"Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux" is intended for a twenty-voice choir and an orchestra of twenty-three musicians. A setting of three poems by a contemporary French poet, Henri Michaux, the three-part work follows the principles of a classical tragedy.
Lutosławski composed his Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux in 1962-3. His first commission from abroad (from Slavko Zlatić, director of the Zagreb Radio Choir), it was premiered at the Music Biennale Zagreb contemporary music festival on 9th May 1963. As the piece required two conductors, Slavko Zlatić conducted the choir and Lutosławski the orchestra.
Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux is intended for a twenty-voice choir and an orchestra of twenty-three musicians. Unusually for Lutosławski, there are no string instruments.
A setting of three poems by a contemporary French poet, Henri Michaux, the three-part work follows the principles of a classical tragedy. The first poem, Pensées, a sceptical reflection on human thinking, is followed by Le grand combat, presenting a bloody fight of two people and constituting the work's culminating point. Like in a Greek tragedy, there is an escalation of conflict and unfolding of disaster. The third poem, Repos dans le malheur, brings melancholic resignation and relief.
This is what Lutosławski said about his attitude to the text and its role in his composition in an introduction to a BBC programme in 1965:
"I chose the three poems by Henri Michaux after I had made a general outline of the work. The selected texts in turn influenced the development of details of the music form. The poem, its sense, its structure must have impacted the music of my work. Anyway, such was my intention. If I had acted otherwise, if the words of the text were to have been just another sound element of music, it would have been abuse, artistic insincerity or at least a misunderstanding".
Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux is a work utilizing largely the technique of controlled aleatorism.
"The performers are allowed a lot of freedom in treating the rhythmic values of their parts. The point is to produce some highly complex rhythm and sound textures with the least technical difficulty for singers and musicians. The mind of each performer is therefore a factor which I strive to include in the set of means of composing. This attitude opposes a mechanical, abstract approach to sound. My attitude aims to restore the pleasure which the performer felt when reproducing a work of music. I try to make use of every performer's individual strengths and capabilities and sometimes demand that they play or sing in a large group with such ease as if they were playing or singing on their own." (introduction to a 1965 BBC programme)
Given the diverse kinds of rhythm and dissimilar synchronic time management principles, the work requires two conductors. Another innovation complements traditional singing of the vocal part with other voice applications: cry, speech, chanting and whisper. Lutosławski, who looked for the aptest interpretation of a poetic text, applied these uncharacteristic ways of using the human voice chiefly in the middle part of his work, Le grand combat, and had the choral part produce only sounds of an undefined pitch.
International recognition for Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux was soon to follow and included the Koussevitzky Music Foundation's Prix Mondial du Disque for the recording made during the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1963 and a top award of UNESCO's International Rostrum of Composers the following year. Poland honoured Lutosławski with the State Award of 1st degree on 22nd July 1964. It was his second such award, the first one having been conferred upon him for Concerto for Orchestra in 1955.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, May 2004.