Witold Lutosławski was born in Warsaw in 1913. He embarked upon part-time studies in piano and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory in his late teens.
After being captured by German soldiers while on military service during World War II, Lutosławski performed piano duets in Warsaw cafes with friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik. The pair performed a range of repertoire, even defiantly playing prohibited Polish music.
Lutosławski devoted the years following WWII to the completion of his Symphony No. 1, at the same time writing music which he deemed ‘functional’ (including film scores and carols). Although the Soviet authorities rejected the work as ‘formalist’, the 1954 work Concerto for Orchestra (completed the year following Stalin’s death) proved a resounding success. However, it was only with Musique funèbre – Lutosławski’s 1958 memorial to Béla Bartók – that the composer was truly catapulted to international success.
Jeux Vénitiens (completed two years later) saw a significant shift in Lutosławski’s style as the composer began to introduce elements of chance into his works. From 1963 Lutosławski became increasingly prominent on an international level, garnering a plethora of awards.
Following years of upheaval, Lutosławski finally refused all professional engagements in Poland from 1981 (only relenting after political reform in 1989). The composer maintained his hectic schedule until the end of his life, premiering his Symphony No. 4 in 1993. He died in 1994.
Five Lutosławski works to listen to
Concerto for Orchestra
This work is inspired by Polish folk songs and is the most most played work in this distinctly 20th-century form after Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. This is a gripping piece, from the opening timpani to the thrilling climax.
Recommended recording: Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Dux DUX 0499
Les Espaces du Sommeil
The surrealist words of Robert Desnos brought out the most impressionist side of Lutosławski’s writing, with textures and harmonies recalling his early admiration for Szymanowski The sound of the words, with the refrain of ‘Il y a toi’ are as important as their meaning in setting the dreamlike mood.
Recommended recording: Christopher Purves, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
Chandos CHAN 10688
This work is a belated – and personal – tribute for the tenth anniversary of Bartók’s death. It was the first work where Lutosławski shook off his dependence on folk idioms and adopted some principles of serial writing, but adapted to his own ends. Melodic intensity is put at the service of an intense act of mourning, rising to an angry raging against the dying of the light.
Recommended recording: Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra/Witold Lutosławski
EMI Classics 907 2262
Variations on a Theme of Paganini
Rachmaninov played his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in Warsaw in 1936, and Lutosławski very likely heard this performance. Five years later he produced his own variations on the same theme, in a very different, war-torn Warsaw.
Recommended recording: Martha Argerich & Nelson Freire
Philips Originals 475 8520
Symphony No. 4
The repeated notes which open Lutosławski’s last major work set up completely different expectations from those in the Concerto for Orchestra or the Third Symphony. As they gently pulse low in the orchestra, almost tonal harmonies slowly build up and a plangent clarinet solo emerges.
Recommended recording: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
In his own words
“[I]t is difficult to conceive of a more absurd hypothesis than the idea that the achievements of the past several decades should be abandoned and that one should return to the musical language of the 19th century …. The period of which I speak may not have lasted long … but all the same it was long enough to do our music immense harm.”
“[…] I have a strong desire to communicate something, through my music, to the people. I am not working to get many ‘fans’ for myself; I do not want to convince, I want to find. I would like to find people who in the depths of their souls feel the same way as I do. That can only be achieved through the greatest artistic sincerity in every detail of music, from the minutest technical aspects to the most secret depths. I know that this standpoint deprives me of many potential listeners, but those who remain mean an immeasurable treasure for me. […] I regard creative activity as a kind of soul-fishing, and the ‘catch’ is the best medicine for loneliness, that most human of sufferings.”