Program Notes


BORN: January 25, 1913. Warsaw, Poland

DIED: February 7, 1994. Warsaw

COMPOSED: 1969-70, on commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society of London for Mstislav Rostropovich

WORLD PREMIERE:  October 14, 1970. Rostropovich was soloist and Edward Downes led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall


INSTRUMENTATION:  3 flutes (doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, orchestra bells, suspended cymbal, small cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, tenor drum, tambourine, tom-toms, vibraphone, whip/clapper, xylophone, celesta, harp, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 24 mins

THE BACKSTORY  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 have already assumed 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. —James M. Keller

THE MUSIC  The Cello Concerto was written in 1970 for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who received the dedication and gave the first performance in 1970.

The composer offered these comments for the world premiere: 
I needed more than a year and a half to bring this Concerto to a successful conclusion. I sent the pages to Rostropovich bit by bit as they were drafted. I also wrote him a letter explaining the form my concerto was taking, using a vocabulary more literary than musical. I have done it purposely in order to make certain musical situations in the score clearer and more suggestive. But it does not imply any literary or extra-musical meaning of my work.  

The Concerto consists of four movements played without a break: Introduction, Four Episodes, Cantilena, and Finale. In the Introduction, I examine the note D repeated at one second intervals in an expressionless manner as a moment of complete relaxation, or even absentmindedness. The performer abandons this state immediately when something else begins to happen in his part but will return to it several times in the course of the Introduction. The passing on from the state of absentmindedness to that of concentration and the other way round is always abrupt. Several threads begin in the Introduction but are never developed. Their character may be seen in the restrained dynamics and in such indications as grazioso (graceful) and un poco buffo ma con eleganza (a bit humorous but elegantly), etc. Naturally marziale is to be understood figuratively; it is indeed a very unreal march. The last moment of absentmindedness is slightly different from the previous ones, with dynamic differences, grace-notes, etc. It is as if the cello, having been forced to perform monotonous, boring repetitions, were trying to diversify them in a naïve, silly way. At this moment trumpets intervene to stop the cello and to shout out an angry phrase.

After a five-second pause the cello begins the first Episode, inviting a few instruments to a dialogue, which subsequently develops into more animated music. Brasses put an end to it, as they did at the end of the preceding movement. Other Episodes unfold in a similar manner. Their character is always grazioso, scherzando or the like. Only the interventions of the brasses are serious and it will remain so nearly until the end of the piece. 

The Cantilena begins and develops into a broad melodic line. To put an end to it a few brasses are not enough: This time the angry intervention appears in the form of a large orchestral tutti, and thus begins the Finale. Then comes a sort of challenge between the cello and the orchestra, after which the cello—playing three very rapid sections—is “attacked” by different small groups of instruments. Finally the orchestra prevails, attaining its climax after which the cello moans a lamentation.

This could have been the end of the work, but instead of a gloomy disappearing conclusion that one might have expected, comes a short and fast coda, whose triumphant ending seems beyond the event that has just been accomplished. On the other hand, it recalls the beginning of the work, or rather its bright atmosphere, which in the Coda finally regains its predominance.

The score is divided into conducted sections and ones to be played ad libitum. The quarter-tone passages in the solo part are so conceived and written that the separate notes could be heard and would not merge into glissandi.—Witold Lutoslawski


More About the Music

Recordings: Johannes Moser, with Thomas Søndergård conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Pentatone) | Mstislav Rostropovich, with the composer conducting Orchestre de Paris (Warner Classics/Arkiv re-issue) | Andrzej Bauer, with Antoni Wit and the Polish Radio Symphony (Naxos)

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

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