• Lutosławski and Literature (2010)

Lutosławski and Literature

Research paper delivered at the Lutosławski Colloquium, Cornell University, Ithaca, 7 April 2010.  I am deeply grateful to Steven Stucky for agreeing to read out this paper in my absence.


The Cello Concerto

This paper originated in research that I carried out for my forthcoming monograph on Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto (1969-70).  My curiosity was piqued by the composer’s programme note for the concerto, by several of his subsequent commentaries on the piece, and by some of the vocabulary in his sketches at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basle.  As will shortly become apparent, I then moved into more speculative territory by investigating Lutosławski’s broader interests in literature and how these might illuminate the foreground landscape as well as the hinterland of the Cello Concerto.

Critical reception at the premiere of the Cello Concerto by Mstislav Rostropovich, 40 years ago, embraced the usual range of contradictory or poorly informed opinion, but there were some perceptive comments.  Susan Bradshaw saw the concerto, in her preview analysis, as ‘a dramatic conflict (in the spiritual, as opposed to the theatrical sense)’, (1) while Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the most acutely aware of the newspaper critics, saw it more vividly as a ‘struggle of the individual against corrosive or frankly hostile forces’. (2)  Colin Mason commented that ‘[i]t succeeds in making the effect of a traditional concerto whilst avoiding all the forms and most of the conventional gestures of one’. (3)  But such was Lutosławski’s concern – for this it must have been – that Rostropovich might not understand it, that he wrote him a letter to accompany the completed score, explaining his compositional intentions in what he called ‘literary’ terms.  It does seem an odd thing for him to have done.  Even odder was his decision to release the bulk of this letter as a programme note for the premiere (Appendix 1).  As we shall see, he must have come to regret revealing these glimpses of his private ‘workshop’, untechnical though they are.

In 1970, perceptions on the wisdom of publishing the note were mixed.  Edward Greenfield was sceptical: ‘The composer’s note on this work was not promising … dotting it about with emotive adjectives’. (4)  On the other hand, Shawe-Taylor reiterated and accepted Lutosławski’s post-Pandoran warning ‘against a search for literary or extra-musical meanings in the work’. (5)

What is especially striking, with the exception of the few uncontextualised comments by Desmond Shawe-Taylor, is how the British critics totally ignored the political turmoil and espionage stories swirling immediately around them in the UK and USSR in the autumn of 1970 (notably the award of the Nobel prize for literature to Aleksander Solzenitsyn).  Rostropovich was intimately involved in these issues and took Lutosławski’s concerto as a personal embodiment of his own trials and tribulations and those of his fellow Soviets.  Anecdotally, he likened the start of the Finale to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and saw the climactic hammer blows of the Concerto (fig. 133), and the cello’s weeping response, in the most graphic terms, as symbolic of his, the soloist’s, own death.  No wonder, then, that the Coda represented a type of resurrection for him.  Lutosławski tried to keep such responses under control, but his admission once that Rostropovich had made the work ‘his own’ might be seen as an acknowledgment of what he came to regret as programmatic interpretations.


Yet Rostropovich was not alone.  As the American journalist Hedrick Smith wrote of the several-times delayed Moscow premiere on 13 December 1972 (at which Lutosławski was present): ‘To Rostropovich’s friends and enthusiasts the message was that of a free and unbowed musical and intellectual spirit struggling to make himself heard against the din of cultural orthodoxy and in spite of censure of his behavior’. (6)  That same month, December 1972, the Polish Music Publishers in Kraków, PWM, published a book of conversations that Lutosławski had recently had with the Polish critic and journalist Tadeusz Kaczyński.  The most notorious exchange came as their discussion on the Cello Concerto was winding up.  You will recall Lutosławski’s outburst: ‘I’m horrified to see how one can be carried away by my careless mention of the dramatic conflict between the solo part and the orchestra’. (7)

Lutosławski approved these conversations, so he must have decided to let his angry response become public.  It is his only rebuke in the volume.  Why should he do this?  My guess is that he had realised that the release of his note to Rostropovich, and Rostropovich’s own interpretative extravagance (as Lutosławski sometimes saw it), had been a mistake.  Kaczyński too had strayed into this extramusical territory, so his notion of ‘beating’ at fig. 89 had to be nipped in the bud.  I will return to Lutosławski’s references to ‘drama’ in the second half of my paper, but it appears that even this attempt in the 1972 Conversations to control responses was not enough for the composer.

