Music and Text in Elisabeth Lutyens's Wittgenstein Motet1

By Parsons, Laurel | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Music and Text in Elisabeth Lutyens's Wittgenstein Motet1


Parsons, Laurel, Canadian University Music Review


"I know from experience that sanity ... lies in applying the conscious mind objectively and allowing the 'unconscious' - 'inspiration', 'soul', 'spirit' ... to look, as an adult, after itself."2 This remark, made early in her career by the British composer Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-83), is echoed in her insistence throughout her life that art was "a precision instrument." Nowhere in the corpus of Lutyens's work is this philosophy more apparent than in her twelve-tone Motet, op. 27 (1953), based on the Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921), the landmark treatise by the Austrian-born English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). One intriguing aspect of this beautifully constructed work is the relationship between its text and musical structure, and it is on this relationship that the main, analytical body of this paper will focus. But first, given Lutyens's relative obscurity in North America, some biographical context is in order.

BIOGRAPHICAL BACKGROUND

The compositions of Elisabeth Lutyens have yet to become as well-known as the legendary personality of a woman who surely must be counted among the most fascinating of twentieth-century British composers. The fourth child of Lady Emily Lytton and the renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, she came from a long line of artists and eccentrics, including her great-grandfather, the Gothic novelist and statesman Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, author of The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Rienzi (1835), and her grandfather Sir Robert Lytton, Viceroy of India (1875-80), poet and avid roller-skater. Her mother, Lady Emily, a childhood friend of Virginia Woolf, carried on the tradition of idiosyncrasy in her own way, as an early twentieth-century champion of the cult of theosophy, which at the time held that the young Krishnamurti was the new messiah. When Krishnamurti came to England in 1911 to attend university, the adoring Lady Emily unofficially adopted him into the Lutyens household, and for the next ten years, her obsession with him would overpower her interests in her own husband and young children. Especially after a trying sojourn with her mother and sisters in an Australian theosophical commune during her teenage years, the young Elisabeth's resentment of her mother's neglect eventually solidified into a lifelong suspicion towards any form of religious dogmatism, to which the opening citation of this article attests.

From the early 1920s, as a sixteen-year-old composition student in Paris, until her death in 1983, she produced over 300 works in a wide variety of genres, ranging in scale from the Sonata for Solo Viola, op. 5, to the full-length opera The Numbered (1967).3 Described by William Glock after her death as "a Catherine-wheel of intelligence," Lutyens was a determined, individualistic pioneer who, like Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy, began and persisted in writing serial music in a cultural environment which, in the early decades of her career, was generally hostile to the music of the Second Viennese School.4 The "mother of British serialism," as she was known by some (or, less kindly by others, "Twelve-tone Lizzie"), claimed that her adoption of serialist composition techniques arose not so much from any thorough knowledge of the music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, but from her exposure in 1933 to the string fantasias of Purcell:

It was hearing these works, with their equality of part- writing, coupled with my satiety - to screaming point - with diatonic cadential harmony, that led me to discover gradually, for my own compositional needs, what some years later I heard described as "twelve-tone," "serial" composition. I had not, as yet, heard the names, still less the music, of the new Viennese School.5

In her doctoral dissertation, Sarah Tenant-Flowers considers the specific nature of Purcell's influence on Lutyens's works of the 1930s, noting a new contrapuntalism in the compositions that followed her discovery of his string fantasias.

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