Witold Lutoslawski

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Witold Roman Lutosławski (January 25 1913- February 7 1994) was a Polish classical composer, pianist and conductor.

Born into the Polish landed gentry, he spent his early years during World War I in Moscow, where his politically active father was executed by the Bolsheviks. Lutosławski studied piano and composition in Warsaw. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II he was captured briefly, but escaped back to Warsaw and made a living playing popular music in bars. In the postwar years, in an oppressive Stalinist artistic climate, he refused to toe the party line on cultural matters. He emerged as Poland's foremost composer and was presented with a large number of international honours, awards and prizes. In the 1980s Lutosławski was a staunch supporter of the Solidarność movement which eventually achieved an independent identity for the Polish state. He died rather suddenly from cancer shortly after being awarded Poland's highest honour.

In his early career, Lutosławski's music was influenced by folk music, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s he developed his own brand of twelve-tone technique and began using carefully-controlled aleatory processes. He composed four symphonies and a Concerto for Orchestra, as well as concertos and song cycles for major figures such as Mstislav Rostropovich, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.



Lutosławski's family

Lutosławski's parents were both born into the Polish landed gentry (ziemiaństwo), his family owned estates in the area of Drozdowo. His father Józef was involved in the Polish National Democracy Party, or Endecja, and the Lutosławski family became intimate with its founder Roman Dmowski (Lutosławski's middle name was Roman) — Poland was, at the time up to World War I, divided after the Congress of Vienna of 1815, and Warsaw was part of Tsarist Russia. After studying in Zurich, where he met and married Lutosławski's mother, Maria Olszewska, a fellow student, in 1904, Józef continued his studies in London where he acted as correspondent for the Endecja newspaper, Gońca. He continued to be involved in National Democracy politics after returning to Warsaw in 1905, taking over management of the family estates in 1909.

After Lutosławski's father's death (when Lutosławski was five), other members of the family also played an important part in his early life. Wicenty Lutosławski, multilingual philosopher who used literary analysis to establish a chronology of the writings of Plato, was Józef's half-brother; Wicenty was married to the Spanish poet Sophia Pérez Eguia y Casanova, and Józef's other brothers were also intellectuals.

Early years

Lutosławski was born in Warsaw on January 25 1913. Soon afterwards, with the outbreak of World War I, Russia found itself at war with Germany, and in 1915 Prussian forces drove towards Warsaw. The Lutosławski family fled east to Moscow, where his father remained politically active, organising Polish Legions ready for any action which might liberate Poland. Dmowski's strategy was for Imperial Russia to guarantee security for a new Polish state. However, in 1917 the February Revolution forced the Tsar to abdicate, and the October Revolution began a new Soviet government which made peace with Germany. Józef now found his activities to be in conflict with the Bolsheviks, who arrested him and his brother Marian. They were sent to the notorious Butyrskaya prison in central Moscow, where Lutosławski (now aged 5) visited him. Józef was executed without trial in September 1918 by firing squad.

After the war the family returned to Warsaw to find their estates ruined. Lutosławski was able to begin piano lessons for two years from age 6. However, in the Polish-Soviet War Drozdowo again came in the firing line, and after a few years attempting to run the estates his mother returned to Warsaw.

From 1924 Lutosławski entered secondary school while continuing piano lessons. A performance of Karol Szymanowski's third symphony deeply affected him; in 1926 he began violin lessons, and in 1927 he entered the Warsaw Conservatory (where Szymanowski was Rektor) part-time. He began to compose, but could not manage both his school and conservatory studies so had to discontinue the latter.

In 1931 Lutosławski enrolled at Warsaw University to study mathematics, and he formally entered composition classes at the Conservatory. His teacher was Witold Maliszewski, a pupil of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He was given a strong grounding in structure of musical forms, particularly sonata form movements. In 1933 he gave up his mathematics and violin studies to concentrate on piano and composition. He gained a diploma from the conservatory for piano in 1936 after a virtuoso program including Schumann's Toccata and Beethoven's fourth piano concerto. Lutosławski's diploma for composition followed in 1937.

World War II

Military service followed — Lutosławski was trained in signalling and radio operating, his musical expertise helping him to prove adept at the speedy transmission of messages in Morse code. Although his intention had been to travel to Paris for further musical study, in September 1939 Germany invaded West Poland, Russia invaded East Poland, and Lutosławski was mobilised with the radio unit at Kraków. He was soon captured by Germans, but he escaped while being marched to prison camp, and walked 400km back to Warsaw. (Lutosławski's brother was captured by the Russians and later died in a labour camp.)