Nine months later, as he was preparing to conduct the Polish premiere (which had been postponed several times already because the Soviet authorities refused to give Rostropovich permission to go to Warsaw), Lutosławski decided to make a further statement in the fortnightly magazine Ruch Muzyczny (Musical Movement), disguised as another interview with Kaczyński.  You will find the full text in Zbigniew Skowron’s recent Lutosławski on Music, although Kaczyński’s introductory apologia (missing in Skowron’s volume) is of even greater interest here: ‘… it is necessary to advise readers that the text below is not a reprint of our conversation on the Cello Concerto that was published in the book. … here – unlike in that text – the controversy that exists between us, as a result of my very subjective and specific interpretation of this work, has been completely omitted. …’ (8)  This is a recantation almost reminiscent of apologies under socialist realism!

I would like you to bear in mind two phrases that Lutosławski used in 1970 and 1972 respectively: ‘ ‘literary or extra-musical meaning’ and ‘careless mention’.  I’ve always been puzzled by his use of ‘literary’; surely ‘descriptive’ would be more accurate and less misleadingly loaded.  As to ‘careless mention’, this I believe is symptomatic of Lutosławski’s periodic uncertainty about extramusical significance.  Unsurprisingly, his sketches reveal more extramusical impulses than he later revealed in public.  But Rostropovich’s anthropomorphising and personalising of his role fed off conversations that he must have had with the composer, if only because I know that Lutosławski had equivalent  sotto voce discussions with Heinrich Schiff in Graz in 1972, especially with regard to the ‘sigh’ at fig. 88 that precedes what Lutosławski upbraided Kaczyński for calling ‘beating’ in 1972.  Yet even in his Ruch Muzyczny ‘interview’ Lutosławski again underlines the extramusical signification: ‘Here it is difficult to resist the temptation to refer to an analogy with the theatre or with a situation that arises between human beings’. (9)

Other signs of his uncertainty lie in the drafts of his letter to Rostropovich that subsequently became the programme note.  Where the final version reads ‘literary or extra-musical meaning’, Lutosławski initially wrote ‘literary programme’.  Where, of the end of the Introduction, the published note reads ‘It is as if the cello, forced to perform monotonous, boring repetitions’, Lutosławski originally wrote ‘[i]t is as if a man, forced to perform a monotonous task’.

The sketches are even more revealing and back up Kaczyński’s ‘very subjective and specific interpretation’.  In his first structural sketch for the Finale, Lutosławski anticipates that it ‘leads [at figs. 89-95] to ‘fouille‘ with the participation of ‘intervening groups’, other instruments and obviously cello (‘pig-sticking’)’.  What an extraordinary sentence!  ‘Fouille‘ evidently refers to the fighting climax of the second of Trois poèmes, ‘Le grand combat’, where the two conductors, one each for the orchestra and the choir shouting ‘fouille‘ (‘dig’, ‘excavate’), trade blows.  The image of ‘pig-sticking’, however, is distinctly graphic.  Wild pigs have been hunted on horseback with spears in Central Europe, as the British also did in India, but perhaps Lutosławski recalled such events as described by writers in ancient Greece.

