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Danuta GWIZDALANKA

Witold Lutosławski


Witold Lutosławski

Exactly one hundred years ago, Witold Lutosławski, one of the most important symphonists of the XXth century, was born. With his four symphonies, concertos for instruments, his dozen orchestral works and his songs with orchestra, he created a world of sound which is striking in its richness of colour, which packs an emo'onal punch and which has led us to iden'fy him as one of the most remarkable composers of orchestral music in the history of Polish music. Lutosławski was born in Warsaw on 25 January 1913. It was in this city that he spent the majority of his life, and it was there that he died on 7 February 1994. He was brought up by his mother (his father had been shot dead by the Bolsheviks in 1918). He learned to play both the piano and the violin at a very young age, but began studying mathema'cs a9er finishing his secondary school exams, a choice dictated by reason. However, it was not long before his love of music overwhelmed him, and he entered the Conservatoire in 1932. He le9 five years later with two diplomas: one for composi'on and another for piano. His early working life as a symphonist was marked by the effec've Symphonic Varia ons (1938). Unfortunately, the 26 year old composer soon had to bid farewell to his dreams of having a career: the Second World War broke out, Warsaw fell under German occupa'on and all that he was able to do as a musician was earn a living by playing the piano in a bar. His masterly Varia ons on a theme by Paganini (1941), a work s'll played today by almost all piano duos across the world, dates back to this period of his life. He also composed a symphony ‘to file away in a drawer’ in hopes of beCer days to come. The libera'on of Poland took place when Lutosławski was 32. However, life did not immediately go back to normal. In this ruined country, musical life had to be en'rely reconstructed. Ar'sts had to deal with another problem: that of the aggressive State propaganda for simple, op'mis'c music, accessible to the


masses. His Symphony Number 1 (1947), though ini'ally lauded, was later deemed too dissonant. For ‘dissonant’, read ‘an'socialist’. At that 'me, Lutosławski was wri'ng works for theatre and the radio, as well as music for children. His songs are s'll sung in schools today, whilst his works for piano are part of the essen'al repertoire of any young pianist. He also composed works for orchestra which are so many inven've phrasings of folklore (Pe te Suite (1951), Silesian Triptych (1951). The Concerto for orchestra (1954), which is his most frequently performed work for an orchestra, was the crowning glory of his post-war achievements. In the middle of the 1950’s, destanilisa'on brought Polish music to the aCen'on of the rest of Europe. Composers no longer had to grapple with poli'cal impera'ves and were able to choose their audience once more. This led to the seHng up of the interna'onal contemporary music fes'val Warszawska Jesień; Lutosławski was part of the project from the very beginning. At that 'me, the prevailing mood was characterised by a great need for novelty, and what people expected first and foremost from those making art was ideas to revolu'onise music.

In this new situa'on, Lutosławski

presented his Funeral Music (1958), which sounded contemporary whilst remaining emo'onally sugges've. The composer, then in his fi9ies, went through an intensive research phase. He belonged to the creme de la creme of the European avant-garde and composed to commission, for fes'vals or cycles devoted to new music (very few people know that the tangos, waltzes and foxtrots which he wrote under the pseudonym Derwid brought in more money for the Lutosławski family). During the Venice Biennale in 1961, he surprised the public with his Vene an Games, the novelty of which resided in the musicians playing sounds together whose pitch was carefully transcribed but whose rhythm was free. This made it possible to achieve, via a simple procedure, a random and mobile tone. Tradi'onal transcrip'on would have made it impossible for the majority of musicians to execute such a piece of music. This idea rapidly gained currency as ‘controlled (or limited) randomness’, and was so characteris'c of Lutosławski’s style for so many years that it came to be seen as his trademark.


Very quickly, many people started to imitate him. In his Three poems by Henri Michaux, composed for the Zagreb Biennale (1963), the novelty could be found in the independence of the choir compared with the orchestra which was playing at the same 'me. This required two conductors to be present: the first conducted the orchestra whilst the other led the choir. In the core part of the work, the composer abandoned tradi'onal singing and made the choir speak and shout. This avant garde wave also gave birth to the Second Symphony (1967), composed for the Hamburg cycle Das Neue Werk. As the years went by, Lutosławski’s enthusiam for experimen'ng began to wane. This did nothing to damage his musical reputa'on – indeed, famous orchestras such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestra or the Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles orchestras, as well as musical ins'tu'ons such as the London Royal Philharmonic Society or the Salzburg fes'val commissioned works from him des'ned for a ‘classical’ audience. His works, burs'ng with energy, dynamic contrasts and the brightest array of shades of sound, were welcomed as they included what passes for good music in the opinion of those who frequent tradi'onal concert halls. Lutosławski reminded us that the goal of art ought to be to awaken an experience of beauty in whoever beholds it. He accepted the fact which many of his contemporary composers had turned their backs on: “Music is the art of emo'ons, the most various of emo'ons”, he declared. To give you the full story, he added that, above all, he wrote the kind of music that he would have liked to listen to himself, whilst poin'ng out that he was banking on the fact that there were people just like him, who liked his work. “I do not wish to acquire so much as to discover. Discover those who, in the deepest recesses of their soul, feel the same thing as I do.” And doubtless such listeners were legion, as he features amongst the small number of XXth century ar'sts whose work was played by ensembles and soloists in concert and on album recordings: Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ms'slav Rostropovitch, Krys'an Zimerman, Anne-Sophie MuCer, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Hai'nk, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Georg Sol', Georg Szell, etc. The dozens of prizes and rewards that were given to Lutosławski were proof of the recogni'on people felt towards him, amongst them the ‘Nobel prizes’ for music: the


