Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux was written for the Zagreb Biennale and first performed there by the orchestra and choir of Radio Zagreb, conducted by the composer and Slavko Zlatic on 9 May 1963. It is composed for 20-part choir and an orchestra similar to that of the Symphony of Psalms, though without the lower strings of the latter.
Lutoslaswski has said that the general outline of the work came to him first, and only then did he choose the three poems. These reflect his Francophile taste: Henri Michaux was born in Belgium in 1899 and later became a painter: the trenchant Le Grand Combat, with its onomatopoeic invented words, dates form the 1920s; the other two texts, which are more philosophic than pictorial, form the 1930s. Choir and orchestra need separate conductors even though throughout they alternate more often than they combine.
A description of the course of the music itself will be more useful than any discussion of its technical processes or of its notation. A quiet section of orchestral polyphony, which brass sforzandi punctuate with increasing frequency, frames the beginning and end of Pensées. After the choir’s first unaccompanied passage, the woodwind have a staccato section over which the female voices, singing downward glissandi, are superimposed (‘Ombre de mondes infimes…’). Then the woodwind and both pianos join in a lapping ostinato which illustrates the text of the next forte choir entry ‘Pensées à la nage merveilleuse…’ The climax of the movement comes as these characteristic woodwind figures alternate with the tintinnabulation of a gamelan-like ensemble of vibraphone, céleste, harp and pianos.