MUSIC / Tuning in to tradition: At 80, Lutoslawski is no longer afraid of sounding old-fashioned. Stephen Johnson met the composer prior to his Proms premiere him as he prepared to conduct his new symphony

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NO musical form has been pronounced dead more often than the symphony; but none has proved more durable and adaptable. The Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, 80 this year, has recently completed his fourth - which puts him level with figures as diverse as Brahms, Tippett, and Maxwell Davies. And like Tippett, he has found that the medium has stayed with him, through upheavals in politics and crucial style changes. Call a work 'symphony' nowadays and you invoke a long and intimidatingly rich tradition; and for some, it's the great humanist form. Is this the appeal for Lutoslawski? 'No. When I use the word symphony, I mean simply a large-scale closed form for symphony orchestra. From my childhood I was always fascinated by orchestral sound.' So were Debussy and Ravel, but they never wrote symphonies. 'It's a question of terminology. There's not a great difference between my symphonies and my other works - the 'Chain' cycle for instance.'

But is there no sense of engagement with a great tradition? 'Oh, yes, I am closely connected with the European musical tradition. Nadia Boulanger used to say that we all belong to the same period, from Perotin the great up to now. And the music I try to write is not a revolution, it's a continuation - though maybe in a rather different way.'

Still, there have been revolutions in Lutoslawski's musical development. When he wrote his First Symphony, in 1947, pre-war Neo-classical models dominated his style. 'I had a vague vision of what I wanted to do, but there was no model I could find for that. So I had to start again from scratch. After the premiere of the First Symphony I decided I knew nothing that could help me. It was the end - the end of my youth, a kind of summary of my experiences up till then.'

The notion of a composer rebuilding his style 'from scratch' is a hard one for a non-practitioner to grasp, and composers themselves can be very secretive about it - self-protectively so. But Lutoslawski seems to have very little of the defensive in him. 'I started with scales - different arrangements of the octave and so on. But it didn't give any interesting results. So I turned to harmony - the vertical dimension. I began with extremes, the harmony of 12 different notes. Perhaps I was wrong. Anyway, I came to feel that it wasn't enough - it was good for big masses of sound but not for tiny textures. I felt there was something, not very far away, but I didn't know what it was. Then one day I just found it. I wrote a little piece for oboe and piano, Epitaph, and everything came together.'

Another, very different kind of composer, Steve Reich, has described the experience as 'like a light coming on'. Lutoslawski raises his eyebrows slightly at the mention of Reich, but concedes the image. 'That's it. It's mysterious - it happens in a fraction of a second. It's what people call in an old-fashioned way 'inspiration' - something comes into being which didn't exist a fraction of a second before. Everything in an authentic piece of music should be the result of inspiration - even the technical means, even the theory. I think that every aspect of my music is in some way given - never just thought out intellectually. All my 'rules' are arrived at that way, empirically.'

'Empiricism' is a key word for Lutoslawski, and it is at the root of his understanding of divergent movements in contemporary music. It is often said that there are two antithetical trends in 20th-century music - one line runs from Schoenberg, the other from Stravinsky - and that now the Stravinsky line is in the ascendant. Lutoslawski is only half in agreement. 'Yes, there are two sources of tradition. Schoenberg is one, but the other, which is not universally recognised but which is absolutely clear to me, is Debussy. Schoenberg now belongs rather to history, but the followers of Debussy are active now. Early Stravinsky was unthinkable without him, as was possibly the whole of Bartok - and even Varese. The beginning of the new examination of sound comes with Debussy. For Schoenberg, sound quality, harmony, were secondary - doctrine was what mattered.'

Were there any surprises in writing the Fourth Symphony? 'Not for me. The form is like that of the third - two movements, but the first is not divided into sections this time. Change, development, is gradual. I've tried to make this first movement intriguing enough to hold the attention, but somehow incomplete - it's preparatory for the main movement, the second.' With some experience of conducting his own works at the Proms, Lutoslawski is pleased that his Fourth Symphony will have its first UK performance there. It offers, he says, 'a special audience. And there's another factor. In smaller halls I am sometimes embarrassed when conducting my fortissimos. In the Albert Hall they never sound too loud'.

And what of the so-called 'violence' in his work? In fact, Lutoslawski prefers to call his music dramatic. Violence in art may be a reflection of strong feeling, or of violent times, such as Lutoslawski has witnessed repeatedly. Does he not see his art as a mirror of its age? 'No. Joseph Conrad wrote that the role of art is to give the supreme justice to the visible world. He's welcome to that view - it's not mine. I think that the world in which we live doesn't need our help in expressing itself - it does that quite well itself. Our role is to offer a message from the ideal world - the world of our dreams, our notion of the ideal. Otherwise its listener has no access to that world. That's why I'm also against expressing life experiences in art - art isn't autobiography. It is much more important than that.'

This sounds like a heavy responsibility, demanding constant vigilance and purity of intentions. Is that how Lutoslawski sees it? 'Well . . . what it really means is that I just compose what I want. My advice to younger composers is the same - compose what you want to hear. This is the most important thing. If your music is old-fashioned, then maybe you are old-fashioned - but that's good, so write it] Then you will be giving something authentic - you are giving yourself. I wouldn't mind at all if someone wrote the Fifth Symphony of Brahms - but I don't know of anyone living now who would be able to do that.'

Lutoslawski conducts his Fourth Symphony at the Proms tonight: 7.30pm Royal Albert Hall (071-589 8212) and live on BBC Radio 3

(Photograph omitted)