Swedish Polar Music Prize, the American Grawemeyer Award and the Japanese Kyoto Prize. The orchestra was Lutosławski’s favourite instrument. Incidentally, amongst his works, the pieces for orchestra are the most numerous and the most important. Of his four symphonies, the Third (1983) and Fourth (1992) had a special place in his repertoire and in addi'on to the works already cited, the Livre pour orchestre (1968), Preludes and Fugue (1972), Mi-par

(1976),

Novele-e (1979) and Chain 3 (1986) make regular appearances in programmes for concerts and recordings. Of the concertos for instruments, those which we have the opportunity to hear the most o9en are the Cello concerto (1970) and the Piano concerto (1988) as well as Chain 2 (1985) and Par ta (1984) for violin and orchestra. Lutosławski also composed songs for voice and orchestra, o9en based on French surrealist poetry (Paroles ssées [1965] and Les Espaces du sommeil [1975]). We mustn’t forget to men'on the exci'ng Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1989-1990), which are the seHngs to music of miniatures by Robert Desnos which are about animals, birds and insects, as well as lyrical verses about flowers. Lutosławski conducted the orchestra with great panache, transforming his sounds into drama'c and poe'c works. He composed an ethereal music, brisk and shining with delicate tones, which were o9en also exci'ng and striking. This instrumental virtuosity demonstrated the experience which he had aqcuired in his role as conductor. Over the thirty years which passed between his beginnings in Zagreb in 1963 and the last concert which he conducted in Montreal in the autumn of 1993, he performed dozens of 'mes with the best ensembles in Europe and America. Three 'mes he gave concerts in Belgium: in Ghent in 1978, four years later in Liège, and in 1990 in Brussels. He only ever conducted performances of his own music. He le9 behind recordings of prac'cally all of his orchestral composi'ons, recordings which provide interes'ng documenta'on on how a composer interprets a piece of music, and it is wonderful to also be able to hear them conducted by the cream of professional conductors. What Lutosławski wanted above all was to be involved in music and, for many years, he took a back seat when it came to poli'cs. It took the seHng up of the trade union Solidarność, which he welcomed with open arms, to get him to


change his point of view. The state of war, declared in December 1981, forced him to re're from public life in Poland. His Third Symphony, which he composed during that period, was therefore o9en interpreted as his ar's'c reac'on to the situa'on in Poland. Lutosławski’s opinion on this issue was similar to the posi'on he held on the recurrent ques'on as to the Polish nature of his music. Since he was Polish, he repeated, his music represented Polish culture (although he used French poetry to compose his vocal works, in a desire to avoid the complica'ons arising from transla'ng Polish poetry). He was thus a product of the world in which he lived, which, and on this there can be no doubt, influenced the character of the music which he created. He felt that taking music to be a ‘commentary in sound’ degraded art. In 1989, Lutosławski took part in the ac'vi'es of the Citzens’ CommiCee, led by Lech Wałęsa. He felt bound to do so, explaining it thus: “I am not just a composer, I am also a ci'zen.” Incidentally, this was not the only 'me he spoke of his du'es as an ar'st to society: he proclaimed ar's'c independence with regard to people and things whilst giving it its own responsibility in his work: “If we bring to the world any kinds of quali'es, we cannot view them as our private property. This is a possession which is on loan and which must be returned to the society in which we live.”

Danuta Gwizdalanka

English version by Leah Maitland

Profile for Service culturel de l'Ambassade de Pologne

'Witold Lutosławski', by Danuta Gwizdalanka  

From the brochure ‘Witold Lutosławski 2013-2014’ published by the Polish Institute in Brussels

'Witold Lutosławski', by Danuta Gwizdalanka  

From the brochure ‘Witold Lutosławski 2013-2014’ published by the Polish Institute in Brussels

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