LUTOSŁAWSKI:  Concerto for Orchestra

Witold Lutosławski was born in Warsaw on January 25, 1913, and died there on February 7, 1994. He composed his Concerto for Orchestra between 1950 and 1954, completing it on August 1 of the latter year, and it was first performed in Warsaw on November 26, 1954, with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Witold Rowicki (to whom the piece is dedicated). Stanisław Skrowaczewski led the San Francisco Symphony in the West Coast premiere of this music in May 1961. It was performed most recently in October 2000, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting. The work is scored for three flutes (second and third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, three tom-toms, tenor drum, bass drum, three suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, xylophone, chimes, celesta, piano, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-eight minutes.

One of the most imposing figures of the twentieth century’s Polish musical renaissance, Witold Lutosławski left a relatively sparse catalogue but made many important musical statements. He was widely appreciated during his lifetime—besides international awards, he held honorary degrees from no fewer than sixteen universities—and several of his works seem destined already to assume places in the permanent active repertory.

Ironically, this icon of Polish modernism was not born in what we call Poland today. In 1913 Warsaw lay in the Vistulaland province of Imperial Russia. The region would be something of a political shuttlecock throughout Lutosławski’s formative years, and politics would make an indelible impact on his personal life. In 1914 Germany declared war on Russia, and the Lutosławski family fled to Moscow. However, the Russian Revolution caused another change in the political landscape, and the insurgent Bolsheviks viewed the Polish nationalists with more than suspicion. They arrested Lutosławski’s father and uncle, and on September 5, 1918, they executed them without benefit of a trial.

Two months later, what remained of the family returned to Poland and picked up their lives. When he was eleven, Lutosławski was awed by a performance of Szymanowski’s Third Symphony--“the occasion was a real revelation to me,” he wrote later--and when he was thirteen he began violin lessons. In 1927, he started classes at the Warsaw Conservatory, and shortly after that he embarked on private composition lessons with Witold Maliszewski, a Rimsky-Korsakov student.

The years preceding (and, of course, during) the Second World War were also tumultuous in Poland, which served as a flashpoint between the Germans and the Soviets. Despite the uneasy political climate, Lutosławski managed to earn degrees at the Warsaw Conservatory in both piano (1936) and composition (1937), and to gain enough notice for his Symphonic Variations that they were broadcast on Polish Radio (in 1939).

Lutosławski’s career began in earnest at the end of World War II. At first he let loose with a rampantly modern language, as in his practically atonal First Symphony, but he quickly reined in his style. Lutosławski adapted to political practicalities by developing an idiom that was decidedly personal and modern, but that nonetheless paid requisite obeisance to populist folk sources.

In ensuing years, as the cultural climate thawed, the composer's language would evolve to embrace a greater complexity, experimentation with such devices as quarter-tones, and a continuing exploration of instrumental color. His reputation as a composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher spread widely during the 1950s and ’60s, and his international renown was cemented through extensive travel outside Poland. All the while, he was also fulfilling important musical roles in Poland, including participation in the groundbreaking Warsaw Autumn Festival, founded in 1956. Three times, Lutosławski led the San Francisco Symphony in programs devoted to his music. He was here first in 1986, when he brought with him Chain 3, which we had commissioned for our 75th anniversary season. His fee for that piece went not to him but to the foundation he had established to aid Polish composers who wished to study in the West. He was back on our podium in 1991, when he conducted the Concerto for Orchestra. He adored the San Francisco Symphony, and the musicians returned his affection. When he was here last, in January 1993, celebrating his 80th birthday with us, the Orchestra surprised him by playing “Happy Birthday” in an arrangement that mirrored his own compositional style. 

It is the music of Béla Bartók that seems the obvious point of comparison to Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra—its title recalling Bartók’s famous composition of a decade earlier. Disciplined style, tight formal construction, and a clear sense of logic in the development of themes are already manifest in this relatively early piece, and they would remain hallmarks of Lutosławski’s style. But here we find the composer leaning to a notable extent on folk melodies. Lutosławski protested that his flirtations with folk sources were not forced on him by the government, but his protestation had a ring of ambivalent obscurity about it: “It didn’t interest me as profoundly as it interested Bartók, for instance. . . . I used this kind of material in the Concerto for Orchestra because I was not ready yet to realize what I wanted. It had nothing to do with the regime or with pressure. It’s very often misunderstood. Some people write comments in program notes that I was compelled to use folk melodies. It’s not true at all.”

