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Zbigniew SKOWRON

The brilliance of Witold Lutosławski’s music


The brilliance of Witold Lutosławski’s music

The work of Witold Lutosławski owes its special place in the music of the XXth century to the fact that it combines the modern and the tradi#onal. This is how the composer was able to create his own, individual style, which found its fullest expression once he had reached maturity, star#ng with composi#ons such as the String quartet (1964) and the Second Symphony (1967). The path which led him towards developing this style took in on the way the Symphonic Varia ons of his youth (1938) as well as the works inspired by neoclassicism, such as the Symphony Number 1 (1947) and Concerto for orchestra (1954), which also made use of elements of Polish musical folklore. The key turning point in Lutosławski’s work was marked by two pieces of music. In the first, en#tled Five Songs, from texts by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna (1957), he used a twelve-tone harmony for the first #me. It was this, which was a veritable crea#ve alterna#ve to the Vienna School’s dodecaphony, which imbued his works with their trademark sound (as much in a ver#cal as a horizontal dimension), making it a dis#nc#ve alterna#ve to a tonal system which underwent a complete reevalua#on in the music of the XXth century. The second work, which also marked a rupture in Lutosławski’s pursuit of his own sound language, is the Veni an Games (1961), in which he combined the precision of organising the pitch of sound to the work of chance, the effect of which was to create a sound structure with an incredibly subtle, almost sparkling, rhythmic character. Thinking of a piece of work as a whole submi:ed to ra#onal control allowed Lutosławski to avoid the radical nature of a lot of western ar#sts. The more the la:er, in their desire to outmanoeuvre the complica#ons of integral serialism, fell into the trap of an omnipresent indeterminism, the more Lutosławski, making the most of the new possibili#es offered by randomness, retained total control over the form and expressiveness of his music. His talent did not merely consist of precisely arranging the sound material and organising #me


within the work, rather it also appeared in the field of macroform, as evidenced in his four symphonies. If the Symphony Number 1 s#ll has clear references to classical models, the following three were projec#ons of an original idea of grand form, made up of a preliminary part, introducing the fundamental material and a central part in which the la:er undergoes development and transforma#on. This idea found its most complete form in the Third Symphony (1983), in which the two-part form is associated with the classical model of the sonata form. The rough scores by Lutosławski conserved in Paul Sacher’s archives in Basel are proof of the extent to which a clever plan presided over the construc#on of small as well as large scale forms which he honed to perfec#on, in line with the principle which holds that even the most subtle musical element is meaningful when it forms part of a whole. In Lutosławski’s music, the precision in the organisa#on of the pitch of his sounds and rhythmic structures blends with the combina#on of tones and sounds in an organic way. Seen from this angle, he remains faithful to the solu#ons put forward by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, something which the composer stressed several #mes in interviews and in his aesthe#c declara#ons, thus indica#ng where his aesthe#c loyal#es lay. His fascina#on for the sensual value of sound found its expression in his vocal-instrumental composi#ons derived from texts by French poets: in Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963), in Paroles

ssées (1965) from a text by Jean-François

Chabrun, in Les Espaces du sommeil (1975) from a text by Robert Desnos, and finally in Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1989-1990), once again from poetry by Desnos, which date from the last phase of his working life. In these works, the lines sung by the solo voice intermingle with the instrumental base harmony, producing a rich and a:rac#ve sound. Unlike representa#ves of the radical avant-garde, Lutosławski was not looking to blow people away or surprise his audiences with a kaleidoscope of sound effects. On the contrary, he wished to create a deep bond with them by filling his music with a richness of expression replete with nuance. The sensual func#on (by which I mean the listening experience) of his sound solu#ons merge in Lutosławski’s music with the projec#on of emo#ons which find their


voice over the course of a piece of work with what appears to be an underlying drama#c scenario. In the music of the XXth century, Lutosławski’s music is one of several examples of a produc#on which is directly in line with the heritage of the tradi#on of absolute (purely instrumental) music of the previous century. Whichever way the sound choices of his works go beyond tradi#onal tonal language (even if they contain dodecaphonic material, we also entounter microtones), in his aesthe#c concep#on, Lutosławski stayed faithful to the idea of music as a pure sound model, with absolutely no reference to the surrounding reality. It is an incredibly black-and-white world in the realms of atmosphere and expression, in which, alongside the subtle lyricism of the melodic lines and modulated sounds, dynamic sound construc#ons appear, filled with tension pushing the whole to a powerful climax. The ac#on which takes place in the works of Lutosławski intends to dumbfound the audience, pull him into the fabric of the sound much like the plot of a drama. In this regard too, his music is brilliantly thought out: it forms a kind of emo#onal script in which space is afforded, alongside those areas where the musical ac#on takes on a par#cular intensity, for moments of decompression where the listener can let his mind wander. This is notably the case in Livre pour orchestre (1968). Against a background of the incredible crea#ve wealth of XXth century music, the work of Lutosławski does not just demonstrate perfec#on in terms of form, the en#re mé er of the composer and the depth of his expression. What is so incredible about this music is also contained in its aesthe#c message, in the passing on of beauty in its purest sound form. Zbigniew Skowron

English version by Leah Maitland

'The Brilliance of Witold Lutosławski's Music', by Zbigniew Skowron  

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