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August 30, 2014

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994)

As the Bard Festival in New York concluded over the weekend, we are reminded again of the importance and multifariousness of its subject this year, Igor Stravinsky.  As his iconic Rite of Spring turned 100 this year, the classical music world, Portland not excepted, has examined the eminent composer’s oeuvre once again.  The Oregon Symphony concluded their 2011-12 season with a full (sold-out) performance of The Rite, and this year has seen performances by the PSU orchestra and many March Music Moderne concerts feature Stravinsky’s diverse works.

However, the Stravinsky celebrations have largely overshadowed the centenaries of the births of two other incredibly important composers.  One, Benjamin Britten, has nevertheless enjoyed a handful of high-profile performances including his Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings by Nicholas Phan, a Britten appassionato, at Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival and an upcoming performance of his monumental War Requiem this coming season at the Oregon Symphony.

The other, Witold Lutosławski, is understandably overshadowed – not because his contributions to the music of the 20th Century are less important, but because of his unassuming attitude and unwavering artistic integrity. “Not to be modest is ridiculous,” Lutosławski, a hero of Polish music and the Solidarity movement, is quoted as saying.  As a composer, Lutosławski crafted meticulously devised music, which he called an “internal truth,” not subject to changes in popular taste. This is perhaps another reason why his centenary has sparked fewer celebrations than Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, whose modernist inflections have been altogether normalized by the countless film scores which have mimicked it.  Lutosławski’s music is a rare exercise in redefining not only the technical basis for composition, but also the aural demands placed on the listener.

I asked our music director at All Classical, John Pitman, if he had any thoughts about Lutosławski, and he recounted his first encounter with the composer, which was not unlike my own. Here is what he had to say:

Listening to Witold Lutoslawski’s works found in All Classical Portland’s library brings back memories of my earliest days working for the radio station.  I was around 20 or 21 years old, and by this time had heard a wide range of music on the station, especially the syndicated orchestra programs.  Occasionally, the station received donations of LPs from listeners, and one person must have had a strong affinity for 20th century music:  there were many recordings of symphonies by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, as well as Allen Petterson, and British composers such as Arnold Bax and Williams Alwyn.  Most of these LPs had no timings to them, which are essential in creating a classical music program.  So, I was assigned to use a stopwatch, set the needle down on the record (CDs were just starting at this time, and LPs still provided the bulk of our locally-produced programming), and play the record from start to finish.  I would then add up the times of each symphony and write them on the jacket.   This was the only way to determine the correct time of an LP.

One multi-record set was an anthology of Lutoslawski’s chamber and orchestral music; probably 6 records were in the boxed set.  We no longer have the LP, but the CD set we have now (“The Essential Lutoslawski”: Philips 464 043), is very likely the same set of performances.  I have to say that, even after all the other symphonies and contemporary music I’d heard, I’d never heard music such as this.  To my 21-year old ears, it was extremely weird-sounding.  And it seemed to take forever to get through this boxed set of LPs.  I couldn’t understand how anyone could get any enjoyment out of such music.  However, something did make an impression on me:  the variety of styles.  Even though I didn’t care for the music, I could detect that not every piece sounded the same, as it were.

John Pitman's first encounter with Lutoslawski

John Pitman’s first encounter with Lutoslawski

 Now I’m listening to Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, with James DePreist conducting the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.  By now I know that this is one of the composer’s more “conservative” compositions, and with good reason:  he had already had his first symphony condemned as “formalist” by the Soviet authorities, and this happened the same year that Shostakovich and Prokofiev were censured for their works in the U.S.S.R.  So here, Lutoslawski was towing the line, so to speak.  However, even if he was trying to please those in power, it’s easy to hear the quality of the work.  This Concerto stands on a par with many of Shostakovich’s works for its structure, as well as its ability to communicate with the audience.  But even his more adventurous works, such as the Symphony No. 3, are more understandable now.  This is a common effect of listening to a composer’s work:  no matter how alien the sounds may be at first, if  you stay with it, and give a composer a chance to communicate, you begin to understand and eventually appreciate what he’s trying to say.  It can help to have some context of the composer’s life (such as Lutoslawski struggling under the communist system’s restrictions), but ultimately not really necessary.  All that’s required is the willingness to hear what’s being said in the music.  The payoff is a broadened understanding of humanity.”