Direct impetus for this work came via an invitation from the conductor Witold Rowicki, who in 1950 asked Lutosławski to think about writing a piece based on folk material for performance by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, which Rowicki founded that year. At first, Lutosławski imagined that his work would be a short pièce d’occasion, but as he grappled with the piece he found it growing into a full three-movement composition of a half-hour’s duration. Lutosławski would often work on pieces over long periods of time; the four-year gestation period of the Concerto for Orchestra was not unusual. What Rowicki received, in the end, is indeed a brilliant orchestral showpiece that, like Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, is more a virtuoso vehicle for the ensemble as a whole than a work devoted to spotlighting individual members over extended periods.

The opening movement, Intrada, uses as its principal motif part of a folk melody from the Mazovia region. This triple-time melody, however, already undergoes development in its initial presentation, its contours being stretched to cover a wider range in its successive statements by the cellos and then the higher strings, and eventually winds. A pedal point underscores this unrolling of material. Intervals of the fourth and fifth play a critical structural role in this movement, with concurrent statements of the theme being contrasted at those intervals, and with a progression of those intervals serving as bald punctuation from time to time. Echoes of Stravinsky hover in the violent repetition of ponderous chords, but in general Lutosławski’s language, even at this early point in his career, sounds original rather than derivative. Particularly magical is the concluding episode, beginning six minutes into the movement, when, over an endlessly sustained chord and delicate touches of percussion, many solo instruments overlap with the folk theme in an expanse of pastoral beauty. At the very end, the cello’s pedal point is mirrored in a sort of inversion, held at the top of the orchestra’s reach, by the piccolo.

Lutosławski labels the second movement Capriccio notturno e arioso, and there is something nocturnal in its spirit, suggesting comparisons with the fluttering night music for which Bartók was renowned. Lutosławski casts the piece in the classical form of a scherzo with trio, with the scherzo section (Capriccio) presented and then returning after the languid trio section (Arioso). In the Capriccio Lutosławski draws most prominently on the skills of solo players, who toss material back and forth rapidly but quietly, chirping and whirring; murmurando (murmuring) is the composer’s direction for how this section is to be executed, and he limits the players to quiet dynamics. This gentle, “nocturnal” music stands in contrast to the trio, in which trumpets play fortissimo and the orchestra rallies round with stentorian phrases. In its final visit, the scherzo dies away into the orchestra’s deep reaches, eventually consisting only of the percussion.

The work’s center of gravity falls in the third movement, which takes up more than half of the concerto’s total length. This foreshadows what would become two Lutosławskian hallmarks: structuring a sequence of movements so the cumulative impact would climax in the final part, and interlinking formal sections into a long “chain,” to use the composer’s own term. The passacaglia, a time-honored structure whose roots reach back to the Renaissance, historically involves the constant, uninterrupted repetition of a melody, most often appearing in the bass register, over which the composer superimposes more elaborate, often ornamental, melodic material. Here, the passacaglia is eight measures long, and in the course of its eighteen repetitions, at a variety of tempos, its instrumentation grows in intensity, from the initial growling of the basses (in their lowest register), through a variety of imaginative instrumental groupings, to the final statement in the highest notes of the violins. Much of the overlying material is exceedingly virtuosic (replete with flying scales and chromatic passagework), and it’s not always synchronized to the passacaglia tune, leading a generally but not precisely parallel existence.

Once the passacaglia section is completed, Lutosławski unleashes an energetic Toccata with a Chorale eventually being woven into it; the chorale is enunciated tenderly in four parts by the oboes and clarinets and then expanded, through sequential repetitions, first into six parts by the brasses, and then by the strings into a huge texture of fourteen independent lines covering five octaves.

Except for the concluding, high-energy coda, this chorale brings to culmination not only the Concerto for Orchestra, but indeed Lutosławski’s first compositional period. After this, he would be drawn increasingly towards the atonality that had already attracted him, as well as to avant-garde techniques, some of which were inspired by his growing familiarity of the work of John Cage. The Concerto for Orchestra, however, marks an imposing statement by this modern master, who was shortly acknowledged with two national honors: the State Prize (Class I) and Order of Labor (Class II), both of which were awarded on July 22, 1955, in recognition of the Concerto for Orchestra. His friend and one-time piano-partner Andrzej Panufnik had defected to the West just a year earlier. The bestowal of these distinctions anointed Lutosławski officially as the leading Polish composer of his generation.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)  |  Lutosławski and the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)  |  Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony (Naxos)

Reading: The Music of Lutosławski, by Charles Bodman Rae (Omnibus Press)  |  A Polish Renaissance, by Bernard Jacobson (Phaidon)