Obituary: Witold Lutoslawski

Witold Lutoslawski, composer and conductor: born Warsaw 25 January 1913; married 1946 Danuta Boguslawska (nee Dygat; one stepson); died Warsaw 7 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future