Obituary: Witold Lutoslawski
Wednesday 09 February 1994
'NOT TO BE modest is ridiculous,' said Witold Lutoslawski.
Lutoslawski has long been acknowledged as one of the most significant composers of the 20th century. His works have earned a place in the orchestral repertory unequalled by those of any other contemporary composer, and for the last 30 years he has been much in demand as conductor of his own work with all the leading orchestras in Europe, North America and the Far East. Although he is often described as 'a Polish composer', a narrowly nationalistic label is inappropriate for a creative artist whose musical roots are more cosmopolitan and more widely European.
He was born in 1913, in Warsaw, a city not then in Poland but in the imperial Russian province of 'Vistulaland'. It is necessary to register this fact in order to chart the extraordinary changes that have taken place in Poland and the rest of Europe in the composer's lifetime.
His family were highly cultured ziemianstwo (landed gentry) with estates at Drozdowo, north-east of Warsaw. Witold's earliest childhood, however, was spent in neither place. In 1915, in order to escape the advance of Hindenberg's army from East Prussia, the Lutoslawskis removed to Moscow, where they spent the rest of the First World War. They fell instead into the Russian Revolution.
Lutoslawski's father and one of his uncles were accused of counter- revolutionary activities and executed (without trial) by the Bolsheviks in 1918. One of the composer's earliest, and most painful, memories was that of visiting his father in prison shortly before the execution; he was then only five years old. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the armistice, the remaining members of the family returned to Drozdowo and to Warsaw.
As a child Lutoslawski studied the piano and the violin and later studied composition privately with Witold Maliszewski, who was also his composition teacher at the Warsaw Conservatory during the early 1930s. His early works, such as the Piano Sonata of 1936, clearly show the influence of Ravel, Debussy and early Stravinsky, and similar influences can be detected in his Symphonic Variations of 1938; but thereafter the role of these influences was to decline as he gradually forged the elements of a more personal musical language.
His work was interrupted first by his military service in 1937, and then by general mobilisation in the summer of 1939. During the September campaign that followed the Nazi blitzkrieg on Poland, Lutoslawski, who had trained in signals (and particularly in Morse code operation) found himself, as an officer cadet, in command of the signals unit of the Polish First Army. As this was the main communications link between the various Polish military units, he was the conduit through which most of the tragic news was passed. In late September he was taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht, but escaped after only a few days in captivity. He and other members of his platoon then made their way on foot over 400km back to Warsaw. In retrospect it is fortunate that he was taken prisoner by the Germans and not by the Russians. His brother, Henryk, suffered the latter fate and died in 1940 in the infamous 'Gulag Archipelago', at Kolyma in Siberia. During the Nazi occupation, Lutoslawski supported himself and his family by performing in clandestine concerts and by playing at Warsaw cafes in a piano duo with the late Andrzej Panufnik.
After 1945 Lutoslawski pursued two strands of compositional activity in order to survive in the difficult climate of post-war Poland. One of these consisted of what he called 'functional music', including simple folk-based pieces, music for films, the theatre and so forth. The other, which he regarded as 'serious', focused on the completion of his First Symphony, which he had begun in 1941.
Lutoslawski's folk-based pieces were not a response to the Stalinist dictates of the time, but represented a return to projects that he had already begun before the war. There were others who did succumb to the pressure to compose for the regime; but not Lutoslawski. The history of his First Symphony (1941-47) serves to emphasise this point. After a performance in Warsaw in 1949 it was proscribed as 'formalist' and, as a result, Lutoslawski was denied a platform (in Poland) for his abstract concert work until after 1956. His folk-based work reached its apogee in the magnificent Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) and he made his farewell to folklore shortly afterwards with his Dance Preludes.
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Lutoslawski was steadily working on the formulation of a new musical language based on harmony, containing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale (but not connected with the serialism of Schoenberg et al). Because the results of this labour were not unveiled until 1958, in Musique funebre and the Five Illakowicz Songs, received opinion has had it that Lutoslawski's style changed at the time of the so-called 'thaw' which followed Stalin's death. This is incorrect. His sketches clearly show that the main elements of his 'new' language date from the late Forties and early Fifties, long before the Stalinist folklore policy was to afflict and temporarily to stifle the composers of Poland. For the rest of his life Lutoslawski harboured exceptionally bitter memories of the 'wounds' inflicted during that post-war era.
After the war there were other very significant developments to Lutoslawski's style and language. In 1960 he embraced so-called 'chance' operations after hearing music by John Cage. This resulted in changes to his approach to rhythm and polyphony which were unveiled in Jeux Venitiens (1961), the autograph score of which he subsequently presented to Cage. But Lutoslawski should not be associated either with 'indeterminacy ' or improvisation. His use of chance (or 'aleatorism') is strictly controlled and very limited. The outstanding works of his maturity were to follow this synthesis of 12-note harmony and aleatory techniques: String Quartet (1964); Livre pour orchestre (1968); Cello Concerto (1970); and two undoubted masterpieces, Les espaces du sommeil (1975), and Mi- Parti (1976).
Another stylistic development came in the late 1970s when he began to simplify his rich, 12-note harmony in favour of enriching the melodic dimension of his work. It is this feature which characterises his finest work of the 1980s, such as the Third Symphony (1981-83), Partita for violin and piano (1984), Chain 2 for violin and orchestra (1985), the Piano Concerto (1988), and the delightful song cycle Chantefables et Chantefleurs (1990). It is also this richness of the melodic dimension that distinguishes his last major work, the Fourth Symphony. This piece was commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in February 1993, and it has been widely acclaimed as a fresh and original contribution to the symphonic repertory which extends rather than merely consolidates the expression of his late style. Two weeks ago the symphony was chosen as Composition of the Year in the second Classical Music Awards. Sadly, he was already unwell, convalescing after an operation.
Lutoslawski leaves a widow, Danuta Lutoslawska, who until very recently worked with him on the immaculate graphic presentation of his full scores.
Witold Lutoslawski had much to be immodest about. Yet he did, truly, remain a modest man whose personal charm and sincerity will long be remembered and treasured by those of us who knew him.
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