Witold Lutosławski

1913 1994

Witold Lutosławski

Composer • Conductor


Witold Lutosławski, was a twentieth century Polish composer, often considered the greatest Polish composer sinceChopin. His works range from functional music, folk-inspired music and music that explores avant-garde techniques, most notably aleatory.

Lutosławski, was born in 1913 to a distinguished family with estates in Ddrozdowo, north-east of Warsaw. He was the youngest son of Józef Lutosławski, an accomplished amateur pianist who had studied with Eugene d’Albert. The first years of Witold’s life were quite unsettled; Józef was often away from home, as he was active in the tumultuous politics at the time, working together with the National Democracy Party, Endeja to align Poland with Imperial Russia. When WWI broke out, the family found themselves in the line of fire and escaped to Moscow. In 1918, Józef and his brother were arrested and executed by firing squad after a conflict with the Bolsheviks. Witold’s mother, Maria, fearing for her family’s lives, fled together with her three sons to her family’s home in Ukraine.

After the German occupation of Warsaw lifted at the end of 1918, the family returned to Drozdowo to find their estate in shambles. They then settled in Warsaw, where Witold’s musical education began at the age of six. He took lessons for two years with the well-regarded piano teacher, Helena Hoffman. In 1921, the family returned to Drozdowo, and Witold continued lessons with a local teacher who encouraged him to compose. By the age of nine, he had written his first piano piece. A few years later, they returned again to Warsaw and Witold continued his lessons with Józef Śmidowicz. He also started playing violin under Lidia Kmitowa. During this time, he was exposed toSzymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Song of the Night’, which was his first experience hearing the harmonic language of a post-Debussy composer live. In addition to Syzmanowski, the music ofRavel, early Stravinsky and Debussy became strong influences on his sound world. Later, the oriental and dramatically emotional aspects of Szymanowski’s post-Romantic music would however disgust him, as he was drawn more strongly towards the anti-Romanticism of Stravinsky.

Lutosławski entered the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927 and also studied mathematics at the Warsaw University, though he later quit his university studies to focus solely on music. His interest in composition led him to join Maliszewski’s composition class, at first on an informal basis. He also studied with Kmitowa and Śmidowicz. In 1932, he curtailed his violin studies, focusing on piano and composition. He studied piano with Jerzy Lefeld.

Lutosławski,’s early compositions include Poème for piano (1928), which led to his acceptance to Maliszewski’s class, andTaniec Chimery (‘Dance of the Chimera’) for piano (1930). He also wrote his first orchestral work, Scherzo (1930). None of these works have survived due to the uprising in Warsaw.

His time with Maliszewski left the greatest impression on him, especially his teachings on musical form. Under Maliszewski, Lutosławski analysed the musical forms, in terms of abstract drama, of works byBeethoven, Haydn and Mozart <>. Four characters were identified in the form: introductory, transitional, narrative and concluding. The works would be analysed based on the interaction of these characters.

Lutosławski came to believe that ‘only in the Narrative is content the most important thing to be perceived, while in all the other three the role of the given section in the form of the music is more important than the content’. These four sections can always be identified in Lutosławski,’s works. In some works, such asJeux vénitiens (1960-1) and Livre pour orchestra (1968), each movement represents one character.

In the mid to late 1940s, the political climate was still uneasy. His First Symphony was labelled formalist and was therefore banned. To survive in this chaotic environment, Lutosławski, resorted to functional music, much of which he wrote under the pseudonym ‘Derwid’. He also composed some concert pieces based on folk material, which he considered not to be ‘serious’ music.

Some of the great works he wrote using folk music include the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-4) andDance Preludes (1954). With the Concerto for Orchestra, he established himself as the leading Polish composer of his generation. At this point he no longer had to compete with Panufnik for this distinction, as Panufnik had moved to England.

