• Panel 5: 1956-59 New Music

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 5: 1956-59  New Music
Towards a New Polish Culture

The retreat from socrealizm was a gradual affair, but there were certain landmark events, including the arrival of 30,000 foreign guests for the ‘World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship’ in Warsaw in July 1955.  This inevitably increased Polish contacts with non-socialist countries.

1956 was a politically momentous year.  In March, the PZPR Secretary Bierut died of a heart attack in Moscow during the Soviet Congress at which Nikita Khruschev denounced Stalin.  In June, the Party was severely shaken by riots and dozens of fatalities as workers in Poznań protested against living conditions.

As the PZPR debated Poland’s future in October, Khruschev arrived in Warsaw unexpectedly.  Unlike Hungary a few days later, Poland managed to persuade the Soviet leader that a ‘Polish Road to Socialism’ was not a threat to the communist bloc.  The PZPR elected a new leader, Władysław Gomułka, and the country was on the brink of a new era.

The arts played their part in the unravelling of socrealizm.  Chinks in the regime’s cultural armour began to appear after Stalin’s death in 1953.  As in the preceding ten years, literature often signalled the prevailing trends.  In August 1955, a former apologist for the Party, Adam Ważyk, was allowed to publish his Poem for Adults.  Ważyk’s verse was a cutting and prophetic indictment of socialism and everyday life for the Polish people.

New theatre appeared, often outside Warsaw – in Gdańsk, Wrocław and Kraków.  Kraków was the former intellectual and artistic heart of Poland and in particular was much distrusted by the Party, hence the building there of Nowa Huta in the early 1950s.  In Gdańsk, a student satirical theatre, Bim-Bom, had appeared as early as November 1954.  Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot II opened in Kraków in May 1956 and six months later Henryk Tomaszewski’s Pantomime Studio gave its first performance in Wrocław.

One of the earliest signs of musical change occurred in March 1954, when the first legal jazz concert for several years was given in Kraków.  In publishing, the trend towards popular as distinct from mass music was marked by PWM with the initiation in Autumn 1954 of Śpiewamy i Tańczymy (Let’s Sing and Dance).  This was a fortnightly song compilation, usually with five numbers in each issue.  At first it was still based on the mass song, but within a year its tone had relaxed and it printed not only music by Kern (Mississippi – see Panel 5), Gershwin (several songs) and Wayne (Ramona) but also articles on styles and techniques in jazz and popular music.

RiŚ 56:14

Radio i Świat, April 1956. Polish Radio Dance Orchestra, conducted by Jan Cajmer.

‘Classical’ music focused on the Second Festival of Polish Music (January-May 1955).  Unfortunately, it failed to galvanise either audiences or performers.  So the Presidium of ZKP (Polish Composers’ Union) revived its plan, mooted in 1954, for an international festival of contemporary music.  In October 1956, the first Warszawska Jesień (Warsaw Autumn) took place.  It was a decisive turning point in Polish culture.

Warsaw Autumn

The programmes of the first four Warsaw Autumn festivals (1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960) are a vivid demonstration of how quickly the world of Polish contemporary music changed.  The 1956 festival included 20th-century classics being heard for the first time in Poland – Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet, Berg’s Lyric Suite and Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto.  In 1958, the Warsaw Autumn was more conspicuously avant-garde: Stockhausen and Nono were guests of the festival.  Such was the explosive force generated by years of isolation and repression that by the early 1960s Polish composers were themselves at the forefront of contemporary music at home and abroad.

RiŚ 56:42

Radio i Świat, October 1956

The photographic coverage of the first Warsaw Autumn in Radio i Świat may not have matched that of earlier Polish festivals.  There was a relatively undemonstrative spread of photographs, and that was on the inside cover during the second week of the festival.  Apart from Michael Gielen (middle, left), all the other musicians featured above were from the Soviet bloc.  But Polish Radio established its pattern of broadcasts that has survived to this day – a mix of live and recorded programmes – making a total of 16 broadcasts in 1956.

