• Marginal Tincturing? (2004)

Marginal Tincturing?
Lutoslawski, Folk Music and the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54)

This paper was delivered on Wednesday 14 July 2004 at a Lutosławski double-session during the International Musicological Society Symposium in Melbourne.


Exactly 50 years ago today, on 14 July 1954, the pre-eminent Polish composer at the time, Andrzej Panufnik, shocked his political minders and musical colleagues by fleeing to the West.  The sense of betrayal felt at home was profound.  The authorities had groomed Panufnik as the golden boy of Polish music, and his two major pieces of the early 1950s – Symphony of Peace (1951) and Heroic Overture (1950/52) – were politicised responses to the prevailing demands of socialist realism.  In contrast, the concert music of his near contemporary, Witold Lutoslawski, whom Panufnik later recalled as being “always wiser than me, … sensible”, [1] had up to that date been less beholden to cultural politics.  But just two weeks after Panufnik’s defection, Lutoslawski put the final touches to his big statement of the socialist-realist period, the Concerto for Orchestra.

Four years in the writing, the Concerto for Orchestra immediately thrust its composer to the forefront and, notwithstanding its lack of an overt political message, it was used by opinion-formers to obliterate the memory of the ‘treacherous’ Panufnik.  The party-line musicologist Zofia Lissa wrote shortly after the premiere: “We can acknowledge Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra as one of the highest, if not indeed the highest achievement of Polish music of the decade”. [2]

In re-examining its ‘pole’ position, this paper discusses the commission, gestation, antecedents and folk sources of the Concerto for Orchestra from new documentation and initiates a scrutiny of its response to the socialist-realist precepts of the time.

The commission came from Witold Rowicki, the conductor of what was then the Warsaw State Philharmonic Orchestra.  Lutoslawski recollected that, sometime in 1950, Rowicki had asked him to write “an orchestral piece in the vein of my Little Suite“. [3]  Lutoslawski had based Little Suite for small orchestra on Polish folk tunes [4]  and, following its premiere late in 1950 [5], he rescored it for larger forces early the following year.  He mentions this ‘job’ as he calls it in a letter he wrote to his publisher, Tadeusz Ochlewski, on 6 February 1951.  More importantly, the letter reveals that Lutoslawski had already decided what his new work would be and that, by implication, it was already grander than had been originally intended:

“I am sending you the score of “Little Suite”.  …  Having finally finished this job [robota], which took more than two weeks, I am happy that I will be able to return tomorrow to the interrupted work [praca] on the Concerto for Orchestra.” [6]

Never a fast worker, Lutoslawski toiled in adverse circumstances for three more years. [7]  On 23 March 1954, he wrote again to his publisher about his progress:

“I am at present finishing my Concerto for Orchestra.  At the same time, my wife is writing out the orchestral parts, which – I hope – PWM will be willing to purchase …” [8]

It would be another four months before he finalised the score on 1 August.  The further delay may have been because the last movement was giving Lutoslawski particular difficulties.  Lissa related that “Lutoslawski himself acknowledges that he worked longest on the last movement of the cycle, that it was the most problematic for him, testified by the fact that he wrote eight different versions of certain of its fragments”. [9]

Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra was not the only Polish example of the genre. [10]  Tadeusz Baird, fifteen years Lutoslawski’s junior, composed his Concerto for Orchestra in 1953 [11], while smaller Polish precedents include Grazyna Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra and Stefan Kisielewski’s Concerto for Small Orchestra, both from 1948.  All four works have 18th-century connections, with Bacewicz and Kisielewski showing the greatest affinity with Parisian neo-classicism.  Baird’s more weighty Concerto goes so far, like Lutoslawski’s, as to use Baroque titles for some of its movements: Grave e fugato, Recitativo e arioso and Toccata and Hymn.  This aside, there is little that connects Baird’s Concerto for Orchestra with Lutoslawski’s, except for the fact that each was conceived and composed at the height of socialist realism and, as such, epitomises certain aspects of that cultural policy. [12]

