About Witold Lutosławski

Early Childhood

Witold Lutosławski was born on the evening of January 25th, 1913 near the Warsaw Philharmonic. He was the third and youngest child of 33-year-old Maria Lutosławska (née Olszewska) and 32-year-old Józef Lutosławski. The couple already had two sons: nine-year-old Jerzy and four-year-old Henryk. Witold spent his childhood in the estate at Drozodowo near Łomża, which had belonged to his family for about 150 years.

The First World War interrupted the peaceful existence of the Drozdowo inhabitants. Seeking refuge from German troops, the Lutosławski family settled in Moscow in August 1915.

Active supporters of the fight for Poland’s independence, the family continued their political activity in Russia with tragic results for Józef and his brother, Marian. They were arrested by the Bolsheviks and executed in September 1918. Maria returned to liberated Poland as a widow with her three sons.

Before the advent of the radio and the phonograph, many used to sing and play music during work and for leisure – and so did the Lutosławski family. Quite early, little Witold was extremely sensitive to music. When he was six, his mother decided that he would have piano lessons and soon the boy started to compose simple pieces.


Having qualified for the Stefan Batory Grammar School, an elite Warsaw institution for boys, Lutosławski started to attend. At the same time, he attended the music school, where he took up the piano and later the violin. At the age of 15 he began to study composition under Witold Maliszewski.

Lutosławski matriculated in 1931 and enrolled in a Math degree course, which he quit two years later for music. Persuaded by Maliszewski that an aspiring composer should be able to play the piano, he gave up the violin and joined Jerzy Lefeld's course at the Warsaw Conservatory.

He scored his first success as a 20-year-old student: the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra performed his composition, Harun Al-Rashid. A year later another work, his Piano Sonata, won critical acclaim. In the coming years this piece had several public performances, including one attended by Karol Szymanowski.

After five years, in 1937, Lutosławski graduated in Composition from the Maliszewski course. He was awarded the diploma for works that he did not value much. He was truly absorbed in writing orchestral variations, too ‘modern’ to be accepted by the diploma panel. He considered the premiere of these Symphonic Variations in the summer of 1939 as his composing debut.

Under Occupation

Settled on a career in music, the young composer applied for a scholarship. He was planning to study in Paris, just as many other Polish composers of his generation, but his plans were frustrated by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Caught up in the theatre of war, in September 1939 Lutosławski was enlisted as a radio operator with the “Kraków” Army Headquarters. Three weeks later he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He managed to escape and join his mother and elder brother, Jerzy, in Warsaw. His second brother, Henryk, was taken captive by the Soviets and died a year later in a Kolyma work camp. In occupied Poland, any work opportunity outside of the Reich was welcomed.

Lutosławski found a job as a pianist in a café, where he accompanied a group of male singers. Eager to engage in a different repertory, he soon set up a piano duo with Andrzej Panufnik. They appeared regularly at Aria and SIM cafés for four years. At one point they miraculously avoided transportation to a concentration camp during a ‘łapanka’ (a round-up of Polish civilians by the SS, Wehrmacht and Gestapo). And at Aria, Lutosławski also had the good fortune to meet his wife-to-be, Danuta Bogusławska.

The Lutosławski-Panufnik duo mostly performed transcriptions of classical and popular ‘hits’. Variations on a theme by Paganini was a typical favourite of the Aria patrons.

The Post-war Strategy

For years Lutosławski was not able to pursue the music he desired except during short spans of time away from work. The post-war period did not welcome creativity. The country was in ruins and so was the musical life; everything had to start again from scratch. When the Communists took over, they turned art into a tool of propaganda.

Lutosławski earned his family’s living by writing applied music: piano pieces for school practice, songs for children, music for radio plays, and for Warsaw theatrical performances. He also arranged folk tunes and even composed popular songs – al. this while devoting his spare time to the symphony started back in 1941.

The 1947 premiere of that symphony was highly praised. Unfortunately, its success did not last. The work was soon labelled as ‘Formalist’ and withdrawn from orchestral repertories. Yet his later pieces, Little Suite and Silesian Triptych, inspired by folk music gained official approval and were awarded a number of prizes.

Over time, Lutosławski worked out a specific style: technically perfect, employing a tonal language attractive to the audience, and uncontroversial for the establishment because of its allusions to folk music. With this style, Concerto for Orchestra premiered in 1954. It was a sweeping success and has remained Lutosławski’s most frequently performed symphonic work. The composer, however, felt that it was al. he had to say in that particular language. Fortunately enough, historic changes in the political climate facilitated the pursuit of new styles.

The Breakthrough

The mid-1950s breakthrough, the time of the ‘thaw’ in Polish politics, brought about changes in art, restoring to artists the possibility of creating an audience for experimental work. Witold Lutosławski was hailed as one of the ‘forefathers’ of modern Polish music.

As he employed new means, his works gained in fresh beauty. He invented his own 12-tone system to craft the harmony of Five Songs to Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna’s poems. In Funeral Music he used an unprecedented series based on merely two intervals. The extremely precise technique and rigorous counterpoint did not reduce the emotional evocativeness of that piece, which soon became a world-known icon of modern Polish music.

Polish artists no longer suffered from strict isolation: contact with the outside world was restored, while the Warsaw Autumn annual festival of new music provided a link between the East and the West. The Polish Society for Contemporary Music was revived, although only for a short time. Participating in al. of these endeavours, Lutosławski became one of the most active composers. With an established reputation, he supported new trends while sitting on various boards, such as the Board of Publishers at the Polish Music Publishers. He also counselled committees at the Ministry of Art and Culture. He used these positions to advocate the composer’s right and duty to artistic freedom.

