• WL100/67: Notebook, 11 November 1961

Lutosławski on the Role of the Conductor

Between the completion of Jeux vénitiens and starting work on Trois poèmes, Lutosławski penned a short definition of the changing relationship between the conductor and players of his music.  It suggests a more radical intention than was later realised, as Lutosławski seems to be indicating a greater freedom than he eventually was prepared to allow his interpreters.

With my new technique, the conductor’s role becomes ever more like the role of the director and stage manager in one, while the role of the orchestral musicians is like the roles of actors and extras.  The old school of orchestral playing was more like taming, mechanising, drilling, in which there was no place for the musician’s individual initiative in the area of textual and expressive interpretation.

W mojej nowej technice rola dyrygenta coraz bardziej staje się podobna do roli reżysera i inspicjenta w jednej osobie, zaś rola muzyków orkiestrowych – do roli aktorów i statystów.  Stara szkoła gry orkiestrowej była raczej tresurą, mechanizowaniem, musztrą, w której nie było miejsca na indywidualną inicjatywę muzyka w zakresie interpretacji tekstu, ekspresji.

Witold Lutosławski, 11 November 1961 [my translation]

• WL100/31: Notebook, 9 April 1969

Lutosławski on Conducting (and Boulez)


If I accept a proposal to conduct my own works, this is not out of conceit.  On the contrary, it is out of modesty.  I do not have enough confidence that the most prominent conductors will ever take on the works of my last period (after Musique fun.) or, even if they do, I do not imagine that they will have enough time, inclination and independence from their habits to conduct them well.  Of course the exception here is Janek Krenz.  But he rarely has the opportunity to conduct my pcs now.  The surprise, however, contrary to what I wrote at the beginning, is that serious conductors have interested themselves so quickly in my Symphony 2 (Skrowaczewski, Bour).  So perhaps there really is no need for me to conduct?  I am tempted, however, to experience it for myself and prove to others that, e.g., Symphony 2 can and should be conducted as the notation stipulates, and not, e.g., as Boulez did in some bits. 

Jeśli przyjmuję propozycje dyrygowania własnymi utworami, to nie przez zarozumiałość.  Przeciwnie, przez skromność.  Nie mam dość wiary w to, że najwybitniejsi dyrygenci zabiorą się kiedykolwiek do utworów mego ostatniego okresu (po Muzyce żał.), albo jeśli nawet się zabiorą, to nie wyobrażam sobie, że będą mieć dość czasu, chęci i – niezależności od swych przyzwyczajeń – aby je dyrygować dobrze.  Naturalnie wyjątkiem tutaj jest Janek Krenz.  Ale on rzadko ma okazję dyrygowania moich utw. teraz.  Niespodzianką jest natomiast to, że wbrew temu, co napisałem na początku, poważni dyrygenci zainteresowali się tak szybko moją II Symfonią (Skrowaczewski, Bour).  Może więc rzeczywiście nie ma potrzeby, abym sam dyrygował?  Korci mnie jednak, aby samemu doświadzyć i innym udowodnić, że np. II Symfonią można i należy tak dyrygować, jak przewiduje jej zapis, a nie np. tak, jak to zrobił w niektórych fragmentach Boulez.

Witold Lutosławski, 9 April 1969 [my translation]

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 21.44.44When he wrote this, Lutosławski had been conducting his own music on the international stage for almost six years. He had shared the podium with Slavko Zlatić for the premiere of Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (Zagreb, 9 May 1963) and with Jan Krenz for the work’s first recording (1964).  He gradually increased his profile as a conductor during the 1960s (it was, after all, a useful way of increasing his hard-currency income).  He conducted the premiere of Paroles tissées with Peter Pears (Aldeburgh Festival, 20 June 1965) as well as of the Second Symphony (Katowice, 9 June 1967), followed by the second and third performances of the Second Symphony at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ Festival (24 September, 1967) and again in Warsaw (16 February, 1968).

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 21.58.24The references to Stanisław Skrowaczewski and Ernest Bour refer to the facts that Bour gave the first performance of the Second Symphony outside Poland (Baden-Baden, summer 1968), followed by Skrowaczewski (Minnesota, 21 February 1969; New York, 3 March 1969).  Lutosławski conducted the seventh performance less than a fortnight before this diary entry (Uppsala, 28 March 1969).  Four more performances followed in 1969 (making a total of seven that year), two in 1970, four in 1971, and one in 1972.  The work seems to have fallen by the wayside for several years, reappearing once in 1978 and again in 1979, once in each of 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984, and then languishing until single performances in 1989 and 1993.  That amounts to 26 performances during Lutosławski’s lifetime, one for each year since 1967.  It was long regarded as a weaker cousin to Livre pour orchestre (1968), although in recent years their fortunes seem to have been reversed and it is now Livre which is on the sidelines.  But that is a topic for a further discussion.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 22.00.37Lutosławski’s confidence that other conductors would take up the Second Symphony went largely unrealised. Neither Bour nor Skrowaczewski touched it again during his lifetime.  The other conductors were Charles Groves (twice) and Paul Huppert (1969), Andrzej Markowski (1970), Konstantin Iliev (1971) and Matthias Bamert (1993). Jan Krenz’s name is not on the list.  All the other performances (bar one whose details are incomplete) were conducted by Lutosławski (data from Stanisław Będkowski & Stanisław Hrabia, Witold Lutosławski. A Bio-Biography, Westport CT, 2001).  His initial premonition proved correct, as he ended up conducting 15 of the 26 performances.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 22.02.04The Boulez story is one of the oddities in Lutosławski’s career.  He had not finished the first movement of the Second Symphony in time for the scheduled premiere (Hamburg, 15 October 1966), in which the Sinfonie Orchester der Norddeutschen Rundfunk was conducted by Pierre Boulez.  The performance therefore consisted only of the second movement.  I’ve never heard a recording of this concert, so I cannot comment on Lutosławski’s little sideswipe at Boulez.  What is certain, however, is that Boulez has not since conducted any of Lutosławski’s music.  By any measure, given that Boulez has recently performed and recorded music by Szymanowski (not someone with whom I would ever have linked him), this is a strange not to say glaring omission.

The images of Lutosławski were taken by Jan Zegalski in Katowice during rehearsals for the premiere of the Second Symphony in Katowice in June 1967.  They come from Witold Lutosławski w Polskim Radiu (I posted on this fascinating web resource in WL100/14 on 21.01.13).  In one shot, Lutosławski is in conversation with Krenz, who had been his conducting mentor since the early 1950s.

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