus to me. I put aside all other work and devoted nearly the whole of 1975 to composing Les espaces du sommeil, the text being the poem by Robert Desnos.” (Fischer-Dieskau sang the premiere performance in 1978, with the composer conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.)

Desnos (1900-1945) was a protégé of André Breton, and though he ultimately broke with Breton and the other Surrealists over their embrace of Communism, at one point Breton considered Desnos the best of them all. Desnos wrote prolifically in many genres, including journalism, and his poetry has been set by many of the most prominent French composers, including Milhaud, Poulenc, and Dutilleux. Desnos was active in the Resistance during World War II; arrested by the Nazis, he was moved around several concentration camps, ending up at Theresienstadt (Terezin), where he died of typhoid fever just weeks after the camp was liberated.

Breton particularly admired Desnos for his ability in “automatic writing,” one of the Surrealists’ keen interests. Desnos proved himself a good subject for hypnotic sleep, capable of writing in a trance. For Breton, the “omnipotence of dream” was a major tenet of Surrealism and Desnos was the poet of sleep and dreams. Les espaces du sommeil (The Spaces of Sleep) is from Corps et biens, a volume of poems written between 1919 and 1929, published in 1930.

The poem, Lutosławski said, “is enchanting not only due to its structure, but, first of all, due to its content, thanks to its beauty. It is perfectly suitable for writing music. My composition is in one movement, being neither a song nor a cycle. It is a symphonic poem in which the baritone voice performs the main role. The poetic text begins with the words ‘Dans la nuit…’ (In the night…) I would like to pay attention to those words, which are repeated and have a principal role in the construction of the whole composition. It is a work about dreams, about dreams’ spaces. Equally significant are the words ‘Il y a toi’ (There is you). The form of utterance is primarily as a narration of the author about what this night contains, about the contents of dreams. The poet refers, at the same time, to the image of a woman.”

The piece opens in fluttering mystery, until the timpani emphatically sets out the primary pitch material just before the soloist comes in with a hushed threefold statement of “Dans la nuit.” After this invocation comes a scherzando section, punctuated by the “Il y a toi” motif, with its halo of horns and harp. In a ravishing adagio, the attention turns to the “you whom I await… you who remains elusive… you are the root of my dreams…,” with each section of the orchestra clearly defined with its own pitch material and articulations. Musical and textual images start to tumble ever faster, as the piece builds to a climax on the hammered declamation of “…millions and millions and millions of beings.” An orchestral interlude recovers the dream world and the baritone enters softly with a rapt chant on middle C, before descending into sleep again on the repeated word “sommeil,” sinking down to “Dans la nuit il y a toi” one last time. The work ends, however, with a sudden flash of allegro sunlight, as the poet adds, “Dans le jour aussi” (In the day also).

— John Henken