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Witold Lutosławski

Publisher: Chester Music

Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990)
Work Notes
Chester Music is the publisher of this work in all territories except Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, China, countries of the former Czechoslovakia, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Hungary and the whole territory of the former USSR, where the copyright is held by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM).
Text Writer
Robert Desnos
Chester Music Ltd (Polish Works)
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
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Programme Note
Witold Lutosławski Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990)

1. La Belle-de-nuit
2. La Sauterelle
3. La Véronique
4. L’Eglantine, l’aubépine et la glycine
5. La Tortue
6. La Rose
7. L’Alligator
8. L’Angélique
9. Le Papillon

Soprano soloist – Solveig Kingleborn

“If a person sings instead of talks it’s not natural”, Lutoslawski has observed, and that devastatingly simple maxim has consistently governed his writing for voices, just as surely as it has ensured that his long-cherished project to write an opera still remains strictly a notional one. For the three large-scale vocal works of this maturity – the choral Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963), Paroles tissées (the settings of Jean-François Chabrun made for Peter Pears in 1965), and the setting of Robert Desnos’s Les Espaces du sommeil (1975) for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Lutoslawski selected texts from the French Surrealists, finding in their rich store of imagery layers and strands of meaning that offered themselves naturally to musical amplification and illustration. What attracted him, too, was their essential artificiality, so that the unnaturalness of singing that he so instinctively mistrusted could only enhance rather than undermine their flavour.

The source for the new soprano song-cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables, completed in 1991, is again the Surrealist Robert Desnos. But Lutoslawski arrived at his choice this time only after considering several other texts. He then suddenly remembered Desnos’s collection of children’s poems, sought them out, and was immediately enchanted – even though it was not at all the kind of material he had envisaged for the work.

Born in 1900, Desnos died of typhus in the Terezin concentraction camp in Czechoslvakia in 1945. A year earlier, before his arrest by the Nazis as a member of the Resistance, he had delivered to his publisher in Paris a manuscript of thirty ‘Chantefables à chanter sur n’importe quel air’, which were published after his death. They had been written for the children of friends (including Daniel Milhaud, son of the composer), and when a definitive edition of the ‘Chantefables et Chantefleurs’ appeared in 1955, it contained another twenty poems that had been rediscovered among the poet’s papers. The collection has remained immensely popular in France and has been learnt by heart by successive generations of school children.

In selecting nine of Desnos’s texts for his cycle, Lutoslawski has produced a set of songs that explores the vivid imagery and bright colours of the natural world through the limpid impartial eyes of a child. The group stands apart from other Luoslaswki song-cycles both in its directness – the musical pictures if paints are sharp-etched, not at all illusive - and in its spare, almost understated scoring. The soprano unfolds her lines in the simplest, most unadorned curves, over textures that never use two instruments when one would create the same poetic effect. It was only after completing the cycle that Lutoslawski heard a recital given in Norway by the soloist Solveig Kingleborn, and became aware that her light tone and colouration created precisely the kind of sound he was seeking to realise in his Chantefleurs.

© Andrew Clements

  • Ensemble
    Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
    S. Kringelborn, soprano
    Daniel Harding
    Virgin Classics:
  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
    D. Upshaw, soprano P. Crossley, piano
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Sony Classical:
  • Ensemble
    BBC National Orchestra of Wales
    V. Anderson, soprano
    Tadaaki Otaka
  • Ensemble
    Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
    O. Pasiecznik, soprano
    Antoni Wit
  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Lucy Crowe (soprano) Toby Spence (tenor) Christopher Purves (baritone)
    Edward Gardner
The writing could not be simpler or sparer, but the economy is that of lifelong mastery. With hardly any notes at all he creates an instantly magical opening phrase for violins, vibraphone and the soprano soloist. The grasshopper of the second song is nicely caught. The eighth song, L’Angélique, has a touching tenderness (it was encores); and Lutoslawski’s familiar ad libitum orchestral repetitions are wittily employed to evoke the “three hundred million butterflies” of the last song. The cycle boasts a Ravelian charm and skillfulness, and the ideal singer for it had been found in the light-toned, snow-gowned, blonde Norwegian, Solveig Kringleborn.
Paul Driver, Sunday Times,11/08/1991
It is rare today to fall head over heels in love with a new work at first hearing, but it happened to me on Thursday at the Proms with the first performance of Lutoslawski’s song-cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables (“Song-Flowers and Song-Stories”), nine epigrammic settings of delightfully surrealistic French poems which combine a childlike simplicity with wit and poignancy. How refreshing to encounter music that had obviously been created out of sheer pleasure and a passion for beauty of sound. The scoring for the small orchestra is a miracle of aptness and elegance such as Ravel might be writing if he were alive, whether illustrating the tortoise who likens himself to a swallow or the grumpy Mississippi alligator thwarted of its intended meal of black boy.
Michael Kennedy, Sunday Telegraph,11/08/1991
The Chantefleurs are dazzlingly lyrical, set with a discreet, Ravellian delicacy that recalls the garden scene of L’enfant et les sortileges. And the verse they set is virtually L’enfant material: adult fairy stories of naïve sophistication by poet Robert Desnos. But the treatment of the text is Lutoslawski’s own, the melody developed through minutiae of rhythmic and harmonic colour to a level of immense refinement – exquisitely sung, here, by the boyish soprano of Solveig Kringleborn, a young Swedish singer en début and utterly enchanting.
Michael White, Independent on Sunday,11/08/1991
The scoring is wonderfully spare, with solo lines usually enough to crystallize a musical image, and always allowing the vocal line to shine through, though there are always enough of Lutoslawski’s technical devises to make the composer never in doubt. Again, Ravel seems to lurk behind some of the textures, less L’enfant perhaps, than the orchestral version of Ma Mère l’oye, with which the scoring of Chantefleurs et Chantefables shares its bejeweled precision, its faultless pace and timing.
Andrew Clements, Financial Times,10/08/1991
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