Lutosławski’s plan for the concerto’s end was fascinating: ‘The whole coda … progresses towards ‘angelic triumph’ at the end from rapid, restless phrases, an echo of the preceding ‘earthly bustle’, but dispassionately, as if with the force of inertia’.  No doubt irrelevantly, I am reminded here of the preface to Liszt’s Les préludes – ‘What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?’ – although this structural concept clearly does have relevance to much of Lutosławski’s other output.  Furthermore, the central tenet of the several versions of the preface to Les préludes is that man cannot live without testing himself, even unto death, as he moves from youth to maturity, and that does parallel my later, properly literary analogies.

The Monologue

And with this I come to the main part of my talk, spurred on by Lutosławski’s several references to the theatre.  He ends his 1973 ‘interview’ with his most explicit statement of how he had used his knowledge of drama to develop his musical thinking:

From this partly literary description – as may be judged by the use of words like ‘reprimand’ or ‘escape’ – it might be possible to infer that the Cello Concerto has something in common with programme or even illustrative music.  Well, nothing is more alien to my intentions.  This work is but a new example of attempts to renew large-scale musical form.  This attempt is based on analogies such as can occur between music and the other arts, in this case between music and drama. (10)

Yet Lutosławski never clarified further what this meant, what he was referring to beyond the generality of analogies with drama.  Appendix 2 is a list of all the writers – dramatists, essayists, novelists (not poets, however) – that he ever mentioned in his recorded conversations.

With the exception of some loose notes about an unrealised composition based on Franz Kafka’s very short story Before the Law (mentioned at the bottom of the list), the only other reference to literature in his spasmodic creative diary, now known as his Notebook of Ideas(11) was to the genre of the monologue.  Lutosławski wrote on 19 October 1959: ‘Great monologues of contemporary drama: Beckett (Pozzo: En attendant Godot), Ionesco (Berenger: Tueur sans gages)’. (12)  Incidentally, this appears to be the only reference that Lutosławski ever made to actual plays.  Beckett’s (1948) had been premiered in Warsaw at the start of 1956, though Ionesco’s (1958) has never to my knowledge been performed in Poland, and certainly not before 1970.  So, while it is highly probable that Lutosławski, an avid theatre-goer, did see the first Polish production of Godot, it is also possible that he knew both plays in their published form.  He was, after all, fluent in French.  He almost certainly read rather than saw Ionesco’s play, as it had been premiered, in Paris, only nine months before Lutosławski made his note.

Thanks to the eagle eyes of one of my postgraduate students, Leo Tobisch, a few months ago, a further Ionesco reference has come to light.  Six months after the reference in Notebook of Ideas to ‘great monologues of contemporary drama’, Lutosławski appears to make another on 29 April 1960, this time to Ionesco’s next play, Rhinocéros (1959).  In a fairly intemperate sideswipe against the then current rush by many of his compatriots to embrace serialism, he writes:

It is possible that the endeavors of those few who scan music for a new approach to the Webernist tradition[, sic] are a mad enterprise.  This is at least what I think of the leading ‘rhinoceroses’ of Webernism. (13)

Here, Lutosławski clearly had in mind Ionesco’s parable, first published as a nouvelle (short story) in 1957.  Whether Lutosławski knew the work in this form or as the play it is impossible to know; it is unlikely that he would have heard or seen it (it was premiered on the BBC Third Programme in October 1959, followed by stage production in Düsseldorf later that month and in Paris in January 1960).  The significance here is that Rhinocéros uses the same central character as in Tueur sans gages, Bérenger, who in this parable resists the temptation, unlike all around him, to join and mutate into one of the rhinoceroses which are taking over from humans.  Ionesco intended this as a condemnation of the onslaught of authoritarianism (he had used the term ‘rhinoceros’ to characterise fascism in the 1940s) and as an exploration of the stubborn resistance of one man.  This would undoubtedly have struck a chord with Lutosławski, not only in his musical situation in 1959-60 but also on the level of someone living under communism at that time.  But back to the monologues of Beckett and Ionesco.