A more commonly observed linkage, but one that looks increasingly superficial, has been with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943).  And while I too have made this connection, I have not yet found any confirmation that Lutoslawski had heard the Bartók, let alone the Kodály or Hindemith, prior to or during the composition of his own Concerto.  Indeed, I’ve not been able to locate any Polish performance of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra until the first Warsaw Autumn festival in October 1956; this performance, however, was not marked as the Polish premiere.  Furthermore, linking the Lutoslawski and Bartók Concertos because they both use a chorale texture is tenuous at best, especially given the ubiquity of such textures at the time. [13]  A more tangible parallel may be found in the interweaving of chorale and folk-tinged canonic writing in the central movement of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, the only one of his orchestral works to have been performed in Warsaw between 1949 and 1953, on 2 June 1950. [14]

One parallel with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is worth considering.  In 1952 Mosco Carner made the point about the Bartók that its “tunefulness … was a concession made to the taste of large audiences”. [15]  A decade after the Bartók, Lutoslawski was also easing his way into public favour through the use of a simpler language and folk-related material, and his Concerto for Orchestra was the apex of this process.  This aside, it may have only passing similarities with its illustrious predecessor.

It is more important to recognise, for example, that Lutoslawski’s decision to make pervasive use of folk melodies in the early 1950s was his and no-one else’s.  He was not forced to be so thorough-going – no other Polish composer of any stature did likewise; indeed, few shared his compositional approach to folk music.  It is a potent symbol of the vagaries of socialist realism that Lutoslawski saturated his concert works with folk materials just as Panufnik totally abandoned them. [16]

The extent or intimacy of Lutoslawski’s contact with Polish folk music have not been readily apparent up to now, however, nor have all of his sources been identified.  Recent findings in his house in Warsaw now open up some aspects of his compositional process. [17]  For example, Lutoslawski was in the habit of page-marking printed collections of folk music where a particular melody caught his ear.  He even continued to do this after completing what he called his “farewell to folklore”, the Dance Preludes of 1953-4. [18]

Lutoslawski had also at some point gathered manuscript sources together in a cardboard folder marked ‘Folk Materials’. [19]  This contained transcriptions of folk songs sent to Lutoslawski, sometimes at his request, by individual collectors [20] or by institutes involved in folksong collection.[21]

But by far the most interesting contents of the folder are the folksongs written in his own hand. [22]  The largest group of these, taken from the multi-volumed collection by the 19th-century ethnographer, Oskar Kolberg, consists of six sheets on which he copied out, in full, the melodies of 31 songs and 21 dances from the Mazowsze region of Poland, plus 17 from other Polish regions. [23]   These 69 melodies were part of Lutoslawski’s preparatory work for the Concerto for Orchestra.  In the end, he chose melodies only from Mazowsze, a total of eleven, which means that we can now identify three more than the six principal melodies cited by Lissa [24] and the additional two revealed by Steven Stucky. [25]  This enlarged roster is also confirmed, at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, by a musical chart in which Lutoslawski placed the eleven folk melodies against their thematic counterparts in the Concerto. [26]

I’d like to draw your attention today to a few salient points concerning this material:

  • all 21 of the Mazowsze dances share the same metre, 3/8
  • the five melodies chosen from this group are used for a single purpose: to furnish all the material for the short outer sections of the opening ‘Intrada’, consequently marking it out from the rest of the Concerto for its thematic density and, in a way, profligacy;
  • the potential if these 21 dances for intervallic, rhythmic and metrical cross-references is manifold; by comparing the first two he transcribed, the upper one (no. 421) used for the opening theme, the lower one (no. 422) not used at all;
  • the remaining six melodies, selected from the 31 Mazowsze songs are more diverse in character and slower-paced, four being in 2/4 time, two in 3/4
  • these six are more extensively reworked than the five in the ‘Intrada’ and comprise the principal symphonic material of the Concerto.

