• Parallel Lives of a Captive Muse (2012)

Parallel Lives of a Captive Muse

This article was written for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s ‘Woven Words’ celebration in 2013 of the centenary of the birth of Witold Lutosławski.  It first appeared on the website www.woven-words.co.uk in October 2012.


Fifty years ago, Witold Lutosławski was beginning to make his mark internationally as one of the most interesting composers from Poland, a country whose musical life had remained much of a mystery to outsiders from the 1940s until the establishment of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1956.  His Musique funèbre jointly won first prize at the UNESCO Composers’ Tribune in 1959.  Jeux vénitiens, which was premièred at the Venice Biennale in 1961, won the UNESCO Prize outright in 1962, as did Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux in 1964.  Late in 1964, Lutosławski completed his String Quartet, the first of his works to be premièred by a major non-Polish ensemble (LaSalle Quartet), while Jeux vénitiens was the first of his works to be published outside Poland (Moeck, 1962).  But it was to be another five years before he found a regular publisher in the West and a second score appeared – Paroles tissées (Chester, 1967).  With these compositions from the late 1950s and early 1960s, Lutosławski developed a technical and expressive musical language that broke decisively with the diatonic music that he had written during the post-war decade.  His image both inside Poland and in the West was one of a serious composer with a clear focus on his path through what he once called the ‘thicket’ of contemporary musical ideas.

It comes as a surprise therefore to realise that it was precisely during 1957-64, the years of his compositional breakthrough, that Lutosławski led a secret parallel life as a composer of harmonious dance songs: foxtrots, tangos and waltzes.  He was not alone, at a time when everyday life remained hard, in having to supplement his income.  It had been a common feature since the end of the Second World War in 1945.  Other composers, usually of a younger generation, turned to writing film music for much the same reason, such as Kazimierz Serocki (16 films, 1949-74) and Tadeusz Baird (21 films, 1957-68), while Krzysztof Penderecki wrote a considerable amount of music for marionette theatres (1957-67).  But Lutosławski was alone in Poland in taking on commissions to write popular songs, although precedents had been set by composers, like Władysław Szpilman (The Pianist), who were best-known for their light music.

These songs filled a need for popular music at a time when equivalent Western music was still regarded with suspicion behind the Iron Curtain.  They were published in collections such as Śpiewamy i Tańczymy (Let’s Sing and Dance) or in the weekly listings magazine for Polish Radio and Television.  They were functional, but Lutosławski devoted his customary attention to detail in his 36 dance songs just as he did in his concert music.  As far as can be ascertained, he did not orchestrate any of them himself. This task was left to in-house arrangers and conductors at Polish Radio, such as Jerzy Harald and Bogusław Klimczuk.  A typical ensemble might include three clarinets or saxophones, trumpet, guitar, accordion, piano, percussion (often vibraphone), string bass and sometimes a few violins.  The singers who were engaged ranged from a close-harmony group, or an old-stager like Mieczysław Fogg, to a bevvy of Polish female singers barely out of their teens, including Rena Rolska, Irena Santor, Hanna Rek, Violetta Villas and Ludmiła Jakubczak.  Tapes of over 20 of Lutosławski’s songs survive at Polish Radio and they give not only a wonderful flavour of musical taste at the time but also reveal his imaginative approach to the task in hand.

There is the sultry slow-fox Filipince nudno (The Bored Filipina), the upbeat and exotic foxtrot Tabu (Taboo) and arguably the most famous of them all, Nie oczekuję dziś nikogo (I Am Not Expecting Anyone Today).  Two of the earliest songs are Zielony berecik (The Little Green Beret, unfortunately never recorded), with its clear ancestry in Gershwin’s Love Walked In, and Daleka podróż (Distant Journey).  The latter is one of Lutosławski’s most accomplished, a tango in which the singer dreams of the freedom to travel, fantasising about ‘the land of palms and parrots’.  Lutosławski even manages to slip in a reference to a theme from the third movement of Debussy’s La mer. Nevertheless, Daleka podróż gives the most poignant indication that Lutosławski was not in a place he wanted to be.

This led to his decision from the outset to employ a pseudonym for these songs.  The first six were written under the name ‘Bardos’, a character from a Polish play and opera dating from the 1790s.  When in March 1957 he realised that there was a living Hungarian composer called Lajos Bárdos, Lutosławski changed his pseudonym to ‘Derwid’, a character in Juliusz Słowacki’s play Lilla Weneda (1840).  Few outside the music business knew of the songs’ true authorship.  This deception was a mild but crucial one for the composer.  He adopted his Derwid disguise long before he became a major international figure (although perhaps he foresaw a possible conflict of perception), so the reasons for his decision must also have lain in his sometimes uncomfortable experience in the post-war decade. Between 1945 and 1954, he composed not only concert music, such as the Concerto for Orchestra, but also music for children, a couple of scores for documentary films, functional music for the theatre and the radio and, more problematically, music with a political purpose.  All this was carried out under his real name.

