An eminent European composer who dominated the second half of twentieth century music, Witold Lutoslawski’s contribution to music industry is something enormous, which makes his absence even more conspicuous. He stands tall as a role model, conductor as well as a composer, who relentlessly developed his own musical language. He had a distinct touch and unique style and rarely belonged to any specific school, trends, and fashions and did not stand for any traditions or avant-garde revolutions. Known as a musician to the fingertips, his music was an ideal balance of intellect and emotion, form and content. In a world, which glorifies revolutionaries of any kind, he carved a path for himself, pursued by determination, often led by his own unfailing artistic sense. At the same time, he was a rare mix of traditional and avant-garde. Apart from his musical techniques, even his perfectionist nature contributed in securing Lutoslawski a permanent place among the composers of the twentieth century.
Witold Lutoslawski’s Childhood and Early Life
Witold Lutoslawski was born in 1913 in Warsaw in Poland as the youngest of three brothers, shortly after the outbreak of World War I. His parents hailed from Polish nobility and possessed family estates in Drozdowo. His father, Josef, was a part of Polish National Democratic Party and Lutoslawski family was intimate with its founder Roman Dmowski. When Lutoslawski was just two years old, the Lutoslawskis travelled east to Moscow where Josef was politically active. He made Polish legions ready for any immediate action to liberate Poland (the country was divided as per 1815 Congress of Vienna and Warsaw was part of Tsarist Russia). However, when October Revolution in Russia marked the presence of a new Soviet government that made peace with Germany, Joseph’s activities came into conflict with Bolsheviks who arrested him and his brother Marian and Lutoslawskis were prevented from returning home. The brothers were imprisoned in Butyrskaya prison in Central Prison and were executed by a firing squad in September 1918. Witold Lutoslawski was just five when this incident occurred.
After his father’s death, other family members including Josef’s half-brother,Wincenty Lutoslawski, a multi-lingual philosopher, made a great influence on Witold’s life. Once the war ended, the family went back to newly independent Poland, only to find their ruined estates. At the age of six, Lutoslawski started taking piano lessons. After the Polish-Soviet war ended, the family went to Drozdowo, though they returned soon finding limited success after running the ruined estates. In 1924, Lutoslawski joined the secondary school and attended piano classes’ simultaneously. It was at this that the performance of Karol Szymanowski's ‘Third Symphony’ created a great influence on him. In 1926, he started attending violin lessons and in 1927, joined as a part-time student in Warsaw Conservatory where Szymanowski was both director and professor. Though he started to compose on his own, he could not manage both his conservatory studies and school. As a result, he discontinued conservatory studies. In 1931, he joined Warsaw University to study mathematics and in the following year, entered the composition classes at conservatory. His composition teacher, Witold Maliszewski gave him strong foundation in musical structures, especially in movements in Sonata form. In 1932, he discontinued with violin and in the following year, in mathematics, to concentrate on composition and piano. In 1936, he gained a diploma in piano performance from the conservatory after having presented a virtuoso program including Schumann’s ‘Toccata’ and Beethoven’s ‘Fourth Piano Concerto’. He received his diploma in composition from the same institution in 1937.
Developments During Second World War
Due to the outbreak of Second World War, Lutoslawski was inducted into military service and was trained in radio operating and signaling. However, he completed his work ‘Symphonic Variations’ in 1939, which he consider as his debut as a composer. However, the World War abruptly put an end to his plans to travel to Paris for further musical study. When Lutoslawski was stationed with the radio unit in Krakow, the German soldiers captured him, though he escaped while being taken to the prison camp. However, Lutoslawski’s brother was captured by the Russian soldiers and later died in Siberian labor camp. After this incident, in order to earn a living, he worked as a café pianist, the work that he shared with another composer Andrzej Panufnik. The only work, which he wrote and survived during this time, was ‘Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos’ (1941). After the war got over, he settled permanently in Warsaw and married Maria Danuta Bogus³awska, whom he met in café Aria where he worked. He did not accept permanent employment with any organisation and survived the Stalinist years by writing music for radio, film and theatre. In addition to that, he also wrote folk songs and composed works for children.
