• Witold Lutosławski (2013)

Witold Lutosławski
Poland’s multi-faceted genius

While masterfully adaptable when his creativity was restricted by others, it was on being
given a free rein that Lutosławski revealed his unique brilliance, as Adrian Thomas explains

This article was written for the series ‘Composer of the Month’, BBC Music Magazine (August 2013), pp.52-55

For the last twenty five years of their lives, Witold Lutosławski and his wife Danuta lived in a clean-lined detached house in Warsaw.  Paintings by contemporary Polish artists hung on the walls, the whisky chest stood on the parquet floor of the living room, and Lutosławski worked upstairs in an L-shaped room with his desk, grand piano and shelves of books and scores.  Everything was neat and elegant, like the man himself.

Lutosławski composed much of the time at the piano, in front of a custom-made, angled work-stand, the sketches carefully clipped in groups across it.  One of the first piecesthat he composed in his new house was the Cello Concerto, which Rostropovich premiered in London in 1970.  While Lutosławski was in London for the premiere (which had been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society), he completed the renovation of his study by buying a quality carpet in Gamages.  This meant that all of his music from then onwards was sketched and completed as he paced to and fro, from desk to piano, on an Axminster.

This picture of self-contained, organised existence is only part of the story of this remarkable composer, whose centenary is being celebrated this year.  For over 20 years until they moved in 1968, the Lutosławskis shared a cramped flat in the east of the city.  Like many people in Warsaw, they lived, worked and slept in a single room. Outside, music blared from communal loudspeakers.  Rostropovich was horrified by these conditions when he visited in 1966.  It is perfectly possible that Lutosławski’s music became less agitated and more expansive partly because of his move from a disruptive to a conducive environment.

There are of course deeper undercurrents to Lutosławski’s creative persona than inadequate accommodation. His family history was riven with tragedy.  When he was two, they fled east to avoid the Great War, and three years later his father and uncle were executed outside Moscow by Bolshevik forces.  One of Lutosławski’s brothers died early on in the Second World War.  Many Polish families were affected by similar brutalities, and the general situation was exacerbated in the late 1940s and early 50s by social, political and artistic restrictions imposed as a result of the Stalinisation of Eastern Europe.

The result was that Polish composers did not experience true creative (and peaceful) freedom until the late 1950s, by which time Lutosławski was in his mid-40s.  His international career really began only when he had turned 50. Most of the works for which he is known therefore come from the last 30 years of his life – distinguished exceptions include, notably, the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54), Musique funèbre (1954-58) and the earlier Symphonic Variations (1937) and First Symphony (1941-47).

Lutosławski was ambiguous about the music that he wrote before the mid-1950s.  He felt compromised by state interference in his creative life during the post-war decade.  Worst of all, like all other Polish composers, he had to trim his sails to the prevailing wind, composing politicised songs for the masses and even a short cantata, Lipcowy wieniec (July Garland), to mark the fifth anniversary in 1949 of the post-war launch of the Polish communist manifesto.

Yet throughout the 1940s and 50s – and beyond – Lutosławski maintained as much distance as he could from external pressures.  What could be more life-affirming than his two-piano Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941), which he and his contemporary Andrzej Panufnik played in occupied Warsaw’s artistic cafes?  Looking back on his First Symphony in 1981, Lutosławski described its essential character as ‘cheerful’, even if others heard it somewhat differently.  His ebullient Concerto for Orchestra, which stands above any other Polish composition of the post-war decade, remains his most recorded and most popular work.  Almost completely based on Polish folk tunes, it fitted the government requirement for music that uplifted and motivated while at the same time managing to retain a certain independence.

When an artistic thaw began in Poland in the mid-1950s, news of what had been happening in music in Western Europe and America rapidly filtered through to Polish composers.  Suddenly anything seemed possible. Lutosławski called it a ‘tumult’.  He was the composer who saw most clearly what could be his path ahead.  In the transitional period of 1957-63, from Five Songs and Musique funèbre to Jeux vénitiens and Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux, Lutosławski forged the essence of a musical style that would establish him as one of the major composers in the second half of the twentieth century.

He had already demonstrated in the Concerto for Orchestra and other works that he had an unerring sense of orchestral colour, both robust and delicate, and of the dramatic trajectory of a piece.  He knew by instinct and through careful sketching how to marry technique and expression to form a compelling musical narrative.  He developed a new, flexible harmonic language in the late 1950s, but he felt that its rhythmic articulation was too rigid.  On 10 March, 1960, he broke this impasse, fittingly by chance.

On that date, at 10.10 p.m., Polish Radio broadcast a programme in its new-music series, Music Horizons. Lutosławski happened to be listening. John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra was announced and played. Suddenly, Lutosławski knew that he had found a way out.  As he wrote to Cage a few years later: ‘You became a spark in the powder-keg – I am inexpressibly grateful to you’.  He had realised that, by loosening the temporal ties conventionally governed by metre and rhythmic coordination, he could create textures – ‘aleatory counterpoint’ – that became malleable without losing their distinctive character.  He kept control of harmony, dynamics and the rhythmic motifs within each part.  What changed was that individual players were given a little leeway in matters of tempo and the duration of pauses or breaks between motifs.