In the horrific aftermath of the Second World War, Polish life was exceedingly harsh and cultural life devastated.  Yet schools, orchestras, printing presses, concerts and broadcasts were up and running within weeks.  Performing materials – instruments, sheet music and orchestral parts – were harder to come by.  Composers pitched in, particularly with new music for children.  Lutosławski’s contribution to this educationally important genre included Folk Melodies for piano (1945) and 34 children’s songs (1947-54).  (He subsequently composed 12 more in 1958-59, but these were never published.)  This music shows his ability, as in the Derwid songs, to capture a musical idea, give it a succinct character and create memorable minor gems, such as his songs to poetry by Julian Tuwim.  The film scores for Odra do Bałtyku (Via the Oder to the Baltic, 1945) and Suita Warszawska (Warsaw Suite, 1946), being orchestral, are closer in style to his two concert works that flank them (Symphonic Variations and First Symphony), although there is an evident socio-political aspect to both documentaries, as was to be expected from their immediate post-war subject matter.

Less is known of Lutosławski’s incidental music for the theatre and for radio, and a comprehensive study remains to be carried out.  Aside from a pre-war score for Harun al Raschid, written when he was 18, he composed over a dozen scores for the theatre (1946-59), to works as varied as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Corneille’s Le Cid, Lorca’s Blood Wedding and two plays by Giraudoux.  He wrote music for almost 80 radio broadcasts (1948-60).  Some were aimed at children, like Kipling’s The Cat that Walked by Himself (undated) and Hanuszewska’s Smok Wawelski (The Wawel Dragon, also undated).  Some were for poetry programmes, some for adapted fiction (Gogol’s The Nose and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls), while others were for established plays, ranging from Lysistrata by Aristophanes (1956, scored for flute, trumpet and percussion) and Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve, 1955, scored for small orchestra) to Anouilh’s Euridice (1957).

Amongst the majority of items with little or no ‘side’ to them are a couple that are indicative of the changing political situation in the late 1940s.  As the Cold War developed, Poland was gradually taken over by Soviet-backed political and military forces, to the extent that by the end of 1948 it had effectively become a one-party communist state.  The cultural implications became increasingly clear: the imposition of Soviet-style socialist realism meant that creative artists were instructed to direct their work towards the working masses and to the glory of the nation.  In 1947, Lutosławski wrote the incidental music for Bracia (Brothers), a 40-minute radio play about sacrifice and freedom, set on the Ukrainian front at the Battle of Lenino in 1943.  Fletnia chińska (The Chinese Flute), his only verified piece of incidental music for Polish Radio from 1949, was a 20-minute programme of contemporary Chinese verse.  At that time, China was a fellow country fighting against American and Western imperialism and, if there was any doubt that this was a politically motivated broadcast, the poetry itself was perfectly explicit.  Its author, Wen Yi Tuo, had been shot by the anti-communist Kuomintang in 1946, and the last of the three poems is an ode to brotherhood and a call to arms for the communist cause.

After the so-called ‘thaw’ of 1956, when socialist realism was consigned to history, Lutosławski took every opportunity to distance himself from his music of the post-war decade, especially any that might be interpreted as having been a compromise with political pressures, such as the politicised genre of the ‘mass song’.  He was not alone in this.  I recall arranging meetings in the 1980s with two of the composers most intimately entwined in the socialist-realist arguments of 1947-54.  Neither Zygmunt Mycielski (who was battling from the Polish Composers’ Union on behalf of his colleagues) nor Witold Rudziński (who was the main promoter of mass songs) was prepared to talk about the politics of music in the post-war decade.  The subject was out of bounds, as if it jeopardised their moral integrity.  On the one hand, this is a position to be respected.  On the other, it lends an intriguing aspect to a situation that nowadays, if not then, may reasonably be regarded as a fact of history and a product of the jobbing part of a composer’s life to which no opprobrium need be attached.  The reality was that composers had little option but to contribute in some way to the cause, which at the greatest extreme might be a Symphony of Peace or a substantial cantata in praise of the Six-Year Plan.