These two monologues display interesting, perhaps generic features.  In citing Waiting for Godot, Lutosławski refers to Pozzo’s monologue.  This is surely a mistake, as Pozzo’s only passage resembling a monologue is when he orders his dumb slave Lucky to fetch this and carry that, time and time again.  The main monologue in Godot in fact belongs to Lucky; he suddenly finds his voice and launches into a barely coherent rant.  In common with many a monologue, Lucky’s is subliminally threaded together by chains of recurring phrases: ‘quaquaquaqua’, ‘for reasons unknown’, ‘left unfinished’, ‘I resume’ and ‘on on’.  Lutosławski would shortly find this structural feature appealing in the poetry of Chabrun and Desnos, and it is paralleled by the interlocking indifferente Ds and fanciful threads of the monologue at the start of the Cello Concerto.  During rehearsals for Godot in Berlin in 1975 (in other words, five years after the premiere of the Cello Concerto), Beckett unwittingly used vocabulary appropriate for Lutosławski’s introductory monologue.  He instructed that:

rehearsals would begin with Lucky’s speech, for it was here, he said, that the ‘threads and themes’ of the play ‘are being gathered together’.  …  The monologue’s theme is ‘to shrink on an impossible earth under an indifferent heaven’.  … three parts: an apathetic divinity, dwindling man, and indifferent nature. (14)

The monologue for Bérenger, the hero of The Killer, as Tueur sans gages is usually translated, is also structured by means of a refrain.  In this case, it is the relentlessly derisive chuckle (ricanement) of the (perhaps) unseen assassin.  His sneering acts as a goad to Bérenger’s soul-searching, and Bérenger slowly but surely succumbs to the unspoken will of his killer.  It is not unreasonable to see Lutosławski’s interest in the theatrical monologue in 1958-59 as prescient of the crucial role the device plays – now at the beginning of a musical drama – in the Cello Concerto.

A broader clue to Lutosławski’s intimations of dramatic parallels may be found when the idea of the monologue is combined with the title of the next section of the concerto: 4 Episodes.  The idea dawns that perhaps Lutosławski might have had in mind not just elements of contemporary theatre but also of the structure of Greek tragedy.  Given his interest in philosophy, both ancient and modern, this should not be a surprise.  He had also written incidental music to Greek drama among his many collaborations with the Polish Theatre in Warsaw and with Polish Radio during the late 1940s up to 1959.  Among these plays were an adaptation of Homer and of Sophocles’s Antigone.

Greek Tragedy

In September 2002, Nick Reyland persuaded me to join him when he was granted permission to look through books and scores at Lutosławski’s Warsaw house.  We had three fascinating days.  I found folk sources for the Concerto for Orchestra, while Nick concentrated on the collection of ancient literature.  I well recall Nick looking through volumes of the writings of Aristotle (ironically, his Poetics was missing, much to Nick’s chagrin) and the collected tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.  Nick also recalls from the same visit seeing a bookmark in a volume of Aeschylus, marking his Prometheus Bound(15)  The clearest clue to Lutosławski’s interest in this area, however, is his unusual comment on future projects, made to Bálint András Varga in 1973:

At present I am preoccupied with a classical piece, a Greek tragedy, looked at through the eyes of a 20th century man.  It would not be an opera in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a stage oratorio, with some stage effects. (16)

It is not my intention to expound at length on Greek tragedy, not least because its characteristics, according to Aristotle’s Poetics, include elements dependent on the written word, such as the establishment of the main character’s royal or noble birth, which are not easily conveyed in music.  Indeed, Lutosławski’s cello initially has too inward, day-dreaming and unmotivated a character to fit the Greek ideal of a hero.  As the concerto progresses, however, the character of the cello develops, moves beyond the hamartia (tragic flaw) of his introversion and faces his peripeteia (reversal) in the Finale and perhaps a concluding catharsis (cleansing, here more like a release).  The outline structures and functions of Greek drama – Prologue, dialogic Episodes, Exodos – are uncannily close to those of the Cello Concerto.  It is somewhat puzzling that, as far as I am aware, no-one has yet pointed out this connection (although Michael Klein has discussed related issues such as peripeteia in connection with Lutosławski’s much later Fourth Symphony). (17)