Newly liberated, Lutosławski’s music powered ahead.  It worked equally well in his first chamber piece, the String Quartet (1964), and his first large-scale orchestral works since the Concerto for Orchestra: Symphony no.2 (1967) and Livre pour orchestre (1968).  But curiously, he started to return to metred music, especially in the latter stages of his pieces where he wanted to drive to a shattering climax.  His ability to effect the transition between unmetred and metred sections was masterful and subtle, and moments like the accelerando to the explosion in Livre remain as thrilling as ever.

One of his guiding principles was the search for beauty.  His openings are often mesmerising: the plaintive canon of Musique funèbre, the otherworldly glissandos of Livre, the sonorous tread and yearning melody of the Fourth Symphony.  His vocal works – where he described his approach as more ‘unconscious’, ‘subjective’ and ‘intuitive’ – are especially haunting.  In Les espaces du sommeil (1975), for example, he combines both his love of French surrealist poetry (by Robert Desnos) and the sentiment of Joseph Conrad’s phrase ‘the magic suggestiveness of music’, and nowhere is this sentiment more delightfully embodied than in Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990).

There is, however, a darker side to Lutosławski’s art, notwithstanding his courteous manner and tidy appearance. Whether or not we draw parallels with his personal history (which he would not want us to do), there is an undeniable violence, even a barely suppressed anger, in some of his music.  Here there is not so much beauty as cruel truth.  The aggressiveness of the opening ‘Intrada’ of the Concerto for Orchestra is unmistakable, the innocent origins of the folk motifs trampled underfoot.  He often uses abrupt punctuation to cut between textures (the first movement of Jeux vénitiens), to articulate the prolonged accelerando in Livre, or to mark off major structural junctions (the repeated unisons of the Third Symphony, 1983).

There are particularly brutal juxtapositions and superimpositions in the music of the 1960s.  The Cello Concerto epitomises such techniques – he calls the brass interruptions ‘interventions’, which evolve into a wholesale battle with the soloist in the finale.  Not for nothing, at one point in the sketches, did he write the word ‘Fouille!’ (Excavate!), as he thought back to his unrepressed setting of that word in the second of Trois poèmes, ‘Le grand combat’.  The huge ‘ad libitum’ climaxes that occur in most of his large-scale pieces are shattering: explosive and cathartic.  Is it beyond possibility that his fixation on such expressive intensity was related in some way to his life experiences?  The very fact that he insisted repeatedly on his music’s abstractness, in the face of responses to the contrary, suggests that the idea bears an inner as well as an outer truth.

Conrad was one of Lutosławski’s favourite authors.  He was particularly fond of The Shadow Line, in which a young man goes on his first voyage as a ship’s captain and returns transformed.  He has learned how to ‘stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience’.  Rites of passage, so key to Conrad’s fiction, may be detected in Lutosławski’s music too (even in a work as mellifluous as the Piano Concerto, 1988).

Lutosławski also subscribed to Conrad’s sense of truth and responsibility, which in his case encompassed his societal obligations as well as his view that a composer’s talent ‘is a privilege … an entrusted skill’.  He was extraordinarily focused, and this came across too in his lucid and emphatic conducting style.  His friend and colleague, the conductor Jan Krenz, visited Lutosławski a few weeks before he died: “He lived music even in hospital, as if nothing had happened, [yet] he was surely fully aware of the seriousness of the situation.  He was like the captain in a Conrad novel, who even on a sinking ship faithfully fulfils his duty to the end.”

Lutosławski’s Style

Although Lutosławski is best known for his orchestral music, only 15 of his pieces involve a full orchestra.  His symphonic instincts – characterised by elements of anticipation and arrival – are evident across his output, from his four symphonies (plus Livre, a symphony in all but name) to his major chamber work, the String Quartet.

A sense of drama
Lutosławski was extremely fond of the theatre, and it shows in his command of musical psychology.  It comes across especially in his use of confrontation and resolution as driving impulses, most notably in the Cello Concerto, which has close ties with the principles of ancient Greek tragedy.

Harmonic essence
In the late 1950s, Lutosławski developed a harmonic vocabulary based upon different configurations of the 12 chromatic pitches.  He recognised that a chord made up of semitones and tritones had a different expressive potential, for example, from one of minor and major thirds.  He was skilled at moving and shaping these harmonic textures in registral space and giving them distinctive instrumental timbres.

‘Derwid’ was Lutosławski’s carefully-guarded pseudonym when in 1957-63 he wrote some three dozen songs – waltzes, tangos and foxtrots – to supplement his income.  These delightful miniatures are now being rediscovered and interpreted anew.

Recommended Recordings

Lutosławski Conducts
Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra/Witold Lutosławski
Brilliant Classics 9011 £11.99
Trois poèmes, Livre and Mi-parti are highlights of this authoritative three-CD set recorded in 1976-77.

Vocal Music
Lucy Crow, Toby Spence, Christopher Purves, BBC SO/Edward Gardner
Chandos CHAN 10688 £12.99
Terrific performances of Chantefleurs et Chantefables, Paroles tissées and Les espaces du sommeil, typical of this masterly series.

The Symphonies
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Sony 8765-44083-2 £15.99
All four symphonies, brilliantly conducted by one of Lutosławski’s most ardent advocates.

The String Quartet
Royal String Quartet
Hyperion CDA67943 £12.99
These young Polish players are utterly compelling on this recent CD.

© 2013 Adrian Thomas

2 Responses to • Witold Lutosławski (2013)

  1. Denys Owen says:

    I understand Vitold had another brother, George. Who, in the 1960s worked in the London Polish Embassy. Is that correct?

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