WITOLD LUTOSŁAWSKI: Concerto for Orchestra

Witold Lutosławski was born in Warsaw, Poland, on January 25, 1913, and died there on February 9, 1994. He composed his Concerto for Orchestra over the years 1950–1954. It was premiered in Warsaw on November 26, 1954, by the Warsaw National Philharmonic, Witold Rowicki (the work’s dedicatee) conducting. The score calls for three flutes (second and third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani and percussion (cymbals, suspended cymbal, tambourine, glockenspiel, tam-tam, tenor drum, side drum, bass drum, field drum, xylophone, three tom-toms), two harps, celesta doubling piano, and strings.

Lutosławski's birth preceded by only a year and a half the outbreak of World War I, which had devastating consequences for his native country. And it was devastating for his family, too, when his father, an activist in nationalist politics, was executed as a counterrevolutionary. His father had been an ardent amateur musician who loved to play Beethoven and Chopin, a love he clearly passed on to his son.

Lutosławski's first major appearance as a composer was with the premiere of his Symphonic Variations, first on a radio broadcast in April 1939, then in a concert in Krakow in June. Despite the interest that the work aroused, the timing could not have been worse: only ten weeks later, Hitler invaded Poland. Lutosławski recalled, “When the Nazis entered Warsaw, Polish music stopped.” After the war he gradually came to be recognized as the leading composer of his generation, though a major setback came in the late 1940s, when Poland was refashioned as a socialist state largely under the control of Moscow. He survived only by continuing his work on the radio, writing children’s songs and similar works “for which there was a social need.”

When the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra was formed in 1950, the conductor Witold Rowicki suggested that Lutosławski might compose a work for the new ensemble. He considered writing a piece based on folk material, to keep the governmental censors happy, but the piece grew over a period of four years to grand proportions. At the premiere on November 26, 1954, it was received with great enthusiasm and immediately became one of the most popular of contemporary Polish compositions.

The Concerto is laid out in three movements, of which the last is longer than the first two combined and serves as a climactic summation. The opening (Intrada) is explicitly introductory, though with a thematic growth from the very opening measures that signals to the listener the work’s symphonic scope. The second movement, Capriccio notturno e arioso, takes the traditional form of a scherzo and trio from the Classical symphony, though with a hushed mysterious quality in the Capriccio (Lutosławski uses the term mormorando, “murmuring,” to suggest its nocturnal mood) that contrasts strongly with the fortissimo dynamic and singing character of the arioso.

The finale begins with a passacaglia, in which Lutosławski creates a thoroughly continuous fabric by overlapping strands of his material, so that something is always continuing, even as something else comes to an end. It is a procedure that he used a great deal in the rest of his life and which he came to call “chain technique.” As the eight-bar passacaglia unfolds through eighteen statements of the theme, it gradually moves through the entire orchestra, with many different combinations of instruments, starting low in the double basses, and gradually opening (wedge-like) to the widest sonority, covering six full octaves in the tenth repetition, then gradually contracts in range as the lower instruments drop out, leaving the highest register of violin harmonics for the final (eighteenth) repetition. At this point the orchestra begins a driving, energetic toccata thematically related to the passacaglia that builds to a splendidly sonorous climax and a fast coda.

Lutosławski created the Concerto for Orchestra out of his work in folk music, but it turned into something much larger that summarized his orchestral technique, and in particular generated the “chain technique” that became important to him in later years. Along with Bartók’s work of the same name, it remains one of the great mid-twentieth-century demonstrations of the richness and variety possible with the symphony orchestra. —© Steven Ledbetter