Let me take this latter group first.

WL KO:half sheet

The embryos of some of these re-workings may be seen on the one half-page sheet in this set of six.  Its rougher hand and different format suggest that this page may have been written down separately from the other five; probably later, given the annotations it contains.  The most familiar melody (no.10, at the top), which Lutoslawski used cyclically as a ‘big theme’ in both the first and last movements, has its skeletal shape annotated above.  And, lower down, it is also given an initial reshaping in 7/4 by simply elongating the main notes; Lutoslawski pursued this simple expedient in the final score, although bb.6-8 were surplus to requirements and omitted.  The fifth tune, no.103, furnished the material interleaved with the chorale in the final Toccata. The third tune, no.72, although not used in the Concerto, is however given a characteristic Lutoslawskian work-out at the bottom of the sheet. [27]  And as far as I am aware, the second tune, no.22, has not previously been identified.  It too became part of the finale, with a catchy new rhythmic kick, (fig. 69). [28]

WL KO:Finale, fig.69 + folk tune

The most intensive use and blending of folk tunes takes place in the opening Intrada, as I’ve indicated.  Most of the five melodies are short-breathed and therefore susceptible to motivic manipulation, although what is striking is how close Lutoslawski remains to his selected melodies (and, conversely, how telling are his alterations).  For example, all the motivic extensions of the opening theme are embedded in the variants of the original melody .

Homma 1993

When it comes to Lutoslawski’s approach to and accumulation of folk melodies at the start of the Intrada, a more likely precedent than Bartók is Stravinsky.  Despite evident stylistic differences, both the Intrada and the opening of The Rite of Spring involve the layering of several ideas in building towards a climactic moment. [29]  Lutoslawski’s solution is engineered by means of a strict four-part canon.  However, as the short score at Basel reveals, Lutoslawski was dissatisfied with the initial result and pruned the resultant textures so that they were more succinct.  He cut out whole bars, as in this example from the middle of the fourth statement of the canon (originally bb.33-35).

WL KO:I foreshortening

The uncut version at the top also shows, in the lower parts of the system, the two remaining unacknowledged folk melodies: the complete first phrase of no.452 at the start of the passage (bb.33-4) and the final phrase of no. 673 at the end (b.35).  In drawing the material closer together, however, Lutoslawski loses most of no. 452. [30]

The function of these two ideas is unobtrusively to blend in with and bulk out the more memorable themes in the canon.  That Lutoslawski went to the trouble of finding them within his folk songs rather than composing them freely is testament to his pride in careful craft and thematic integrity. [31]

A second parallel with The Rite of Spring may be found in Richard Taruskin’s comment that in using “Russian folk music as an instrument of self-emancipation from the constricting traditions of Russian art music, … by playing the two off against each other and ultimately fusing them, Stravinsky found a way out of the dead-end problems of Russian music of his day”. [32]   The essence of this observation is pertinent to Lutoslawski’s intent in the Concerto for Orchestra.  He hinted as much when he talked to Irina Nikolska about the use of Baroque titles and procedures: “Passacaglia, Toccata, Capriccio … all these baroque genres are folklore-tinctured, which results in fairly novel patterns.  I don’t know”, he continues, “of any other instance of such a ‘bond’ between baroque and folklore”. [33]

Lutoslawski’s use of folk materials is much more than tincturing, however.  It is fundamental to the Concerto’s concept, and its appeal, and that is one reason why Lutoslawski was prone to downplay this and other works of the period.  Rather than “self-emancipation”, he would use phrases like “compromis délibéré” [34] or “a most bitter feeling of resentment with relation to my ‘folkloric’ compositions”. [35]  He thought of the Concerto as “a marginal thing for me (in spite of the fact that it is a clever piece of work, and, for that matter, a ‘spectacular’ thing, which is just what appeals to the public).” [36]  Echoes there of Mosco Carner.