In order to earn a living, Lutosławski joined a cabaret group, and also formed a piano duo with friend and fellow-composer Andrzej Panufnik. In Warsaw bars they played a wide range of music, much of it arranged by Lutosławski, including the first incarnation of the Paganini Variations (which is a brilliantly effective transcription of the original Paganini 24th Caprice for solo violin, rather than a sequence of original variations).

Lutosławski's mother had been in East Poland at the outbreak of the war, but was spirited to Warsaw by friends. Lutosławski left Warsaw with his mother just before the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, only salvaging a few scores and sketches — the rest of his music was lost in the destruction of the city, as were the family's Drozdowo estates. Of the 200 or so arrangements which Lutosławski and Panufnik had worked on for their piano duo, only Lutosławski's Paganini Variations survives. Lutosławski returned to the ruins of Warsaw after the Polish-Soviet treaty was agreed in April.

Postwar years

During the postwar years Lutosławski worked on his first symphony, sketches of which he had salvaged from Warsaw, and which was first performed in 1948. In order to earn money to provide for his family he also composed much music which he termed functional — examples are the Warsaw Suite (written to accompany a silent film depicting the city's reconstruction), sets of Polish Carols, and the piano pieces Melodie Ludowe ("Folk Melodies") intended as teaching pieces.

In 1945 Lutosławski was elected as Secretary and Treasurer of the newly constituted Union of Polish Composers (ZKP - Związek Kompozytorów Polskich). In 1946 he married Maria Danuta Bogusławska, daughter of architect Antoni Dygat, herself an architecture student whose first husband had been another architect. Lutosławski had known her brother, the writer Stanisław Dygat, before the war, and both Stanisław and Maria had come to listen to the piano duo performances during the war. The marriage was to be a lasting one, and Maria's draughtsmanship became extraordinarily useful to the composer: she became his copyist, and later solved problems of notation in the full scores of his later works (which avoid exact simultaneity in the different orchestral parts).

In 1947 the Stalinist political climate meant that music in a specifically Polish idiom (including the music of Chopin) was suppressed, and composers were required to write music following the principles of Socialist realism. One of the consequences of this was that by 1948 the ZKP was taken over by musicians willing to toe the party line on musical matters, and Lutosławski was dropped from the committee. Lutosławski was implacably opposed to the ideas of Socialist realism. His first symphony was proscribed, and he found himself shunned by the Soviet authorities, a situation that continued right through the era of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. In 1954 the climate of musical oppression drove his friend Panufnik to defect to England. Against this background, he was happy to compose pieces for which there was social need, but in 1954 this earned Lutosławski (much to the composer's chagrin) the Prime Minister's Prize for a set of children's songs. As he commented, "…it was for those functional compositions of mine that the authorities decorated me… I realised that I was not writing indifferent little pieces, only to make a living, but was carrying on an artistic creative activity in the eyes of the outside world." (Varga 1976).

However, it was with his substantial Concerto for Orchestra also completed in 1954 that Lutosławski made his name. Much of the work is based on folk music, and in what may be seen as a cynical attempt to imply that this was in accord with the authorities' principles he was awarded the State Prize for music for the piece.


The death of Stalin in 1953 allowed a certain relaxation of the cultural totalitarianism both within Russia and in the satellite Soviet states. By 1956 political events had thawed the musical climate somewhat, if not the artistic climate as a whole, and the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music was founded. Intended to be a biennial festival, this has been held annually ever since 1958 (except under Martial law in 1982 when the ZKP refused to organise it in protest). This was more of an influence on the younger generation of Polish composers who had not known the pre-Stalinist era, but had significant influence on Lutosławski nonetheless.

1958 saw the first performance of his Muzyka żałobna (Musique funèbre, or "Music of mourning" in Lutosławski's translation), written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Béla Bartók, which brought international recognition, the annual ZFP prize and the UNESCO prize in 1959. This work, together with the Five songs of 1956-7, saw the fruition of much of Lutosławski's harmonic and contrapuntal development of his own 12-note system. He hit on another feature of his compositional technique which has become a Lutosławski signature when he introduced his method for introducing randomness into the exact synchronisation of various parts of the musical ensemble in Jeux vénitiens ("Venetian games"). These harmonic and temporal techniques became part of every subsequent work, and integral to his style.

