Witold Lutoslawski | Biography

Biography

Witold Lutosławski’s Livre pour orchestre (1968) reveals a composer uninterested in conventional restraints. The stringed instruments bend notes, slide between the normal intervals and create clouds of pure tone. Freedom was a precious commodity for a Pole of his generation, although he always minimised the connections between external pressures and the music he produced.  He was born into a family of rich landowners who were members of the intelligentsia. His father, Józef, a leading light of the right-wing patriotic party Endecja, was executed without trial as a consequence of the Russian Revolution. Witold was only five. While his mother attempted to rebuild the family estates, he became increasingly absorbed in music. He entered the Warsaw Conservatoire with hopes of taking lessons with Karol Szymanowski. As it turned out, his only composition teacher would be the Rimsky-Korsakov pupil Witold Maliszewski. Throughout his composing career Lutosławski retained a love of lavish orchestral effect in the manner of Rimsky-Korsakov and complex, saturated textures that recall Szymanowski. But the outbreak of the Second World War put a stop to his plans to further his studies in Paris. Drafted into the military, he was captured by the Nazis but escaped. His brother died in a labour camp. Back in Warsaw, he and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik performed popular and subversive songs in the cafés of German-occupied Warsaw. The duo also played Lutosławski’s Paganini Variations, one of the few pieces from his early career to survive the destruction of Warsaw following the 1944 uprising. Among the fragments Lutosławski salvaged from the ruins were the sketches for a symphony. By the time the work was completed in 1948, Poland was in the grip of Stalinism. The dictator’s personal decree against ‘formalism’ in music — denouncing artistic adventurousness in favour of pap for the masses — was sternly enforced by the local authorities. The First Symphony was performed and immediately attacked by the party-line press as being formalist. From then on Lutosławski kept a professional and personal distance from official bodies within Poland. Ironically, he was by no means averse to writing ‘functional’ music for education or entertainment. He even won state prizes for some compositions — honours that he grudgingly accepted, as if he had been patted on the head for good behaviour. He maintained his independence throughout the Communist years. There were regime changes, thaws and freezes. Stalin’s death in 1953 led, after a while, to increased freedom, and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 1954, was well received. In the warmer artistic climate the composer’s reputation spread beyond Poland. He was performed in countries where progressive contemporary music was more normal and he began to be more experimental. Folk music influences became less apparent. Elements of 12-note composition, latent in his music for a while, became more prominent. But, as was his habitual way, he found his own systems rather than adopting Schoenberg’s principles. The most significant change occurred in his 1961 piece for chamber orchestra, Jeux vénitiens (‘Venetian Games’). Instead of synchronising every note and harmony himself, Lutosławski instructs the conductor or performers to choose when to begin their phrases. The result is not anarchy — he liked to include passages in this ‘aleatoric’ style amid more conventionally organised sections — but there is an uncommon sense of freedom and the excitement of an added creative aspect to each performance. Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Lutosławski became a familiar figure in concert halls throughout Europe and North America conducting his own music. Visiting the major festivals he met international figures such as composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, oboist Heinz Holliger and his harpist wife Ursula, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Many new works were written for performance by these luminaries. Although Pierre Boulez conducted the first performance of Lutosławski’s then-incomplete Second Symphony in 1966, the composer typically chose not to immerse himself in the hard-line serialism of Boulez and his followers. Pursuing his own course as usual, he gradually introduced greater lyricism to his music. The textures also became lighter. However, this was not a softening of his style. His work from the late 1960s and through the 1970s heightened tension and sometimes violence, while he took radical new approaches to musical structure. Lutosławski’s independence did not mean he had his head in the sand. He made clear his support for trade unionist Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarność (Solidarity) movement and refused all professional engagements in his homeland when martial law was declared in 1981. Only when negotiations were under way for a more free society did he return to the conductor’s rostrum in Warsaw. In 1988 he directed performances of his Piano Concerto, written for his compatriot Krystian Zimerman, and Third Symphony. The Fourth Symphony, written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and first heard in 1993, is a fine summation of Lutosławski’s career. It is individual and modern, yet it is neither strident nor iconoclastic. The textures are no longer dense in the manner of his earlier music but glowingly rich. And the broadest imaginable melody emerges from the symphony’s heart to take us home to the conclusion. Lutosławski’s international presence as a performer was so large that it may have contributed to a period of comparative neglect following his death in 1994. Such passages of eclipse are not uncommon when a composer of recognised stature passes on. But his independent spirit may well have left us with a body of work that will be increasingly appreciated as memories of political division and oppression fade. Against the odds, he composed according to universal and timeless values.