Where Greek tragedy had its Prologue, which often starts as a monologue, Lutosławski also has a substantial section for soloist alone (Introduction).  Where the Greeks had the parados (entry of the chorus), the concerto introduces the first brass intervention.  Where Greek tragedy then had 3-5 dialogic episodes separated by choric interludes, the Cello Concerto has four episodes separated by brass interventions.  Lutosławski’s cantilena may be regarded as a fifth episode, extended and given over to a different type of dialogue utilising the Greek kommos (lyric lament), itself interrupted by the most violent and extended intervention of all, doubling up as the start of the Finale.  This establishes the most dynamic conflict between the protagonist and the ensemble.  The Finale and Coda are equivalent to the Greek exodos, which brings the conflict to its peak and instigates a resolution.  In Greek drama, this resolution often involved a mekhane (crane), which subsequently gave rise to the Latin term deus ex machina.  Sometimes, as in Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, the protagonist was then taken back to heaven.  It is hard not to see elements of this device embodied in Lutosławski’s epiphanic coda.

Lutosławski’s Reading Interests

The structural and narrative connections with Greek tragedy are strong.  But by now my curiosity about Lutosławski’s ‘analogies with theatre’ was aroused and I decided to investigate further into Lutosławski’s wider literary interests.  As Kaczyński recalled in Homagium,  Lutosławski ‘had daily contacts with literature throughout his life, in which there is no exaggeration for, whenever possible, his wife and himself read aloud to each other carefully selected books’. (18)  But you will find no mention of this aspect of Lutosławski’s cultural life in most existing studies, including his own Conversations with Tadeusz Kaczyński (1972/84).  There are essentially only two sources for information on Lutosławski’s literary interests (Maciejewski’s excruciatingly awful book refers only to Lutosławski’s admiration for French and Irish plays, which neatly encapsulates Beckett!).

These two sources are Irina Nikolska’s Conversations (1994) and Kaczyński’s writings (1994, 1996), all of which appeared after Lutosławski’s death.  While Nikolska’s books consist of transcripts of conversations (the larger, 2004 English version is not entirely rigorous linguistically), Kaczyński’s on this occasion are reported summaries of conversations.  As is evident in Appendix 2, their books complement rather than overlap one another in the authors who are cited.

I should also state the obvious: that these sources are very few in number, therefore well may not form a representative balance, and that the interviewers themselves played a part in these conversations, so their reports may slant in directions interesting to them.  I am also very much aware that some of the observations that I shall be making will be true of many other works of fiction, but I do not believe that this reduces the potential of the authors and novels mentioned by Lutosławski to have had some bearing on his compositional world.

Russian Novels

Understandably, in his conversations with the Russian musicologist Irina Nikolska, he cites a number of Russian authors, but mostly just their surnames.  With Kaczyński, Lutosławski appears to have given more detail on Dostoyevsky, in a conversation recorded as having taken place on 27 May 1993, barely eight months before his death:

We also exchanged opinions on the theme of favourite writers.  Among prose writers Lutosławski probably places Dostoyevsky the highest.  He thinks that The Brothers KaramazovThe Possessed, and also Crime and Punishment (especially the conversation of the hero with the investigating officer), are masterpieces, unlike The Idiots, which he rates less highly. (19)

The highlighting of the meetings between Raskolnikov and Porfiry in Crime and Punishment is interesting for their inquisitional nature, whose conflict occupies a similar expressive world to parts of the Cello Concerto.  And, not unlike some other novels that I will come to shortly, this work is a frank and often ruthless investigation of the actions and psyche of a solitary misfit.  We may also recall Lutosławski’s earlier fascination with another, more terrifying type of grilling: that of Bérenger in Ionesco’s The Killer.