In the Avan-garde

At the age of fifty the composer entered a stage of intensive creativity and technical innovation. The works from this period aroused general interest since many were commissioned by festivals such as the Venice Biennale, the Contemporary Music Festival in Zagreb, and the Styrian Autumn Festival. Some were commissioned or for cyclical events devoted to new music, such as Nutida Musik in Stockholm or Das Neue Werk in Hamburg.

His Jeux vénitiens caused a sensation: he used the ad libitum technique, which he termed ‘controlled aleatorism’. It became Lutosławski’s trademark and the technique soon spread among composers.

The novelty of Trois poemes d’Henri Michaux consisted of a choral part independent of the orchestra. This demanded two conductors: one for the choir and one for the ensemble. Instrumental and choral parts were notated using both traditional (metrical) notation and Lutosławski’s aleatoric system. It was at the first performance of Trois poemes in Zagreb, that Lutosławski made his public conducting debut. Slavko Zlatić conducted the choir.

In String Quartet Lutosławski used the ad libitum technique so extensively that the musical notation bore no resemblance to a traditional score. Preludes and Fugue was also an experimental work: in this piece conductor must decide on the sequence and even the length of the preludes.

While audiences widely admired Lutosławski’s works and enthusiasts of the avant-garde acclaimed his innovations, only a few people realized that while working on the String Quartet he was still forced to earn his living with dance songs which he released under the pseudonym, Derwid. It was only with subsequent assignments and especially with the increasing number of performances of his works in the late 1960s that his situation was eased. As the composer gained greater financial independence, he found freedom to create music he could call his own.

The Ambassador

Witold Lutosławski steadily gained recognition; he was placed first on the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers and was awarded several prizes for his recordings. He started to be honoured for his life’s work: including the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Prize in New York, the Gottfried-von-Herder-Preis in Vienna, and the Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis in Munich. In 1971 he received the first of several honorary doctorate degrees. His status as an avant-garde artist changed to that of a composer known to a wide audience; the most renowned soloists and ensembles performed his compositions.

Lutosławski enjoyed a stream of important commissions. Prompted by the London Royal Philharmonic Society, Lutosławski wrote his Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich. The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam commissioned Mi-parti; the Luzerna Festival received the Double Concerto for Holligers; and the Salzburg Festival – Piano Concerto for Krystian Zimmerman. Symphony No. 3 was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti. Lutosławski also composed two cycles of songs for prominent singers: Paroles tissées for Peter Pears, and Les espaces du sommeil for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In addition, Lutosławski composed three pieces, titled to allude to his ‘chain technique’: Chain 1 for Anne-Sophie Mutter, Chain 2 for the London Sinfonietta, and Chain 3 for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Lutosławski sporadically wrote chamber pieces, such as Sacher Variation, Epitaph, Grave. Metamorphoses, and Partita, but it was the orchestra that remained his favourite ‘instrument’. He demonstrated his passion for it in his conducting as well: beginning with his performance of the Trois poemes, he continued to conduct his pieces with the best European and American orchestras. He conducted his own works exclusively. His final concert as a conductor was in Toronto during the autumn, 1993.

In Public Life

Witold Lutosławski kept a low public profile but engaged in various social activities. He would comment on his own music and stress the significance of art in the life of society. He sat on various committees such as the UNESCO International Music Council and, from 1973, the Board of the Polish Composers’ Union. He accepted invitations to conferences and met with young composers. He treated these activities as important, although they often robbed him of the time designated for ‘homework’, as he used to call it; he was a meticulous composer and his slow pace made time a precious commodity.

In the 1960s and the 1970s the composer shunned contacts with the authorities but participated in public life. After the martial law was imposed in Poland in December 1981, he also withdrew from the state mass media. For both his Symphony No. 3 and his public stance, Lutosławski was awarded the 1984 Solidarity Committee for Independent Culture Prize.

The 1989 collapse of Communism marked a big change in Lutosławski’s life. He became the musicians’ spokesman on the Citizens’ Committee, working with Lech Wałęsa and, from 1992, in the Cultural Council at the President’s Office.

The 20th-Century Classic

The exceptional style of his mature oeuvre, the timeless appeal of many of his works and his contribution to the avant-garde, made Lutosławski, in his old age, a 20th-century classic.

As a ‘present’ for his 75th birthday the composer gave himself the project that he had attempted and abandoned a half a century earlier, the Piano Concerto. This renewed effort, concluded with a successful performance by Krystian Zimerman at the Salzburg Festival in 1988.

Forty years after his Songs for Children he wrote Chantefleurs et Chantefables, also set to nursery rhymes. Written for no particular occasion, they may have been the most personal works of Lutosławski.

His 80th birthday was marked with the premiere of Symphony No. 4, which he conducted in February 1993 in Los Angeles. During that year, spent on the road conducting his pieces, he was honoured for his almost sixty-years of musical productivity with numerous prizes, including the prestigious Polar Music Prize and Kyoto Prize. His physical and mental condition was remarkable. His head was brimming with new ideas.

Author: Danuta Gwizdalanka
Source: www.lutoslawski.pl


Tadeusz Kaczyński: „The favourite instrument” (1999)

Tadeusz Kaczyński: „Witold Lutosławski about Cello Concerto” (2001)