I have always found such disparagement and inconsistent comments puzzling, given the critical as well as popular acclaim that the Concerto for Orchestra continues to receive.  It maintains its place in the repertoire today not only because of its “creative energy and textural resourcefulness” [37], as Arnold Whittall has put it, but also because of its symphonic sweep and brilliant, amiable exploitation of orchestral prowess.  And yet Lutoslawski remained reluctant to acknowledge it fully.  I would like to suggest one or two reasons for his ambivalence.

Firstly, despite his subtle and imaginative way with folk music, he undoubtedly resented the fact, especially later in life, that he had used it.  Yet it had performed a crucial function as both a shield and a weapon in his artistic struggle with socialist realism.  It was a shield because, as Andrzej Chlopecki has said, it was “music that remains doctrinally neutral yet meets with approval”. [38]  It was also a weapon because Lutoslawski was surely astute enough to recognise that with his approach to folk music he could increase the level of his compositional individuality while seeming to acknowledge the primacy of the mass listener.  Lissa recognised this shift in balance in the Concerto for Orchestra and even admired it – after the demise of socialist realism. [39]  Twenty five years later, Steven Stucky used the memorable phrase, “master, not slave, of folklore”. [40]  But such compliments could not assuage Lutoslawski.

There is an important ingredient missing from the general discussion of the Concerto for Orchestra, and it is this ingredient that I believe gave Lutoslawski the greatest disquiet.  Despite its effervescence, the work remains very much a creature of its time and context, with an ominous undertow to much of its rhetoric.  As such, it could be understood as embodying many of the criteria of socialist realism.

I am not suggesting that Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra has much in common with the heavy weather Baird’s Concerto makes of its archaic resources, nor with the empty heroics of Panufnik’s Symphony of Peace.  But the principal gestural elements of Lutoslawski’s Concerto have many parallels with and sometimes intensify the expressive trajectories of other large-scale orchestral works composed in Poland in the post-war decade:

• there’s the ominous tone of the ‘Intrada’, with its pounding bass, bittersweet major-minor chording, closed-form canon and inconclusive end;
• there’s the unsettling combination of the ephemeral and the grandiloquent in the central movement;
• there’s the continuing anxiety in the ‘Passacaglia’, another bass-upwards closed form; [41]
• and there’s the release of the positive, developmental finale, capped by the hymnic, transformational peroration of the ‘Chorale’.

The move from struggle to victory, from darkness to light, from angst to resolution, was not, of course, exclusive to socialist realism, but it was an easily understood and politicised sign of the times.

Lutoslawski was lucky that the Concerto for Orchestra came at the end of this period of blight.  Using folk melodies against their folkloric nature, however, was dangerous practice: the ‘agressivo’ marking of the opening theme, for example, took the innocence of the original song and turned, if not twisted it. [42]  And yet commentators pass over the expressive, structural and cultural implications of such treatment: dramatic anxiety and the tension between an individual and a common heritage require resolution (hence the positive ending), and it is all the better in 1950s Poland if it is couched in ‘national’ terms and, at the very least, does not contravene ‘socialist’ norms. [43]

If, as I have suggested, the Concerto for Orchestra both confirmed and breached these terms and norms, we may take the argument one stage further, by acknowledging that Lutoslawski had gone beyond folk sources and into another expressive world.  I believe that it is this world – one tainted in his eyes by its cultural politics – with which Lutoslawski remained unreconciled, rather than the folk materials per se that became guilty by association.  Fifty years on and at many removes, we may hear and read the Concerto for Orchestra in different ways.  And these ways include recognising that it is not just a definition or a transcendence of the context in which it originated, but a multivalent product of it.