I agree with Mr. Pitman, that context is not necessary to understand the depth of humanity conveyed by Lutosławski’s music (though it may not hit you until the fourth or fifth time through a piece).  However, the composer’s story and personality are rather compelling.  As a high-profile public figure in Soviet-occupied Poland, Lutosławski joined the Solidarity movement by participating in the Polish artists’ boycott, refusing to conduct his own music in Poland or meet with Soviet ministers and declining state-sponsored awards in what the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls a role of “unofficial moral leadership.” He was awarded the Solidarity Prize in 1983, and was the second person to receive the Polish Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor, after the award’s post-Soviet reinstatement; Pope John Paul II was the first.

While Stravinsky’s fame was augmented by his cult of personality outside of his native Russia, both in Paris and Los Angeles, Lutosławski lived out his life in Poland. However, he is not without New-World connections, even in Portland.  In the midst of Rite of Spring celebrations, Lutosławski received some due attention this year at March Music Moderne.  Bob Priest, composer and organizer of the yearly festival, studied with Lutosławski in Poland, and paid homage to the man in a concert featuring his piece “Bucolics.”  Priest also spoke about Lutosławski’s generosity as a teacher. (You can read a review of the performance in Oregon Music News.)

Lutosławski’s centenary, which comes a year after that of John Cage, also gives us an opportunity to take another look at the connection between these two pioneers.  Though both men are known as innovators in modern music, the sounds of Poland and Cage’s West Coast experimentalism are aesthetically rather distant.  However, an interesting idea links this somewhat dissimilar music – that of chance. Lutosławski and Cage are both known as forefathers of aleatory, or “chance” music.

This connection itself is the result of an interesting chance; Lutosławski, in fact, happened to hear a rare broadcast in Poland of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, which is organized by the principles of chance music.  Though  Lutosławski’s resulting chance experiments sound nothing like Cage’s, he admits the debt of inspiration he owes to Cage: “Composers often do not hear the music that is being played…we are listening to something and at the same time creating something else,” said the composer (Charles Bodeman Rae, The Music of Lutoslawski).   Lutosławski’s first aleatory music, Trois Poemes d’Henri Michaux, is a challenging, but rewarding listen.  Though he employs principles of chance, his rigorous organizing methods are far from improvisatory, and Lutosławski, a former mathematics student, creates the kind of limited chance more reflective of game theory than simple improvisation.

In addition to Lutosławski’s loose affiliation with Cage, he is connected to the West Coast in relation to his Symphony No. 4, which was commissioned in 1993 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In February, the Oregon Symphony will honor Lutosławski on the same stage that has honored Stravinsky and Britten recently, giving a full performance of this symphony.  Lutosławski is paired with Beethoven on the program, an apt choice, as Lutosławski acknowledged Beethoven’s symphonies as the blueprint for his understanding of musical form.

Lutosławski has also been receiving major recognition at this year’s BBC Proms, which honors him and many of his Polish compatriots.  Of note is a new composition in honor of Lutosławski by Thomas Adès, Totentanz, on a 15th-Century text which accompanied a frieze bombed in Poland during World War II.  It is an impressive work, reflectively distilling Lutosławski’s diverse musical language alongside his deep interest with Polish history and compassion for the losses of war.

Totentanz Frieze, formerly in Lübeck

Totentanz Frieze, formerly in Lübeck

While it is unlikely that Lutosławski’s music will ever be heard as often as Stravinsky’s (there is no legend surrounding any of his premieres as potently as the riot caused by The Rite), Lutosławski’s impact is heard subtly throughout modern music, from the symphonic tradition to film music.  His historical significance is similarly deserving of attention, as one of the foremost 20th-Century composers of Poland’s inconspicuous but rich music culture.  If you’re interested in hearing more Polish music in the next couple of weeks, be sure to check out our recent episode of Played in Oregon, which features old Polish music.