• WL100/66: Overture, **9 November 1949

One of Lutosławski’s forgotten works is his Overture for strings, premiered on this day 64 years ago in Prague, by the city’s Radio Symphony Orchestra under the Polish conductor, and Lutosławski champion, Grzegorz Fitelberg.  It seems to have been the Overture’s fate to have been composed just as socialist realism was taking a firm grip on Polish music.  Yet there seems to be no record of it having been banned or criticised.  Even though it kept its distance from the simplicity apparently being required of Polish composers – it uses an octatonic scale and has some intriguing metric subtleties – it seems simply to have disappeared, perhaps regarded as irrelevant rather than dangerous by those with programming power.  Perhaps Lutosławski himself put it to one side; he appears never to have conducted it, and during his lifetime there were only seven performances (according to Witold Lutosławski. A Bio-Bibliography). There have, however, been five commercial CD recordings.

On one of my antiquarian forays in Kraków I came across the concert programme for the Overture’s first performance in the city (it looks as if it was also the Polish premiere).  It took place two months after the Prague performance, with the Kraków PO conducted by Witold Krzemieński.  The relevant pages of the programme are reproduced below, including another profile of Lutosławski – see an earlier one in WL100/54: Lutosławski and Panufnik (1945) – that sheds new light on Polish perceptions of the composer in the immediate post-war years (my translation is at the foot of this post).  There is, however, no hint in the note of state pressures for socialist-realist music, even though the concert took place just five months after the coercions unveiled at the August 1949 composers’ conference in Łagów and less than two months after official censure of his First Symphony at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  But Kraków was always at one remove from the capital, which is possibly why the Polish premiere took place there.

WL Overture programme 01.50

P.S.  This wasn’t the only time that a new Lutosławski piece shared the  billing with Borodin’s Second Symphony. The same was to happen in 1970 at the premiere of the Cello Concerto.

Overture 01.50 WL profile1

P.P.S.  Natty lapels!

Overture 01.50 WL profile2

New to Kraków listeners will be the first performance in our city of the Overture for string orchestra by WITOLD LUTOSŁAWSKI.  Lutosławski is one of the most outstanding personalities among the younger generation of Polish composers, through the creation of an exceptionally independent, insightful and decidedly exploratory musical language of his own.  Born in 1913, in 1937 he completed his studies at the Warsaw Conservatoire: composition with Prof. Witold Maliszewski and piano with Prof. Jerzy Lefeld.  He was by then already the composer of several pieces for piano, the ballet Harun al Rashid, a Fugue for symphony orchestra for his diploma, together with fragments of a Requiem.  The conservative and eclectic direction represented by his distinguished professor, Witold Maliszewski, did not prevent Lutosławski, after utilising the fund of knowledge and technique passed on to him by this worthy musician, from stepping out onto his own, independent artistic path.  The main stages of this path, a path on which Lutosławski gradually but consistently and steadily became independent and radicalised his musical language, were: Symphonic Variations (performed in 1938 at the Wawel Festival [it was actually in 1939: see WL100/43: Variations, **June 1939]), Etudes for piano (1943 [actually 1941]), Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1945) and finally the Symphony (1947).  His last major piece is this very Overture for string orchestra, performed for the first time under the direction of Grzegorz Fitelberg in Prague, Czechoslovakia (October 1949 [actually, November]).

Lutosławski’s musical style is characterised by a desire for logic, economy and formal rigour, an inclination towards polyphonic texture, and lastly his own harmonic world, in which one senses throughout the basis of a modern and at the same time spontaneous and individual sound of ‘the new order’.  When it comes to the orchestral palette, which Lutosławski deploys masterfully, since the orgiastically colourful Symphonic Variations there has appeared in his work a marked return to greater economy, and even instrumental asceticism (Wind Trio).

• WL100/61: Symphonic Variations

75 years ago today, Lutosławski put the finishing touches to his Symphonic Variations, his first surviving orchestral work.  I wrote about the premiere in an earlier post (WL100/43: Variations, **17 June 1939).  Since then, the Symphonic Variations featured in the Lutosławski strand of the 2013 BBC Proms, with same forces – the BBC SO under Edward Gardner – which give such a scintillating performance on Chandos CHSA 5098 (2012).  Here’s a YouTube upload of the Polish Radio broadcast of the Proms performance on 7 August … plus Lutosławski’s own, third-person comment (undated):

This is the work with which the author (then 26) made his debut in 1939 at a musical festival in Kraków.  The style of the work is, maybe, far from being definitively crystallised and yet on the basis of the Symphonic Variations one might speak of the artistic maturity of its then young author, principally thanks to the richly developed orchestral palette as well as the compact and balanced structure.

Są utworem, którym autor (wówczas dwudziestosześcioletni) zadebiutował w 1939 roku na festiwalu muzycznym w Krakowie.  Styl utworu jest, być może, daleki od ostatecznego skrystalizowania i jeśli na podstawie Wariacji symfonicznych można by mimo to mówic o dojrzałości artystycznej ich młodego wówczas autora, to przede wszystkim dzięki bogato rozwiniętej palecie orkiestrowej oraz zwartej i zrównoważonej architekturze.


Today is also the anniversary of the partial premiere of the Second Symphony, whose second movement ‘Direct’ was performed on 15 October 1966, in Hamburg, with the Sinfonie Orchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks conducted by Pierre Boulez.  For Lutosławski, Boulez’s conducting on this occasion was not entirely satisfactory (WL100/31: Notebook, 9 April 1969), but I have never fully understood Boulez’s subsequent lack of interest in Lutosławski’s music.