[1]  Andrzej Panufnik: Composing Myself (Methuen, London, 1987), 159, 210.
[2]  Zofia Lissa: ‘Koncert na orkiestre Witolda Lutoslawskiego’, Przeglad Kulturalny, 8 (24 February 1955), 4.
[3]  Irina Nikolska: Conversations with Witold Lutoslawski (Melos, Stockholm, 1994), 39.
[4]  Early on, it was sometimes referred to as Mala suita ludowa (Little Folk Suite), as in the concert programme of the Warsaw State PO, 29 July 1951; see Marian Golebiowski: Witold Rowicki w Filharmonii Warszawskiej i Narodowej (Lódz, n.d.), 26.  Given the chronology as we now know it, Rowicki’s request must have antedated Little Suite; work on the two pieces overlapped.
[5]  The earliest performance I have been able to track down was on 17 November 1950, in Warsaw, given by WOSPR conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg   There must be a question mark over this date, as the larger orchestral version which Fitelberg had commissioned was not premiered until 20 April 1951.  The original version was apparently premiered by the Polish Radio Orchestra sometime in 1950, conducted by Jerzy Kolaczkowski.
[6]  PWM 4/34 TO.46-52 K-L, letter to Tadeusz Ochlewski, 6 February 1951.
[7]  “I started to work on the new score not realizing that I was to spend nearly four years on it.”, in Ove Nordwall, ed.: Lutoslawski (Hansen, Stockholm, 1968), 33.  Lutoslawski had a fairly busy schedule between 1950 and 1954 as a writer of radio and incidental music; all of his mass and soldier’s songs were written during these years, and he also composed more folk-based pieces such as Silesian Tryptyk (1951), Bucolics (1952) and a Dance Prelude (1953) which eventually became the last of the set of five completed at the end of 1954.   Other matters impeded his progress: he had duties to fulfil at the Polish Composers’ Union and had none of the perks enjoyed by Panufnik, such as being given a comfortable and conducive place to live and compose in Warsaw.  One tussle Lutoslawski had with his local authority in March 1953 (and again in 1954) was symptomatic of his circumstances.  It concerned the excessive use of public loudspeakers blaring out from a nearby playground:

“The work of composers, consisting of the concentrated thinking and aural imagination, reliant on great exertion of the brain and nervous system, can be carried out only in conditions of relative peace.  …  the enforced listening to the music (particularly dance and light [music]) not only does not let [me] work or later rest, but [also] contributes to the exhaustion of musical imagination and rules out the possibility of composing for a sustained period.”

