• Panel 3: 1949-53 Socrealizm

The Hidden Composer: Witold Lutosławski and Polish Radio

An exhibition first shown as part of the Breaking Chains festival,
Barbican Centre, London, 13-19 January 1997

PANEL 3: 1949-53  Socrealizm
RiŚ 48/40+49,  50/50, 49/51

Radio i Świat, September + December 1949, December 1950, December 1951

The politicisation of all public bodies, including Polish Radio and Radio i Świat, began in earnest in 1948.  Bolesław Bierut, the leader of what subsequently became the ruling PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party), was featured in October 1948; the celebration of the PZPR’s formation followed in December: ‘Welcome to the Day if Unification’.  The opportunity presented by Dmitri Shostakovitch’s participation in the Second International Peace Congress in Warsaw (December 1950) is not missed, while Józef Stalin’s pen was poised over his communist allies in a 70th-birthday portrait in December 1951.

Socialist Realism

Socialist realism (known as socrealizm in Poland) was the well-tried Soviet method of controlling artistic output so that it served the Party’s own ends.  In Poland, the policy of socrealizm governed composers most severely during the five years between 1949 and 1953, but it rarely took the catastrophically destructive line experienced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the Soviet Union.

A significant attempt to influence Polish composers took place 5-8 August 1949 at a conference in agów.  Lutosławski was present, but his one recorded contribution was to suggest a precise agenda.  A number of pieces were played, including movements from Turski’s Olympic Symphony.  Turski had featured on the front cover of Radio i Świat only a year earlier [see Panel 1], but the work, despite its admirers, was lambasted by the Deputy Minister of Culture for being “incompatible with the spirit of our time”.  That same year, Lutosławski’s First Symphony and Panufnik’s Sinfonia rustica were also proscribed.

Composers were encouraged to adopt a simple language, perhaps connected to Polish folk music, and an optimistic tone.  Several genres were particularly favoured.  In reality, operas were generally too cumbersome to be of much immediate propaganda use, although cantatas were more common [see Lutosławski’s Warszawie-sława! on Panel 2].  The most flexible medium was the song.  And, from 1947, the mass song became the principal musical tool of the PZPR.  Competitions were set up for texts and music and the best talents were encouraged.  The results were predictably variable, but as a body of work the mass song is a revealing reflection of the times.

RiŚ 50:24

Polish Radio peer review for mass songs, June 1950

By the end of 1950, no artistic utterance was immune from peer review.  Polish Radio initiated what was probably the first such review of mass songs and it was documented by Radio i Świat in June 1950.  ‘For Song, which will Mobilize the People to Further Work and Further Struggle’ reports in text and photographs on a closed meeting for composers, poets and radio staff.  They heard 22 songs performed by the tenor Leopold Nowosad and the Polish Radio Choir and Orchestra under its conductor Jerzy Kołaczkowski. The subsequent discussion went on for several hours (no verdicts were revealed), but the significance of the occasion may be measured by the attendance of three senior Party ideologues: Jakub Berman, Edward Ochab and Stefan Dybowski (Minister of Culture and the Arts.

Lutosławski on his Situation

Lutpsławski was a most reluctant recruit to the cause of the mass song, but he little choice.  Even his wartime song Żelazny marsz (Iron March) was conscripted as a mass song (it was the first by Lutosławski to be printed in Radio i Świat).

Lutosławski: Żelazny marsz (1944, recording from early 1950s?)

Once his arm had been twisted, Lutosławski had to comply, as he recounted many years later:

I could not help doing it, for I was the only bread-winner of the family (consisting of four persons).  I had been instigated to this deed by Henryk Swolkień, a musicologist on the staff of Polish Radio.  At that time I worked for the Radio – on the staff, too – as a composer of incidental music for radio plays and children’s programmes.  One day Swolkień told me: “Members of the Editorial Board are discontented with you: you are known to have written a few songs for the Armia Krajowa [the underground Home Army during the war] – why do you write, they say, no mass songs today?  Take my advice, do write some songs – otherwise troubles are in store for you”.  In short, I selected some texts, in which there were no political implications whatsoever, and composed a few songs – alas, what’s done is done.

Irina Nikolska, Conversations with Witold Lutosławski (Stockholm: Melos, 1994), 41-42

In fact, Lutoślawski’s account is somewhat disingenuous, because all but one of his songs are explicitly socio-political in tone and subject matter.  Certainly, he never set a text directly to Stalin, the Party or the Six-Year Plan, but he could not avoid lyrics extolling the virtues of Socialist progress or of communist youth organisations such as Służba Polsce (Service to Poland) and the ZMP (Polish Youth Union.  He also wrote the music for two poems in praise of Nowa Huta, the new industrial complex outside Kraków.

