Jeux Venitiens - Witold Lutosławski
According to Witold Lutosławski, there is no other reason for the title of his Jeux Venitiens than the place of its 24th April 1961 premiere, the Venice Biennale Festival. Interestingly, that first performance - by the work's commissioner, the Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrzej Markowski - was of an incomplete piece, the third movement not composed by then. The entire work was first performed by the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Witold Rowicki during the Warsaw Autumn Festival later that year.
Written in 1961 as a result of Lutosławski's search for a new, individual composing language, Jeux Venitiens marked a breakthrough in his music. The inspiration came from John Cage's original idea to introduce chance - aleatorism - to music. This is how the distinguished musicologist Stefan Jarociński put it in 1969:
"Aleatorism led either to a total rejection of traditional systems and forms of music - and that direction found a number of followers in the West - or to such sound arrangements which were partly or wholly mathematicized with the use of the law of great numbers and the theory of probability (Iannis Xenakis' 'stochastic' music). A natural-born classic, Lutosławski avoided the two extremes, choosing - starting from his 'Jeux Venitiens' (1961) - a third way: inclusion of chance in his own, specific understanding and in a scope limited to metrorhythmics. This new form of aleatorism, called the 'aleatorism of texture' by Lutosławski and the 'controlled aleatorism' by critics, does not have a trace of anarchy, for chance does not break the form, its function restricted to the loosening of time relationships of sounds in the work's time progression segments which are strictly set by the composer. A look at what is already an eight-year result of this momentous turn in Lutosławski's music is enough to see the wings acquired by his composing imagination owing to a medium which, like a neutron, could have led to a fission and destruction of the very core of music or to a partial or even total elimination (by the computer) of its maker, yet has become an obedient tool to release sound energy for esthetic purposes in the hands of this composer. 'Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux', 'String Quartet', 'Paroles tissées', 'Symphony No. 2', 'Livre pour orchestre' - a great work every year; this is a picture of creative effort turned to synthesizing the musical values of the age in closed forms, responding more to its nostalgic needs than its passion for 'arriving at the mysterious innocence of the primary elements' (Roger Caillois) in the hope that, freed from all codes and systems, they themselves will create beauty".
The following commentary was provided by Lutosławski for the Warsaw Autumn Festival programme book in connection with the premiere of the full, four-movement version of the work:
"Written in 1961, 'Jeux Venitiens' are the work in which I first applied elements of the aleatoric technique. The loosening of time relationships between sounds may seem a small innovation, yet it may be of great significance for the composer's technique. I mean both the possibility of enormous enrichment of the rhythmic side of music without increasing performing difficulty as well as allowing for a free, complete, individualized instrument playing within an orchestra. I have found these elements of the aleatoric technique to be particularly attractive. To me they open a way of realizing a number of sound visions which would otherwise remain forever in the realm of my imagination. I am not, however, interested in such achievements of aleatorism as, for example, the elevation of chance to the status of the factor determining the basics of the composition, or taking the listener - and even the composer himself - by surprise with another unforeseeable version of performing a piece. In my work the composer remains the driving factor, and the introduction of chance in a strictly pre-defined manner is just a way and not a means in itself. It was the way I foresaw for the performance of my new work that has determined the use of the word 'game' in the title".
Jeux Venitiens is perhaps Lutosławski's most "experimental" piece of music, and its score is very innovative, too: the segments of the first movement (Ad libitum) are framed, the elements of the refrain are provided separately, and a large commentary - performing instructions - is attached. Neither the experimental composing technique nor the innovative score has deprived Jeux Venitiens of sensual charm, though; the work remains popular and is often performed, including four performances at the Warsaw Autumn Festival.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, June 2002.