Development Of Career
After Stalin’s death in 1953, the cultural climate for literary works and music became more favorable. In 1954, his concerto for orchestra appeared and was acknowledged as a work of considerable significance. The favorable cultural climate led to a growth in Lutoslawski’s reputation both at home as well as at abroad countries. His compositional style developed, from the folk-inspired music in his early works to a more sophisticated style based on his development of twelve-tone techniques, which is explicit in ‘Musique funebre’ in 1958. In 1963, Lutoslawski started his conducting career, when he prepared for ‘Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux’ for orchestra and choir, which were composed between 1961 and 1963. Thereafter, he remained active as a conductor for the rest of his life, touring countries like France, Czechoslovakia (1965), Holland (1969), Norway and Austria (1969). His extensive exposure conducting his own works enabled him to refine his musical language even further. This resulted in his compositional style becoming lyrical and harmonically transparent. He conducted with Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Orchestre de Paris and the WOSPRiT (currently known as the NOSPR).
In addition to the work of a conductor, Lutoslawski also became part of many composition courses and workshops - at the Berkshire Music Center in Tangle wood (1962), during which he met Edgar Varèse and Milton Babbitt, at the Dartington Summer School of Music in England (1963 and 1964), the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm and the University of Austin, Texas (1966) and in Aarhus, Denmark (1968). During 1970’s and 1980’s, he gave guest lectures on his own work.
Lutoslawski passed away on February 7, 1994, in Warsaw, at the age of 81. He is survived by his wife, Danuta.
The musicologists have separated his work into several periods. The early works such as ‘Symphonic Variations" (1938), "Symphony no. 1" (1947) and "Overture for strings" (1949) are regarded as neo-classical. His "Little Suite" (1950) and "Concert for Orchestra" (1954) explicitly show his interest in Polish folklore. His "Five Songs", (1957) marked the beginning of dodecaphonic period. The next phase started with "Venetian Games" (1961). Here his compositional technique was marked by the use of controlled Aleatorism. The works “The Symphony No. 2" (1967) and "Livre pour Orchestre" (1968) reflects an outline of his attempts to build up his own formal model.
- Symphonic variations (1938)
- Four syms. (1947, 1967, 1983, 1993)
- Little suite for orchestra (1951)
- Concerto for Orchestra (1954)
- Dance preludes for clarinet and piano(1955)
- Funeral Music for strings (1958)
- 3 Postludes (1960)
- Venetian Games (1961)
- Livre pour orchestre (1968)
- Cello Concerto (1970)
- Preludes and Fugue, str (1972)
- Mi-parti (1976)
- Novelette (1979)
- Chain I (1983), Chain II, vn, orch (1985)
- Chain III (1986)
- Second (1967), Third (1983) and Fourth (1993) symphonies
Voice With Orchestra
- Silesian Triptych (1951)
- 5 Songs (1958)
- 3 Poèmes of Henri Michaux (1963)
- Paroles tissées (1965)
- Les espaces du sommeil (1975)
- Trio, ob, cl, bn (1945)
- Dance Preludes, cl, pf (1954)
- String Quartet (1964)
- Sacher Variation, vc (1975)
- Epitaph, ob, pf (1979)
- Partita, vn, pf (1984)
- Variations on a Theme of Paganini, 2 pf (1941)
- Melodie ludowe [Folk melodies] (1945)
- Bukoliki (1952)
- Three Poems of Henri Michaux (1963)
Awards And Accolades
- UNESCO prize in composition, 1959, 1968
- University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award, 1985 for ‘Third Symphony’
- French order of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, 1982
- Artistic Prize of the Committee of Independent Culture of Solidarity Trade Union, 1983
- Grawemeyer Award, 1985
- Gold medal by the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, 1985
- Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, 1986
- Grammy Award, Cecilia Prize, Koussevitzky Award and Grammaphone Award, 1986
- Gold medal and the title of musician of the year 1991, 1992
- Kyoto (Japan) Prize in Creative Arts and Moral Sciences, 1993
- Polar Music Prize, 1993
- Awarded the highest state prize in Poland - the Order of the White Eagle, 1994
- Britain's Classical Music Award, 1997
- Swedish Polar Music Prize and Inamori Foundation Prize, Kyoto, for the exceptional contribution to present-day European music
- Honorary membership in academies of art and science, International Society for Contemporary Music, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Free Academy of the Arts, Hamburg, German Academy of the Arts, Berlin, Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, Royal Academy of Music, London and Union of Polish Composers
- Honorary doctorates from universities of Warsaw, Torun, Chicago, Lancaster, Glasgow, Cambridge, Durham, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and McGill University in Montreal.