The Music of Elisabeth Lutyens

LUTYENS: 7 Preludes for Piano, Op. 126. The Great Seas, Op. 132. 5 Impromptus, Op. 116. Plenum I. La natura dell’Acqua, Op. 154 / Martin Jones, pno / Resonus Classics RES20191

Agnes Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) was a British composer, known in her country as a staunch proponent of Schoenbergian serialism. She was also involved in the Theosophical Movement and an admirer of Krishnamurti, who actually lived in her house since the time she was five years old and was thus considered almost a member of the family. These two strains led her to produce music that was formidable in its harmonic dissonance but which tried to express the spiritual feelings she absorbed from her religious beliefs. In a way, she was like a female British counterpart to Olivier Messiaen.

LuytensPianist Martin Jones perfectly captures the dichotomy of Lutyens’ muse, the dreamy and sensual on the one hand and the spiky and combative on the other. Each of the seven Preludes have descriptive titles such as “Whose Name was Writ in Water,” “Night Winds,” “Starlight,” “Tenebrae” and “Strange Thunders from the Potency of Song.” Being largely influenced by the cosmos and weather phenomena, her music thus also bears a resemblance to Almeida Prado’s fascinating Cartas Celestas. Despite its almost continual dissonance, it is music that drifts in and out of your mind like darkening clouds or night mists.

A technical description of the music is clearly possible, particularly since much of it is slow-moving and has a lot of space between the notes—she used brief motifs and flourishes in the right hand, often played a cappella, while the left occasionally rumbled along with soft tremolos or single-note counter-themes that moved in an opposite direction from the right—but since her goal was to impart a feeling of the cosmos and not necessarily to make you sit up and analyze her style, a continuous succession of such analysis is besides the point. This is music that you, the listener, are encouraged to simply sit back and absorb as you would a summer breeze, the roll of waves on the shore, or a meteor streaking across the night sky. In short, it is very high grade ambient music.

The main thing I like about Lutyens’ music is that, for all its thorny dissonance, the music is not really pretentious. On the contrary, it sounds to me like inner musings of her spirit that she just felt she had to get out, as if sitting alone at the piano creating these sounds for herself. In this respect, the music is very intimate, so much so that you almost feel her vulnerability. Luytens opened herself up to her listeners in a way that was exceptionally intimate and personal.

Thus as the recital progresses, you feel less and less that you are listening to Martin Jones, or whoever else may have recorded these pieces, and more than you are listening to Elisabeth Lutyens. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but there it is. There’s really no other way to describe the sensations you feel. Her spirit was an open book.

This music, then, is clearly not for everyone, but if you sample this album online—all of the tracks are available on YouTube—you may become as hooked as I was and want this CD for yourself.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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