In the aleatory passages, the pitches and rhythm of each part are fully specified, however the coordination of the parts is left entirely to chance; this technique is often termed, ‘aleatory counterpoint’. The only exception to this isTrois poèmes d'Henri Michaux (1961–3), in which the pitches are not specified and singers are also required to recite, speak, whisper and shout.

The conducting demands of his aleatory pieces presented a unique challenge to the conductors, resulting in Lutosławski conducting much of his own music from 1963. Thereafter, a gradual reduction in aleatory techniques can be observed.

Lutosławski,’s aleatory techniques inspired many future composers, though his pitch organization techniques have rarely been explored further.

Other notable works include his String Quartet (1964), which is considered one of the finest string quartets since Bartók’s quartet.Les espaces du sommeil for baritone and orchestra (1975) and Mi-Parti (1975–6) for orchestra are also among his greatest works.

The reduction in aleatory is most notable in Epitaph (1979) for oboe and piano. This new style is also marked by a transparent harmony that would persist throughout his late works. Many of the later works also allude to aspects of Baroque music.

The first public performance of Lutosławski,’s orchestral music was from the incidental music toHaroun al Rashid (1931), conducted by Józef Ozimiński at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall. His most significant work from his student years is the Piano Sonata (1934), which is one of his few works which survived the war.

Lutosławski graduated in 1936 from the Warsaw Conservatory in piano and one year later in composition. His works for graduation included two movements of a requiem, of which one,Lacrimosa (1937) survives.

After his studies, he served compulsory duty in the military, and was held captive for eight days near Lublin. Fortunately, he was able to escape and return to Warsaw unlike his brother Henryk, who died after being taken captive.

Until 1944, Lutosławski remained in Warsaw and performed in cafés with a cabaret group and a piano duo with his contemporary, Andrej Panufnik. He then sought refuge, together with his mother, in Komorów and was only able to take a few works with him. The rest were left behind and eventually destroyed. He took with him the first sketches for the First Symphony (1941-7), the Piano Sonata (1934), Two Studies for Piano (1941), the Symphonic Variations (1936-8) and the Paganini Variations (1941).

Privately, he worked on a third type of music, his ‘serious’ music, with which he experimented with new compositional techniques. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that the political atmosphere allowed for these new elements to be present in his works. They can first be observed in Five Iłłakowicz Songs (1957, orch. 1958) and in Muzyka żałobna (Musique funèbre (1954–8).

The Five Songs show a clear turning point in Lutosławski,’s style; 12-note chords are employed without serial techniques, which became standard for the rest of his career. Musique funèbre is dedicated to Bartók and uses a distinctive intervallic vocabulary with pitch pairing and 12-note rows. Bartók also influenced his Postlude No. 1 (1958-60).

With Musique funèbre, he established his international reputation, which grew even more in 1961 with his first composition employing aleatory techniques,Jeux vénitiens. The use of aleatory techniques came about after a period of dissatisfaction with his use of rhythm and polyphony. After hearing a radio broadcast ofJohn Cage’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, he was prompted to adopt the new technique.

Between the late 1970s and 80s more conflict ensued throughout Poland and Lutosławski, boycotted the state media, refusing to conduct his music for a decade in Poland.

The premiere of the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1969-70), dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich with the Royal Philharmonic Society, also contributed to conflict with the Soviets, who were offended that Rostropovich was decorated with the Gold Medal from the orchestra. Carrying out a radio broadcast of it was forbidden, and Rostropovich was not invited to perform the concerto in Poland. The dramatic and theatrical nature of the work was also harshly judged by the Soviet Regime. Six weeks later, the boycotts and labour strikes began.

In 1992, Lutosławski, composed his last work, Subito (1992), which is often used as a test piece for violin.

Lutosławski is considered the most significant composer Polish since Szymanowski, though his contemporary Andrzej Panufnik was more highly regarded during the post-war years.

Images courtesy of Music Sales Classical, NJ24.pl, lutoslawski.org and public domain