• WL100/43: Variations, **17 June 1939

There was a time not so long ago in Kraków when you could find a really good antykwariat (second-hand bookshop) in several of the city’s central streets.  Those days are long gone, but in the 1990s I was able to build up my collection of library of books on Polish culture by delving into such emporia.  My most unexpected find was a bundle of old concert programmes.  These were mainly from the Kraków Philharmonic’s concerts between 1945 and 1952.  And in amongst these fascinating documents were a couple of other items, of which this one-off programme is the earlier. It is notable now for marking the concert premiere of Lutosławski’s Symphonic Variations (1936-38).

Lutosławski’s completed this, his first proper orchestral work, in mid-December 1938 and it was given a live broadcast on Polish Radio in April the following year.  Its first public performance, however, took place on Saturday 17 June 1939.  In the programme, it’s called simply ‘Variations’; whether ‘Symphonic’ was mistakenly omitted  or added later I cannot tell.  While it has never really made a huge impact in the broadly held canon of Lutosławski’s music, it is evidence of his early maturity, his ear for orchestral colour, and his symphonic instincts.  (It’s been programmed in this year’s BBC Proms, on Wednesday 7 August.  The performers are the BBC SO under Edward Gardner, reprising, along with the Piano Concerto and Louis Lortie, two of the pieces on their scintillating Chandos CD ‘Witold Lutosławski. Orchestral Works II’, CHSA 5098‘.)

Krakøw concerts 17-20.06.39 cover

The premiere was given by the Polish Radio [Symphony] Orchestra, conducted by its founder and music director Grzegorz Fitelberg.  It was the opening concert of the Kraków Arts Days Festival, which ran from 17-20 June 1939. Three of the five concerts, including this one, were given in the arcaded Renaissance courtyard of Wawel Castle in Kraków (in Lutosławski literature, the festival has normally been called the Wawel Festival).  All three Wawel concerts began at 21.00 hours – I hope the weather was balmy!  That’s more than could be said for what happened two and a half months later.

This programme is printed on cream card measuring 27 x 21 cms, printed in dark blue ink and folded to provide four sides (among the obvious misprints are E. Edgar, Bethoven, and con fucco).  The second side gives the programme for the first of the three symphonic concerts. For this ‘Concert of Polish Music’, the Polish Radio SO was joined by the singer Ewa Bandrowska-Turska (1894-1979), one of Poland’s most distinguished sopranos, and the pianist Józef Śmidowicz (1888-1962), who had been Lutosławski’s piano teacher in 1924-25.

Krakøw concert 17.06.39

Even though Kurpiński was a key figure in the development of opera in nineteenth-century Poland, his music today clings onto public awareness only through the overtures, such as this one to his opera Jadwiga, Queen of Poland (1814).  Melcer’s folk-infused Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor (1897) has maintained a certain place in the Polish repertoire.  Modern recordings by Jonathan Plowright (Hyperion, 2007) and Joanna Ławrynowicz (Acte Préalable, 2008) have been joined by an archive recording by Melcer himself (Selene, 2012).

The selection of four songs by Szymanowski includes two from his cycle Songs of a Fairytale Princess (1915), three songs from which he orchestrated in 1933 and were premiered by Bandrowska-Turska (there’s another mistake: the op. no. for the third song should be op.26).  Szymanowski had died in 1937, and Fitelberg was his ardent champion, so it was fitting that the programme included Fitelberg’s orchestral arrangement of Szymanowski’s Nocturne and Tarantella for violin and piano (1915).  The final work in this first programme was the now long-forgotten First Symphony by Woytowicz, who went on to run one of the artists’ cafes where Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik played their two-piano arrangements in war-torn Warsaw.

Krakøw concerts 18.06.39

Side 3 of the programme announces the two non-symphonic concerts in the Kraków Arts Days Festival.  The first, on Sunday 18 June, in the Bednarski Park south of the River Vistula, was of folk music played by Polish Radio’s Small Orchestra, Chorus and vocal soloists.  This was followed by the second, an ‘Evening of Musical Serenades’, which was given in the courtyard of the Jagiellonian University near Wawel.  This mixed programme included Mozart, 16th and 17th-century madrigals, songs by unnamed Polish composers, etc.

Krakow cncerts 19-20.06.39

Side 4 outlines the details of the last two symphonic concerts.  The first, on Monday 19 June, included two works by Mieczysław Karłowicz, his tone poem Stanisław i Anna Oświecimowie (1907) and the Violin Concerto (1902). Pieces by three lesser-known composers followed: the symphonic poem Anhelli (1909) by Ludomir Różycki, the Cello Concerto (1928, on Gregorian themes) by Jan Maklakiewicz and the overture Swaty polskie (Polish Courtship, 1903) by Feliks Nowowiejski.  The soloists were Irena Dubiska (1899-1989), a noted violinist who in 1930 founded the Polish Quartet of which the other soloist, the cellist and composer Kazimierz Wiłkomirski (1900-95), was also a member.  Dubiska went on, like many other distinguished players, to perform in Woytowicz’s cafe during the Second World War.

The final concert, on Tuesday 20 June, cast its net outside Poland (muzyka obca = foreign music), including Elgar’s tribute to the stateless Polish nation during the Great War, Polonia, and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.  Of more interest is the repertoire by Ravel, Debussy and de Falla: Daphnis et Chloé (Second Suite), Nocturnes and the Suite from The Three-Cornered Hat.

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