Lutosławski’s music was performed at all the early festivals.  In 1956, his folk-based Little Suite (1951) and Concerto for Orchestra (1954) were played.  By 1958, there were signs of change i his music.  Funeral Music (1958) was included, although in 1959 only the wartime Paganini Variations was programmed.  Five Songs (1957) followed in 1960 and Jeux vénitiens in 1961.  By Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963), at the age of 50, Lutosławski had established the essentials of his mature style.

It is precisely during this period of intense compositional exploration in his concert music that Lutosławski was quietly earning money by writing some three dozen popular songs under a pseudonym (see Panel 6).  The contrast between the central search for a new language and his contemporaneous moonlighting is a striking reminder that Lutosławski was tied by one force or another to Polish Radio and its output for the best part of two decades.

If the inclusion of the music of mass songs in Radio i Świat in the early 1950s seemed unusual, it is perhaps even more astonishing to find articles on serialism in 1956-5.  Did radio listings magazines in other countries offer a similar service?  And yet their inclusion reinforced the evangelistic tone that Radio i Świat had adopted since its inception.

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Radio i Świat, October 1956

RiŚ 56:52

Radio i Świat, December 1956

RiŚ 57:13

Radio i Świat, March 1957

RiŚ 57:17

Radio i Świat, April 1957

The inclusion of musical examples and note-rows in the articles on Berg and Webern presupposed, rightly or wrongly, a musically literate readership and was a means of putting distance between discredited socrealizm and the brave new world of contemporary music.  What is certain is that many Polish musicians gleaned their first concrete information on the music of the Second Viennese School from these articles and examples and their effect should therefore not be underestimated.  An article on ‘Serial Dodecaphony’ appeared in 1956 at the time of the first Warsaw Autumn, that on ‘Alban Berg’s Serial Pieces’ two months later, and ‘Alban Berg’s Opera Lulu‘ and ‘Anton Webern’ in March and April 1957 respectively.

The brave new world opened up by the Warsaw Autumn included the medium of electronic music.  The first Polish Radio programme of electronic music was broadcast on 6 November 1956, courtesy of UNESCO (Polish Radio had been permitted by the Party to establish links with UNESCO the previous month).  The broadcast included demonstrations of the Mixtur-Trautonium and Ondes Martenot.  Within months Polish Radio established the first electronic studio in Eastern Europe (1957).  [Here’s a recently uploaded newsreel about the Polish Radio Experimental Studio, probably dating from a few years after it was set up. The sound engineers in shot are Eugeniusz Rudnik and Bohdan Mazurek.]


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Radio i Świat, April 1957

PRES was under the guidance of a young Polish musician, Józef Patkowski, mentioned in an article ‘About Broadcasts of Dodecaphonic, Electronic and Concrete Music’ (April 1957).

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Radio i Świat, October 1957

RiŚ 58:46

Radio i Świat, November 1958

In the coming months Radio i Świat printed profiles of Stockhausen’s Kontrapunkt (October 1957) and Nono’s Composizione per orchestra (November 1958).  Nono’s signed photograph ‘to Polish Radio’ commemorated his visit to the Warsaw Autumn that year.

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Radio i Telewizja, May 1959

One of the curiosities about the Polish musical establishment after socrealizm was the survival of many of its principal figures.  Włodzimierz Sokorski, who from the Ministry of Culture had presided over Polish music from before the conference at Łagów until 1956, was then moved across by the Party to take over Polish Radio.  The photograph above (May 1959), from what by then had become Radio i Telewizja, includes two important figures from the post-war decade: Henryk Swolkień (far left) and Zofia Lissa (centre).  Swolkień’s role as a composer of mass songs and as Lutosławski’s arm-twister has already been noted.  He remained at Polish Radio until 1976.  Lissa was the leading, musicologically-trained ideologue behind Polish musical socrealizm.  As a Professor of Music at Warsaw University, she headed its Institute of Musicology from 1954 to 1975.

© 1997 Adrian Thomas

Other panels

Panel 1: 1945-48 Radio i Świat
Panel 2: 1946-49  Music for Radio
Panel 3: 1949-53  Socrealizm
Panel 4: 1953-56  Transition

Panel 6: 1957-63 ‘Derwid’

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