Lutoslawski also complained, in the same letter, that these conditions would prevent him from accepting commissions for the tenth anniversary of People’s Poland the following year, which indicates that he was well aware of the political context of his music.
[8]  PWM 4/40 TO.53-4 A-L, letter to Tadeusz Ochlewski, 23 March 1954.
[9]  Zofia Lissa: ‘Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra (an analytical sketch)’, Studia Muzykologiczne, V (1956), 208.
[10] The premiere took place in Warsaw on 26 November 1954.  It occupied the second half of the concert; the first half consisted of two other concertos, Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in A minor, op.3/8, for two violins and strings, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, K.466.
[11]   Premiered on 14 May 1954 by the Lódz Philharmonic, conducted by Witold Krzemienski.
[12]   Baird’s Concerto for Orchestra is really a four-movement symphony in all but name.
[13]   Quite apart from examples in Western music, there are many in Polish music in the early 1950s, including Panufnik’s Symphony of Peace, Baird’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Szabelski’s Third Symphony (1951).
[14]  The Warsaw performance was preceded on 21 April 1950 by a performance in Kraków with the same pianist, Maria Bilinska-Riegerowa.
[15]  Mosco Carner: ‘Bartók’, The Concerto, ed. Ralph Hill (Penguin, London, 1952, 335.
[16]  This was in 1950 after lacerating criticism of his Sinfonia rustica and Polish Suite.
[17]   The following comments are based on research I carried out in September 2002 in the company of Nick Reyland.
[18]  Some of the volumes, long neglcted and dirty with dust, like the published source book for the tunes used in Silesian Tryptyk (1951), were no surprise.  But I was taken aback to find that Lutoslawski had also page-marked a series of pocket-sized volumes of regional folk songs, printed between August 1955 and August 1956[18].  In this light, Lutoslawski’s description of Dance Preludes does not look quite so cut and dried.
[19]   Found in a dark corner of his attic room.
[20]  Including a letter and enclosures from Jadwiga and Marian Sobiescy, dated 27 July 1954, five days before Lutoslawski completed the Concerto for Orchestra.
[21]  Panstwowy Instytut Sztuki, Zaklad Muzyki Ludowej, Poznan (an undated collection of songs).
[22]  One group, for example, consists of 34 songs from which he sourced the first two Dance Preludes. Curiously, there are also folksongs in his own hand from Hungary and Spain.
[23]  Radomsko, Kielecki and Leczycki.
[24]  Lissa (1956), 241-5.
[25]  Steven Stucky: Lutoslawski and His Music (CUP, Cambridge, 1981), 50.
[26]  Microfilm 208, frames 0660-5.
[27]  Lutoslawski treats the melody to fragment transposition, emphasising major-minor chording in the principal phrase.
[28]  This in itself suggests that Lutoslawski was very conscious of the scope for blending like materials into a symphonic discourse.  The interlacing of chorale and folk tune a short while later is a good example.  The chorale is generally taken as being fresh, non-folk material.  Yet analysis suggests that it has certain intervallic correlation with the folk song with which it alternates and that it has many of the traits of a recast folk tune disguised by methods such as those observed in the unused no.72.
[29]   A second comparison may be made between the pounding quaver chords in The Rite of Spring, fig. 13, and the passage beginning at b.56 in the Concerto for Orchestra, a passage which is itself related to the first movement of Little Suite.
[30]  It does reappear in fuller form towards the end of the movement (bb.161-2), although the short score indicates that this was an afterthought.
[31]   In his conversations with Nikolska, Lutoslawski expresses a certain delight that the Concerto “contains not only those folk themes which have been found by musicolohists, but also quite a number of folk motifs overlooked by them.”  Nikolska, op.cit., 40.  His comment, also in Nikolska (p.44) that “Zofia Lissa … did no notice the diatonic folk theme going through the entire composition; admittedly it’s only in the Passacaglia that this theme sounds in relief (even if in slightly altered form).” is more pizzling, as the is nowhere else any suggestion of an ‘Enigma’-style underlying folk melody.  On the other hand, Nick Reyland has put forward an intriguing proposal that the principal tonal areas of the Concerto are presaged by (most of) the stressed notes in the extended main theme at the opening of the Intrada (e.g. F sharp, F, B flat, D and E flat, but not C).  Whether this ties in with Lutoslawski’s compositional methodology as observed elsewhere in his oeuvre is a matter for further analysis and research.
[32]  Richard Taruskin: Stravinsky and the Russian Tradition (1996), 905   CHECK THIS QUOTE/REF
[33]  Nikolska, op.cit., 40.
[34]  Jean-Paul Couchoud: La musique polonaise et Witold Lutoslawski (Stock, Paris, 1981), 83.
[35]  Nikolska, ibid.
[36]  ibid.
[37]  Arnold Whittall: Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century (OUP, Oxford, 1999), 291.
[38]  Andrzej Chlopecki: CD notes for Lutoslawski Orchestral Works Vol.2, Naxos 8.553169 .
[39]  Lissa (1956), 298-9.
[40]   Stucky, op.cit., 49.
[41]  cf. the opening movement of Dutilleux’s First Symphony (1951), where there is a similar procedure.
[42]  “A cyje to kuniki, da po polu biegaja, oj pansa Kozlowskiego, da fornala sukaja”.  In 1956, Lissa was moved to comment that “the rather jokey tone” of another song had altogether disappeared (Lissa (1956), 243, referring to the treatment of melody no.10 in the first and last movements).  Lissa also commented that “it is not possible, leaving the concert hall after its performance, to hum or whistle the themes” (ibid., 295).
[43]   cf. the standard slogan of the time, ‘Socialist in content and national in form’.

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