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Music Memories: Witold Lutosławski

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Polish composer Witold Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski was born on January 25, 1913. Lutosławski was a Polish composer who strove for artistic integrity throughout his career, despite the restrictions imposed by the Polish and Soviet governments.

Lutosławski began studying the piano at age 6 and the violin at age 12. He entered Warsaw University in 1931, enrolling as a mathematics student. He began studying composition in his second year, and realized that this was where his true talents were. Lutosławski gave up mathematics (and the violin) to focus on piano and composition, and received diplomas in both areas.

He had hoped to continued his composition studies in Paris, but the outbreak of World War II made that impossible. Lutosławski served as a radio operator with the Polish Army; at one point, he was captured by German soldiers, but escaped on the way to the prison camp and made his way back to Warsaw—250 miles away—on foot.

After his military service was over, Lutosławski earned a living for the rest of the war by playing as part of a piano duo in Warsaw cafes. Most of his early scores and sketches were lost in the destruction of the city after the failure of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944; of the dozens of pieces he had written for his cafe performances, only the Paganini Variations survived.

Lutosławski's first symphony premiered in 1948, and was condemned by the Polish government. The ruling party was strongly aligned with Russia's Joseph Stalin, whose government believed that music was only useful if it filled social needs. Lutosławski's symphony was declared to be "formalist"—overly intellectual, of interest only to the musical elite, and of no social value.

Lutosławski resigned from the Union of Polish Composers in protest, but if he was to make a living as a composer, he had little choice but to write music that could be performed. Much of his early music is strongly influenced by Polish folk tunes, and the political influence is clear in the titles of pieces from this period: Ten Polish Folksongs on Soldiers' Themes; We Are Going Forward; The Road to Victory.

With Stalin's death in 1953, the musical climate slowly began to thaw. Lutosławski's 1954 Concerto for Orchestra is generally considered to be his first mature work and began to bring him international recognition. By 1958, when Musique funèbre for string orchestra premiered, he was beginning to work out his own distinctive approach to harmony, a twelve-tone system that was quite different from the better-known system developed by Schoenberg. It was an approach that led to dense chords and angular melodies.

two album covers by Lutoslawski

Lutosławski's next major breakthrough came with the discovery of John Cage. While he didn't particularly admire Cage's music, Lutosławski was interested in the way Cage introduced elements of chance into his music. In his 1961 Jeux vénitiens (Venitian Games), he began to write passages which were not meant to be strictly synchronized; each instrument was to freely play his own part without regard for matching the tempo of other instruments until the conductor signaled that they should move on to the next section of the piece.

Within a few years, this type of limited chance construction had become so crucial to his music that Lutosławski published his string quartet only as four separate parts, with no full score, in order to avoid any implication that notes which lined up vertically on the score were necessarily meant to be synchronized, as they would be in more traditional notation.

By the end of the 1960s, Lutosławski's music was being published internationally and he was receiving major international prizes for his music. He was being asked to write new pieces for the world's finest musicians—a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, the orchestral song cycle Les espaces du sommeil (The Spaces of Sleep) for baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a double concerto for oboe and harp for oboist Heinz Holliger.

Poland faced new political upheaval in the 1980s; the trade union/social movement Solidarity was formed in 1980, and martial law was imposed in 1981. Lutosławski was a strong supporter of Solidarity, and supported the artists' boycott, accepting no engagements in Poland as pianist or conductor from 1981 to 1988. He continued to premiere major works during this year, including a piano concerto for Krystian Zimerman. His 1985 Symphony #3 received the first Grawemeyer Prize for composition, and Lutosławski used the $150,000 award to create a scholarship fund to allow young Polish composers to study abroad.

As talks between the Polish government and opposition began in 1988, Lutosławski made his first appearance as a conductor in several years. When reforms were announced in 1989, he accepted the presidency of the Polish Cultural Council.

Lutosławski's health began to decline in the early 1990s, though he continued to maintain an active schedule as a conductor and to produce important works. He conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the premiere of his Symphony #4 in 1993. He was at work on a violin concerto when he died on February 7, 1994.

In addition to the pieces linked above, much more of Lutosławski's music is available for streaming or download at Hoopla or Freegal.