In 1963 Lutosławski fulfilled a commission for the Zagreb Music Biennale, his Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux for chorus and orchestra. It was the first work he had written for a commission from abroad, and brought him further international acclaim. It earned him the State Prize for music again (there was no cynicism to the award this time), and Lutosławski also gained an agreement for international publication of his music with Chester Music (then part of the Hansen publishing house).

With his String Quartet (1964) Lutosławski (or rather his wife Danuta) solved the problem of how to notate his requirement for a lack of synchronicity between the parts. Originally Lutosławski produced only the four instrumental parts, refusing to bind them in a full score as he was concerned that this would imply that he wanted notes in vertical alignment to coincide, as is the case with conventionally notated classical ensemble music. Danuta solved this by cutting up the parts and sticking them together in boxes (which Lutosławski called mobiles) with instructions on how to signal in performance when all the players should proceed to the next mobile. In his orchestral music these problems were not to prove so difficult because the instructions on how and when to proceed are given to the conductor.

The String Quartet was first performed in Stockholm in 1965, and this was followed the same year by the first performance of his orchestral song cycle Paroles tissées. This shortened title was suggested by the poet Jean-François Chabrun, who had originally published the poems as Quatre tapisseries pour la Châtelaine de Vergi. This song cycle is dedicated to the tenor Peter Pears, who first performed it at the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival with the composer conducting. The Aldeburgh Festival was founded and organised by Benjamin Britten, with whom the composer formed a lasting friendship.

Shortly after this Lutosławski began work on his second symphony, which had two premières: Pierre Boulez conducted the second movement, Direct, in 1966, and when the first movement, Hésitant, was finished in 1967 the composer conducted a complete performance in Katowice. The second symphony is nothing like a conventional classical symphony in structure, but Lutosławski used all of his technical innovations up to that point to build a large-scale, dramatic work worthy of the name. In 1968 the work earned Lutosławski first prize from the Tribune International des Compositeurs, the UNESCO prize for the third time, and confirmed his growing international reputation.

International renown

The second symphony, the Livre pour orchestre, and the Cello Concerto which followed, were composed against the background of the death of his mother in 1967, and of the unrest in Poland centred on firstly the summer of protests over the suppression of the theatre production Dziady, then of the use of Polish troops to suppress the liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968, followed by the Gdańsk shipyard strike of 1970 which led to a violent clampdown by the authorities. Lutosławski did not support the Soviet regime, and these events have been postulated as reasons for the increase in antagonistic effects in his work, particularly his Cello concerto written in 1968-70 for Rostropovich and the Royal Philharmonic Society. Indeed, Rostropovich's own opposition to the Soviet regime in Russia was just coming to a head (he shortly afterwards declared his support for the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). Lutosławski himself did not hold the view that such influences had a direct effect on his music, although he acknowledged that of course they must impinge on his creative world to some degree. In any case, the Cello Concerto was a great success, earning both Lutosławski and Rostropovich accolades.

In 1973 Lutosławski attended a recital given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sviatoslav Richter in Warsaw, and this inspired him to write his extended orchestral song Les espaces du sommeil ("The spaces of sleep"). This, and the work Mi-Parti (a French expression roughly translated as "divided into two equal but different parts"), together with a short piece for Cello in honour of the 70th birthday of Paul Sacher, continued to keep Lutosławski busy, while in the background he was working away at a projected third symphony and a concertante piece for the oboist Heinz Holliger. These latter pieces were proving difficult to complete as Lutosławski struggled to produce the more fluent music he wanted to introduce to his sound world. The Double Concerto for oboe, harp and chamber orchestra (which had been commissioned by Paul Sacher) was finally finished in 1980, and the Third Symphony occupied him from 1981-1983.

During this time Poland was undergoing yet more upheaval with the election of a Polish Pope, John Paul II, in 1978 providing a national figurehead of acknowledged world importance, the creation of Solidarność and the emergence of Lech Wałęsa as its leader, and the declaration of Martial Law under General Wojciech Jaruzelski. During the period 1981 to 1988-9 Lutosławski refused all professional engagements inside Poland as a gesture of solidarity with the artists' boycott. He refused to enter the Culture Ministry to meet any of the Ministers of Culture and he was careful not to find himself in a position to be photographed in their company. In 1983 he sent a recording of the first performance (in Chicago) of the third symphony to Gdańsk to be played to strikers in a local church, a gesture of support well understood by both sides. In 1983 he was awarded the Solidarity prize, of which Lutosławski was reported to be more proud than any other of his honours.