Lutosławski’s Mass Songs

Because manuscripts of most of Lutosławski’s radio music are undated, any dating today is reliant on information gleaned from details of contemporary publication and radio recordings.  Mass songs are normally published for voice and piano or for a cappella vices.  The sheet music often gives both the month and year of publication as well as the print run.

Polish Radio broadcast and recorded a great many mass songs.  It had long been assumed that Lutosławski had withdrawn all surviving tapes of his mass songs, but I found many of them at Polish Radio in 1994.  One recording which has disappeared is the only known example of Lutosławski being involved as a performer.  On 9 December 1950, Lutosławski (piano) accompanied Janina Godlewska (soprano) in a radio recording of Wyszłabym ja (I Would Marry).  This is Lutosławski’s only true non-political mass song: its folksy text concerns a young woman who consults a clover leaf on whether she should marry the bricklayer, the weaver or the turner [all workers, to be sure].

Earliest Date (Source) – Title [* = number of known recordings]

1950
14 June (date written on Lutosławski’s copy of the text) – Zwycięska droga (The Road to Victory)
6 September (peer review) – Nowa Huta (New Foundry)  ***
26 September (Radio i Świat) – Służba Polsce (Service to Poland)  **
25 October (Polish Radio recording) – Naprzód idziemy (We Are Going Forward)  *
9 December (Polish Radio Recording) – Wyszłabym ja (I Would Marry)  ****
– (ZMP publication) – Najpięknieszy sen (A Most Beautiful Dream)  ***

1952
5 March (Polish Radio recording) – Towarzysz (Comrade)  ***

RiŚ 51:22

Composers of mass songs, Radio i Świat May 1951

In the early summer of 1951, by which time Lutosławski had composed at least a handful of mass songs, Radio i Świat published a photographic roster of the main composers of mass songs: Edward Olearczyk, Alfred Gradstein, Henryk Swolkień, Władysław Szpilman and Jan Maklakiewicz (clockwise from top left) were more prolific than Lutosławski (top right) and penned some enduring hits.  Lutosławski’s photograph was the most familiar one of him at this time, although it was usually printed the other way round (this is in reverse).

Political poetry had been published in Radio i Świat since March 1948.  It is fascinating to find the melodies of a few mass songs appearing briefly in Radio i Świat in early 1949, reinforcing the strongly educational and informative tone of the magazine.  The regular publication of such melodies did not occur until 1950, starting with Panufnik’s Pieśń Zjednoczonej Partii (Song for a United Party, 1948), which appeared in time for May Day 1950.

RiŚ 50:39+47 + 51:12

Witold Lutosławski mass songs: Radio i Świat September and November 1950, March 1951

The words and melodies of five of Lutosławski’s mass songs appeared in Radio i Świat between September 1950 and March 1951, with Wyszłabym ja appearing for a second time later that year.  Three of these songs are reproduced here just as they appeared in the regular column ‘The Polish Mass Song’: Służba Polsce and two songs to Nowa Huta, Nowa Huta and Najpięknieszy sen.  In early cases, as here with Służba Polsce, the column invited listeners to comment on the mass songs, with the most interesting letters winning prizes.

Lutosławski:  Służba Polsce (1950, period recording)

WL Breaking Chains, GSMD 13-17.01.97 1

Witold Lutosławski: Wyszłabym ja

Wyszłabym ja was far and away Lutosławski’s most popular mass song.  It was highest-placed in a competition in 1950, it was recorded at least four times by Polish Radio and it had the longest print run of any of his songs (c.50,000 copies in all).  Its success was due to a number of distinctive features: a female protagonist, the unusually relaxed tempo of a slow mazurka, the strong folkloric character of the text and melodic line, and its inverted formal structure (the unchanging refrain precedes the three verses).  Lutosławski neatly matches the to-and-fro of the singer’s indecision – by largely avoiding expected tonic resolutions in the verses – as she hovers between her three suitors.

© 1997 Adrian Thomas

Other panels

Panel 1: 1945-48 Radio i Świat
Panel 2: 1946-49  Music for Radio

Panel 4: 1953-56  Transition
Panel 5: 1956-59  New Music
Panel 6: 1957-63 ‘Derwid’

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