To Nikolska he was more guarded on Dostoyevsky and emphasised the oppressive nature of his art:

Dostoyevsky.  I admire him, and I constantly go back to him.  Even now.  However, he is a monster – or, rather, the way he sees the world is monstrous.  The grandeur of Dostoyevsky simply crushes the reader.  […]  Naturally, I know that he hated Poland and the Polish people – he wrote about that; this circumstance somehow spoils his image in my eyes.  He was okrutnie (i.e. cruelly) disposed not only towards Poland, but also towards every manifestation of creativeness of the Polish nation, to say nothing of the national psyche. (20)

The odd man out in Kaczyński’s list of Russian novels is Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Pyetushki, whose title has been variously translated into English as Moscow to the End of the LineMoscow Stations and Moscow Circles.  Kaczyński recalls in Homagium that: ‘One of the last books he read and much appreciated was Erofeev’s Moscow-Pyetushki that I lent him’. (21)  So, although Lutosławski came to this satirical novel long after the Cello Concerto, he cannot have been immune to its monologic character, its date contemporaneous with his work on the Concerto (1969), its ‘heavenly angels’ and fatal climax, nor its many references to French, Russian and German literature and to contemporary politics (including Polish).

French and Norwegian Novels

Lutosławski revealed to Nikolska, when the subject of French literature came up, his preference for Flaubert over Balzac, and this was due to aesthetics and the economy, or lack of it, of thought and creative practice:

I am a great admirer of Flaubert and that relates to my own type of creative artistry.  I distinguish between two types of artist: the Balzac [type] and the Flaubert [type].  Balzac is someone who turns on the tap and water pours out.  Sometimes it is an elixir of great value, sometimes just water, but every time it pours out without ceasing.  […]  Balzac did not create such a masterpiece as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or L’education sentimentale, nor even Bouvard et Pecuchet.  […]  He wrote real pearls.  […]  And Flaubert is much closer to me precisely because he is not long-winded.  He talks when he has something to say and talks in a manner that is utterly virtuosic.  For me he is a great model.  Even so, I am jealous of the Balzac type. (22)

The references to French fiction are a diversion/divertissement here.  Much as was his enthusiasm for some of the picaresque novels of the Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 for Growth of the Soil (1917).  Lutosławski placed him second behind Dostoyevsky in his pantheon of foreign writers, according to Kaczyński: ‘Lutosławski recommended to all his novel Woman by the Well and the trilogy: TrampsAugust and Life Goes On‘. (23) (The titles have been unconventionally translated here.)  Kaczyński further reported that ‘he recommended [Hamsun] to me warmly and esteemed him for his underrated brilliance.  In addition, he placed first among his novels – contrary to general opinion – not Hunger but Hamsun’s trilogy’. (24)

If it is not too perverse, I would like to dwell for a while on Hunger.  This dark, misanthropic novel features a nameless individual, a would-be author condemned by circumstances and his own (malicious) personality to earning the occasional few coins for hack journalism in a provincial seaside town.  It is a bleak but sonorous book, portraying the artist as a vagrant leech, full of malign curiosity, whose dogged refusal to be social and whose resilience condemn him to increasing impotence and self-pity.  At one point he observes that he is in ‘a state of utter absence from myself’, (25) a situation curiously similar to that of the cello soloist at the start of the Cello Concerto.  Once again, even if Lutosławski didn’t rate it as highly as others of Hamsun’s novels, Hunger is the story of a solitary misfit trying to find justification for his existence.  At the end of the book, he escapes to sea.