The third symphony was to earn Lutosławski the first Grawemeyer Prize from the University of Louisville, Kentucky. The significance of the prize lay not just in its prestige (other eminent nominations have included Elliott Carter and Michael Tippett) but in the size of its financial award (then US$150 000), the intention of the award being to remove any monetary worries for a composer for a period to allow him to concentrate on serious composition. In a gesture of altruism, Lutosławski announced that he would use the fund to set up a scholarship to enable young Polish composers to study abroad; Lutosławski also directed that his fee from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Chain 3 should go to this scholarship fund.

Final years

Through the mid 1980s Lutosławski hit upon ways of simplifying his style while retaining the freedoms he had gained in his techniques to date. He composed three pieces called Łańcuch ("Chain"), which in simple terms refers to the way the music is constructed of contrasting strands which overlap like the links of a chain. Chain 2 was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter (commissioned by Paul Sacher), and for Mutter he also orchestrated his slightly earlier Partita for violin and piano, providing a new linking Interlude, so that when played together the Partita, Interlude and Chain 2 form his longest work.

In 1987 Lutosławski was presented (by Michael Tippett) with the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal during a concert in which Lutosławski was conducting his third symphony; also that year a major celebration of his work was made at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. He also was awarded honorary doctorates at several universities worldwide, including Cambridge.

Lutosławski was at this time writing his Piano Concerto for Krystian Zimerman, commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. He had plans to write a piano concerto since 1938, being himself in his younger days a virtuoso pianist. It was this work that marked the composer's return to the conductor's podium in Poland in 1988, after substantive talks had been arranged between the government and the opposition.

Lutosławski also, around 1990, worked on a fourth symphony and his orchestral song cycle Chantefleurs et chantefables for soprano. The latter was first performed at a Prom concert in London in 1991, and the fourth symphony in 1993 in Los Angeles. In between, and after initial reluctance, Lutosławski took on the presidency of the newly reconstituted Polish Cultural Council. This had been set up after the reforms in 1989 in Poland brought about by the almost total support for Solidarity in the elections of that year, and the subsequent reinstatement of Poland as an independent republic (Rzeczpospolita Polska as under the Treaty of Versailles, rather than Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa).

In 1993 Lutosławski continued his busy schedule, travelling to England, Germany and Japan, and sketching a violin concerto, but by Christmas it was clear that cancer had taken a hold, and after an operation the composer weakened quickly and died on February 7th. He had, a few weeks before, been awarded Poland's highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle (only the second person to receive this since the collapse of communism in Poland - the first had been Pope John Paul II). He was cremated; his devoted wife Danuta died shortly afterwards.


Detailed and thorough discussions of Lutosławski's music and technique may be found in Stucky (1981) and Rae (1999).

Lutosławski has characterised musical composition as a search for listeners who think and feel as he did - he once called it a "fishing for souls".

Folk influence

Works up to Dance Preludes show marked folk influence, both harmonically and melodically. For instance, the Concerto for Orchestra contains Polish folk melodies more or less distorted, some unrecognisable except after careful analysis.

When Lutosławski discovered the techniques of his mature compositions, he simply stopped using folk material. As he said "[in those days] I could not compose as I wished, so I composed as I was able", and about this change of direction he said, "I was simply not so interested in it [using folk music]".

Pitch organisation

In Muzyka żałobna of 1958 Lutosławski introduced his own brand of 12-tone music, and the work marks his leaving behind of folk influence. This 12-tone technique is not based on Arnold Schoenberg's tone-row system (although Muzyka żałobna does happen to be based on a tone row), but rather serves Lutosławski's ends in allowing him to create his own brand of harmonic effects based on groups of intervals. This system also enabled Lutosławski to write the dense chords he wanted without resorting to tone clusters, and enabled him to build towards these dense chords (which often including all 12 notes of the chromatic scale) at climactic moments.

This 12-note intervallic technique was not a complete break with previous music by Lutosławski, as the use of intervals to build chords can be heard in works such as the Concerto for Orchestra.