Lutosławski, for example, wrote a modest five-minute cantata in praise of the rebuilding of Warsaw (Warszawie-Sława!, 1950).  And although this too was never revealed during his lifetime, he also wrote the music for a mass-song triptych celebrating the fifth anniversary, on 22 July 1949, of the July Manifesto, the declaration issued by the Soviet-backed Polish Communist Party at the end of the war.  In April 1950, Lutosławski wrote a letter to the Polish Composers’ Union offering his Lipcowy wienec (A July Garland) for the forthcoming Festival of Polish Music.  I traced the orchestral parts to the House of the Polish Army, where he had indicated that they were, but the full score and choral parts, to texts by Gałczyński, were missing.  It was never published and the parts suggest that only the third song was ever performed.  It is small wonder that Lutosławski wanted to forget that he had been under such pressure that, alongside his distinguished colleague from the world of literature, he had had to pen something so inimical.

Lipcowy wienec is a solitary example of desultory invention in Lutosławski’s output.  His six mass songs from 1950 show a level of musical imagination that puts them alongside the acknowledged (and dedicated) masters of the genre at that time, Edward Olearczyk, Alfred Gradstein and Szpilman.  It is important also to remember that the genre of the wartime underground song – to which Lutosławski contributed five examples, eventually published in 1948 – was a precursor of the often militaristic mass song.  Contrary to Lutosławski’s defensive comments (‘I selected some texts, in which there were no political implications whatsoever,… alas, what’s done is done’), these six mass songs, alongside the seventh, Towarzysz (Comrade, 1952), have at the very least a socio-political slant and, in some cases, are specifically about communist youth movements or the flagship industrial complex being built at Nowa Huta, outside Cracow.  Musically, like the later Derwid songs, they have much to offer, each of them containing interesting rhythmic or harmonic ideas.  His most popular mass song,Wyszłabym ja (I Would Marry), is also the least political, concerning itself with the marriage fantasies of a young peasant woman.  It is also structurally inventive and clearly shows the meticulousness of Lutosławski’s compositional approach to even the smallest task.

Unlike the march-like character of most mass songs, Wyszłabym ja is cast as a lilting mazurka.  Polish folk dance melodies and rhythms do appear in Polish music during the post-war decade, but the belief that composers had to use national idioms and materials – in order to reach out to the masses – is mistaken.  The majority of Polish music from these years uses no folk music at all, even at the highpoint of socialist realism in 1950-52.  Lutosławski, who was unique in concentrating totally on folk materials in 1950-54, began working with them for his concert music just at the moment that his contemporary, Andrzej Panufnik, stopped using them altogether.  The music by the composer-violinist Grażyna Bacewicz, the other major figure of the time, barely touches folk materials outside her little encore pieces.  Those who did use folk music mostly took the melodies as melodies, sometimes working them into canonic or layered textures.  This technique may also be heard in Lutosławski’s orchestral Mała suita (Little Suite, 1950), the vocal Tryptyk Śląski (Silesian Triptych, 1951) and Dance Preludes (1954), though his keen ear for rhythmic life and instrumental timbres marked him out.  In his Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54), Lutosławski’s approach to his materials was different again and for this reason it stands head and shoulders above the rest of post-war Polish repertoire.

In the same manner in which he pursued two distinct strands of compositional activity in the late 1950s and early ’60s, so too in the early ’50s he kept his family housed and fed by accepting menial commissions while at the same time searching for new ways to use folk materials in his concert music, sufficient to satisfy his creative soul.  The Concerto for Orchestra was the pinnacle of this process.  Not content with simply reiterating tunes, he became fascinated by the idea of using their motivic kernels to fashion a symphonic argument.  In adopting this approach he reached out to composers a generation older than himself, like Bartók, as well as to other composers whom he held dear.  His characteristic care in the preparatory stages of composition led him to search for and write out dozens of melodies before selecting a chosen few (11 in all).  In the opening Intrada, for example, he was able to unify the texture by selecting tunes that were all in the same metre (3/8) and shared key pitches.  Sometimes, he filleted a tune or extracted its opening motif.  Elsewhere, he elongated themes into fanfares.  In such ways he placed a distance between his music and its sources while at the same time retaining aspects of their folk essence.  Even so, some questioned his allegiance to the principle of music for a mass audience.

The continuing popularity of the Concerto for Orchestra (it remains his most performed and recorded work) is evidence that his creative and technical vision transcended the earthbound concerns of the time.  The mundanity of the peripheries of his life were ultimately transient, although that was by no means obvious to him or anyone else in 1950 or even 1960.  It is, of course, possible to enjoy his concert music in isolation, and I sometimes wonder whether Lutosławski would have preferred to have started with a completely clean sheet in the mid-1950s, so dismissive was he of most of his music of the post-war decade.  He did, though, keep all his manuscript scores, including those of his mass songs and Derwid songs.  There are multiple contexts and peripheries for any work of art, and an understanding of hidden or forgotten hinterlands adds to the appreciation of the gestation and realisation of a composer’s central output. Lutosławski’s life and work bears witness to this.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas

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