Which brings me, last but absolutely by no means least, to Lutosławski’s favourite author, Joseph Conrad.  He talked to both Nikolska and Kaczyński about him.  Kaczyński recalled: ‘He was the most attached to the Polish or rather Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad, and his favourite novel was the Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, excerpts from which he often quoted’. (26)  In fact, it was just one sentence that Lutosławski liked to quote, generally at award ceremonies, and it comes not from the novel but from the preface to the American edition of Nigger of the Narcissus: ‘[Fiction/the written word] must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music — which is the art of arts’. (27)

On this occasion, he was more effusive and revealing to Nikolska:

I have spent longest on the books of Joseph Conrad, having read almost all of them. He was a man of great talent and enormous wisdom. Actually, it is typically male literature dealing with manly life. Morality, honour, courage  –  to them he devoted his attention.  Shadow Line is such a typical, very masculine reading matter.  The philosophical dimension of the book is based on the thought that the life of every man contains its ‘shadow line‘.  He has to go through his own particular test of character, and if he wins through he will be fully a man.  This is very beautiful and not at all conceited. (28)

With this assessment of Conrad’s The Shadow-line Lutosławski touches the nerve of his own belief in moral fibre, which no doubt explains why Hamsun’s Hunger was less appealing.  Lutosławski was not the only one of his generation in Poland to be  profoundly devoted to Conrad.  As the Polish author Jan Józef Szczepański (who was six years younger than Lutosławski) put it in 1957:

[Conrad’s books] provided a code of behaviour.  […]  Conrad’s heroes – captains of small sailing ships, or white colonizers lost in exotic surroundings – are lonely men.  […] in solving their immediate conflicts they could only rely on themselves.  […]  A Conradian man represents a closed, autonomous moral system.  This system is a true copy of those ethics that bind merchants or sailors: honesty, fidelity to the given word, self-respect and professional honour, with a touch of a certain romantic exaltation that bestows upon such virtues a hallmark of chivalric austerity. […] [Talking of the Polish Underground AK during World War II] His books became a collection of practical recipes for men fighting lonely battles in the dark that was dense enough to hide personal defeats and therefore represented an additional challenge. (29)

As Lutosławski lay in hospital in late 1993 (he died on 7 February 1994), he was visited by his long-time friend, the conductor and composer Jan Krenz, who recalled:

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. (30)

Conrad’s The Shadow-line evidently struck a special chord with Lutosławski.  It’s not a long novel – it’s a novella really – and is written, like Hamsun’s Hunger, as a first-person narrative. It charts a sea-captain in the Far East on his first voyage in that capacity, so is equally a story about the transition from youth to manhood, about evil and death, community and isolation, as it is about a man’s capacity, not to mention duty, to ‘stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience’, (31) as another character (Captain Giles) puts it near the end of The Shadow-line.  To me, that has resonances with Greek tragedy, and I have no hesitation in suggesting, for all my speculation and summoning of circumstantial evidence, that these two literary sources in particular bring the listener closer to the essence of the Cello Concerto’s expressive narrative – to the central role of the soloist – than Rostropovich’s self-identification, although of course his interpretation can be viewed as but one manifestation of the underlying ethos of the work.


I might interject brief mention of three other interpretative slants here: (i) the reported linking by Rostropovich’s wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, of the character of the cello in the Concerto to Cervantes’ Don Quixote (I don’t buy this); (ii) the connection made by some to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which of course has more than one monologue – the critic Malcolm Rayment suggested this link in 1977, and the New York Ballet created a balletic Hamlet to the Cello Concerto in 2001; and (iii), and bringing us back to The Shadow-line, Conrad’s hero ends up back in the port whence he had begun his journey, but a changed man – not a million miles away from Lutosławski’s protagonist travelling from indifferente Ds to ‘triumphant’ As.