Aleatory technique

Although Muzyka żałobna was internationally acclaimed, his new harmonic techniques led to something of a crisis for Lutosławski during which he could still not see how to express his musical ideas. Then he happened to hear some music by John Cage. Although he was not influenced by the sound or the philosophy of Cage's music, Cage's explorations of aleatory music set off a train of thought which was to result in Lutosławski finding a way to retain the harmonic structures he wanted while introducing the freedoms he was searching for. His work 3 Postludes on which he was working was hastily rounded off (he had originally intended to write four) and he moved on to new works in which he explored these new ideas.

In works from Jeux vénitiens the parts of the ensemble are not to be synchronised exactly. At signals from the conductor the instrumentalists may be instructed for example to move straight on to the next section, to finish their current section before moving on, or to stop. In this way the "random" element implied by the term aleatory is carefully directed by the composer, who controls the architecture and harmonic progression of the piece precisely. Lutosławski notates the music exactly, there is no improvisation, no choice of parts is given to any instrumentalist, and there is thus no doubt about how the musical performance is to be realised. The combination of Lutosławski's aleatory techniques and his harmonic discoveries allowed him to build up complex textures.

In many works of the period this aleatory style is contrasted with sections where the orchestra is asked to synchronise their parts conventionally, in passages notated with a common time signature; for instance the climax of Livre pour orchestre, and passages leading to the climax of Symphony No. 2.

Late style

In his later works Lutosławski evolved a more harmonically mobile (and perhaps less monumental) style, in which less of the music is played with ad lib co-ordination. This development came out of the demands of his late chamber works such as the Epitaph, Grave and Partita, but it may be seen in orchestral works such as the Piano Concerto, Chantefleurs et Chantefables, and Fourth Symphony, which mostly require conventional co-ordination.

Lutosławski's formidable technical developments grew out of his creative imperative; that he left a lasting body of major compositions is a testament to his resolution of purpose in the face of the anti-formalist authorities under which he formulated his methods.

Selected compositions

  • Sonata for piano (1934)
  • Lacrimosa for soprano, optional SATB chorus and orchestra (1937 - surviving fragment of a Requiem)
  • Symphonic Variations (1936-8)
  • Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos (1940-41, arr. piano and orchestra 1978)
  • Pieśni walki podziemnej (Songs of the Underground) for voice and piano (1942-4)
  • Melodie Ludowe (Folk Melodies), 12 easy pieces for piano (1945)
  • Suita Warszawska (Warsaw Suite), 35mm documentary film (1946)
  • Dwadzieście kolęd (20 carols) for voice and piano (1946, orchestrated 1984-89)
  • Symphony No. 1 (1941-7)
  • Little Suite for chamber orchestra (1950)
  • Tryptyk Śląski (Silesian Triptych) for soprano and orchestra (1951)
  • Children's Songs for voice and piano (1953)
  • Children's Songs for voice and chamber orchestra (1954)
  • Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54)
  • Dance Preludes, for clarinet and piano (1954, orchestrated 1955)
  • Muzyka żałobna (Musique funèbre) for string orchestra (1954-58)
  • Three Postludes for orchestra (1958-63)
  • Jeux vénitiens (Venetian Games) for chamber orchestra (1960-61)
  • Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux for chorus and orchestra (1961-63)
  • String Quartet (1964)
  • Paroles tissées (Woven words) for tenor and chamber orchestra (1965)
  • Symphony No. 2 (1965-7)
  • Livre pour orchestra (1968)
  • Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1969-70)
  • Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings (1970-72)
  • Les espaces du sommeil (Spaces of sleep), for baritone and orchestra (1975)
  • Mi-Parti (1975-76)
  • Novelette (1978-79)
  • Epitaph for oboe and piano (1979)
  • Double Concerto for oboe, harp and chamber orchestra (1979-80)
  • Grave, Metamorphoses for cello and piano (1981)
  • Symphony No. 3 (1981-83)
  • Chain 1, for chamber ensemble (1983)
  • Partita for violin and piano (1984, orchestral version 1988)
  • Chain 2, Dialogue for violin and orchestra (1984-5)
  • Chain 3 for orchestra (1986)
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1987-88)
  • Interlude for orchestra (1989, to link Partita and Chain 2)
  • Chantefleurs et Chantefables, for soprano and orchestra (1989-90)
  • Symphony No. 4 (1988-92)


External links

de:Witold Lutosławski fr:Witold Lutoslawski ko:비톨트 루토스와프스키 nl:Witold Lutoslawski pl:Witold Lutosławski pt:Witold Lutoslawski sl:Witold Lutosławski sv:Witold Lutoslawski


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