About the Dance Postlude: Lutosławski’s Lullaby for piano solo Op.25
This Dance Postlude was originally written to serve as the thirteenth and final piece in a piano suite entitled Little Towns, Low Countries. The beginning of the suite was response, I cannot say to a request from Luk Vaes, but to his generous interest when I offered to write something for him to play. At the time Luk performed new music internationally, and studied with the late Yvar Mikhashoff in Buffalo.
I was planning a suite of nine pieces, in which the pianist would read eight short poems, one each to be read in between the succeeding movements. It was an experiment, conducted at a time when I was impressed that I should do things in as novel a fashion as I might, in a musical environment anxious to appear très chic. In this manner, I wrote the first three pieces, which Luk gamely performed according to this original design, to see how it should go.
It must be noted that the value of an artistic experiment may reside principally in its absolute failure; the flop of that experiment is one of the outcomes the artist must be willing to accept.
As it turned out, the experiment was not an absolute failure (call it a conditional flop). The musical result was satisfactory; but in the concert hall, the poetry’s declamation (through no fault of Luk’s) left much to be desired, in the context of a professional, staged musical event. It is a scheme better suited to a coffee-house, maybe. But as I inteded the music for concert performance, I decided that Little Towns would do without the explicit declamation of poetry, and that the suite should have more poetry at its heart.
[One regard in which this initial performance of Luk’s was a resounding success is, that Luk played the pieces brilliantly, and the three pieces worked well as a short suite. So (even though I went on to write not only the six additional pieces to “fill out” my original scheme of a nine-piece suite, but four pieces in addition to these), I ultimately decided to let the first three pieces as performed by Luk comprise the Little Towns, Low Countries Suite proper, collecting five of the other pieces as the Pictures Only I Can See Suite. I decided to let three of the pieces stand as independent works: To Melt from a Distance, Foreign Impertinences Committed upon “Barbara Allen” [I later settled on the less invasive title: Gaze Transfixt] and Lutosławski’s Lullaby itself.]
[2015 update: I spent some time in June revisiting all these early piano solo pieces, and now think that a grand suite of The Lot can be a valid, alternative way to program them. Still purely speculative, as I know no pianist yet who is game to play them.]
As a composition project, the suite was at first something of an aside: an assortment of deliberately small-scale essays serving as occasional respite from my doctoral dissertation. It may seem that the suite was an excuse not to work on the dissertation, but those first three pieces were a sort of sketchbook for musical elements built from the same raw materials which are the basis of Uncondyssion’d Ayres.
[One important musical consideration in making those first three pieces into a suite separate from the rest is, that they are based on material related to the Uncondyssion’d Ayres, where the other pieces do quite other things musically.]
In the event, both suite and dissertation were at first interrupted by, and then radically transformed through, my sojourn in Russia and Estonia.
My remove from academia (at long last, after a twelve-year period of practically uninterrupted higher schooling ... well, schooling periodically interrupted by short-term employment during the breaks) turned out more geographically dramatic than many graduates experience. It proved dramatic in other, more important ways; the immersion in Russian culture was in innumerable ways an educational experience of itself. Possibly because I knew almost nothing of Russian culture before going there, and could take it in without intellectual filters, this experience proved a sort of birth for me spiritually and artistically. Few people, it may be, are given to discern their cultural shells; and fewer understand the risk involved in stepping outside that shell, alive to new wonders.
The first time I went to Petersburg was a day-trip from Tallinn, Estonia. I took a bus to the city of Peter the Great; walked around the part of town between Arts Square and the Winter Palace, looked for the first time upon the granite-faced fortress of Peter and Paul across the River Neva, spent a dazzling and tantalizingly brief hour in the Hermitage, and missed my bus going back.
Any first-time visitor to such a beautiful, enchanting, and poetical city as Petersburg might have done so, and might have spoken as little Russian as did I. As little Russian as I spoke means in fact, not the least word. A succession of kindly strangers pointed me along the stages of making my way to Varshavsky (Warsaw) Station, whence trains depart also for Tallinn. At that train station, so different from Penn Station or Grand Central, a series of delightfully implausible circumstances led to my being introduced to the wonderful woman who is now my wife.
As the name suggests, trains also depart from Warsaw Station for Poland. I left on the train for Tallinn little dreaming (— no, I did dream, but I hardly dared think much of the dream —) that the young woman I had met, for such a brief time, would eventually permit me to marry her. Later, I promised to write her a piano piece.
In Tallinn, I heard the Estonian National Philharmonic play Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4, and I learned that Lutosławski had passed away. I did not travel to Warsaw, but I heard a train rumbling from Petersburg to Poland, the mechanical rhythms of the iron horse lulling a composer to sleep