Quite what Lutosławski would have made of this Conradian proposition, let alone the others, I’m not sure.  Yet, in the passages following his outburst in the Kaczyński Conversations of 1972, he somewhat grudgingly concedes that ‘Luckily music can be interpreted in many ways – that’s where its strength and uniqueness lie in comparison with the other arts’. (32)  In a later conversation in the book, about Mi-parti (1976), he is mellower still (this conversation took place after the original publication and is included only in the English version):

The experience of listening to music, and getting to know it, exists on many levels; music contains a great deal more than the notes in the score.  Nevertheless, the ‘something more’ need not be translated at once into poetry, philosophy, visual images or emotions.  That’s why my first reaction on hearing any commentary on my composition is to dissociate myself from it.  Does it mean I am against such an interpretation and consider it improper?  Not at all.  Everybody has a right to receive music in his own particular way, if he finds it fulfilling.  I am merely opposing the statement that there is one objective truth about a piece of music and that music has a meaning beyond itself.  The fact that there are many ways of looking at the same work, and drawing many associations with other arts and experiences, only proves that the non-musical content of music, if any, must be many-sided. (33)

So perhaps those of us who value rational contextualisation are not so misguided after all!

© 2010 Adrian Thomas


(1) Susan Bradshaw, Music and Musicians vol.19 (October 1970), 34, 62
(2) Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Sunday Times (18 October 1970), 38
(3) Colin Mason, The Daily Telegraph (15 October 1970), 14
(4) Edward Greenfield, The Guardian (15 October 1970), 10
(5) Desmond Shawe-Taylor, ibid.
(6) Hedrick Smith, The Russians (New York, 1974), 388
(7) Tadeusz Kaczyński, Rozmowy z Witoldem Lutosławskim (Kraków: PWM, 1972); transl. Yolanta May as Conversations with Witold Lutosławski (London: Chester Music, 1984), 63
(8) ‘Witold Lutosławski o swoim ‘Koncercie wiolonczelowym’, Ruch Muzyczny 18 (16-30 September 1973), 3 [my translation]
(9) ibid., 5 [my translation]
(10) ibid., 5 [my translation]
(11) a translation of this diary, published in Poland as Zapiski (Warsaw: Warsaw UP, 2008), is included in Zbigniew Skowron, Lutosławski on Music (Lanham-Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2007), 291-318
(12) Skowron (2007), 294
(13) ibid., 294
(14) Lawrence Graver, Beckett. Waiting for Godot (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), 49-50
(15) Nicholas Reyland, ‘Lutosławski, Akcja, and the Poetics of Musical Plot’, Music and Letters 88 no.4 (November 2007), 624
(16) Bálint András Varga, Lutosławski Profile (London: Chester Music, 1973), 31-32
(17) Michael Klein, Intertextuality in Western Art Music (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005), 108-36
(18) Tadeusz Kaczyński, in Marzenna Guzowska (ed.), Homagium (Warsaw: Galeria Kordegarda, 1996), 23
(19) Tadeusz Kaczyński, Lutosławski. Życie i muzyka (Warsaw: Sutkowski, 1994), 231 [my translation]
(20) Irina Nikolska, Conversations with Witold Lutosławski (Stockholm: Melos, 1994), 83
(21) Kaczyński (1996), 23
(22) Irina Nikolska, Muzyka to nie tylko dźwięki. Rozmowy z Witoldem Lutosławskim (Kraków: PWM, 2003), 36 [my translation]
(23) Kaczyński (1996), 123
(24) ibid., 173
(25) Knut Hamsun, Hunger (transl. Sverre Lyngstad) (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006), 66
(26) Kaczyński (1996), 12
(27) Joseph Conrad, ‘Preface’, The Nigger of the Narcissus (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1914)
(28) Nikolska (2003), 35 [my translation]
(29) Jan Józef Szczepański, ‘The Conrad of My Generation’, in Zdzisław Najder (ed.), Conrad under familial eyes (Cambridge: CUP, 1983), 277, 279
(30) Elżbieta Markowska, Jana Krenza piędziesiąt lat z battutą. Rozmowy o muzyce polskiej (Kraków: PWM 1996), 98 [my translation]
(31) Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-line (Oxford: OUP, 2003), 108
(32) Kaczyński (1984), 62
(33) ibid., 90

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