During the thirties, dozens of Polish musicians – especially composers – having completed their studies in Poland, travelled to Paris to continue their training. Witold Lutosławski had similar plans, but was thwarted by the war. So he only came to the French capital as an adult, and not to study.
In 1936, however, an acute observer would have noticed in Paris a trace of the existence of a composer by the name of Witold Lutosławski. Presented in a festival of documentaries was the film Uwaga [Warning], directed by Eugeniusz Cękalski, warning against the dangerous consequences of recklessness while working in a factory, with music composed and recorded under the direction of Lutosławski, then still a student at the Warsaw Conservatory.
Lutosławski first travelled to Paris in December 1946. In a cycle of concerts showcasing music from UNESCO member states, Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the French radio orchestra, beginning the ‘Polish programme’ with Lutosławski’s Symphonic Variations. That concert was held at the legendary Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, where in the spring of 1913 Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had first been staged. Despite countless difficulties, Lutosławski managed to get to that concert – for his foreign debut as a composer. He arrived almost at the last minute, after the rehearsals. Then upon opening the programme published for the occasion, he read: ‘Witold Lutosławski, d. 1913’.
In war-torn Europe, a journey from Warsaw to Paris was quite a serious undertaking, and so Lutosławski stayed here for another three months. He attended concerts and made acquaintances, many of which proved valuable in his future career. He visited the city – so very different from devastated Warsaw. The Parisians also soon gained some idea of that contrast, since on 7 May 1947 Tadeusz Makarczyński’s film Suita warszawska [Warsaw suite] was broadcast on French television. The viewers were to be affected by the image of a sea of ruins that were slowly returning to life, and so the soundtrack was not drowned out by the verbal commentary, allowing the viewers to listen undisturbed to the music… of Witold Lutosławski.
In the autumn of 1948, Lutosławski found himself in Paris again, where he travelled after spending the holidays in the south of France in the company of the outstanding pianist Witold Małcużyński, with whom he had been friends in his schooldays. That was his last journey to the West before the most rigorous period behind the Iron Curtain, since for the next few years receiving a passport became well nigh impossible, even for a respected employee of Polish Radio. So the composer could only listen to a Parisian performance of his symphony in 1949 at home, and he could only learn of the concert held in the French capital on 9 December 1951, marking a session of the UN (in which Lamoureaux’s orchestra under the baton of Mieczysław Mierzjewski played works by Polish composers, including his Symphonic Variations), thanks to the account of the conductor upon his return to Warsaw.
In Paris, a prosperous time for Lutosławski’s music began when, as a result of the political ‘thaw’, Poland made contact with the International Composers’ Tribune that united public European radio stations. The Tribune’s headquarters was in the French capital, since it was an initiative of the International Music Council, itself a body of UNESCO. From 1954 onwards, from new recordings sent in by radio stations affiliated to the Tribune, a jury of radio producers selected those which they saw as the most interesting. All the members of the Tribune, which grew significantly over the years, were advised to broadcast the selected recordings. Works by Lutosławski made it into the group of distinguished works on four occasions, for the first time in the very year that Poland joined the Tribune, i.e. 1959, when Musique funèbre came to public attention. A similar distinction was afforded Jeux vénitiens in 1962, Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux two years later, and the Second Symphony in 1968.
It may sound paradoxical, but during the sixties, and even the seventies, Lutosławski’s music more often won prizes than it was performed, which shows how difficult it was for new works, even those most highly regarded by a professional body, to enter the concert repertoire.
We have already seen the recognition achieved by Lutosławski’s works at the Tribune. An equally impressive collection of awards was garnered by disc recordings of his music. The Koussevitzky Foundation, which in 1963 established the Koussevitzky Prix Mondial du Disque, with the laureates announced in the French capital, in 1964 singled out a recording of the Polish premiere of the Trois poèmes, made a year earlier during the Warsaw Autumn under the baton of Lutosławski (chorus) and Jan Krenz (Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra). In 1976, the Foundation rewarded the Cello Concerto, recorded two years previously by Lutosławski with the Orchestre de Paris and Mstislav Rostropovich. Lutosławski’s music was twice distinguished with theGrand Prix International du Disque de l’Académie Charles Cros. In 1971, meanwhile, the jury acknowledged a recording of the Concerto for Orchestra made by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Jan Krenz.
This last distinction may well have drawn the attention of the Paris Opera to Lutosławski’s compositions; for the following year, it planned a ballet to the Concerto for Orchestra and Musique funèbre. On learning of this, however, the composer categorically protested, particularly against such plans with regard to Musique funèbre. ‘I do not give permission for my works to be danced to – he said in the mid seventies. – If a work has no chance of becoming popular as a purely acoustic work, then I simply do not wish for it to be popularised as a spectacle in which something of mine is heard’.
A year later, a disc with the Concerto for Orchestra was singled out once again, this time with the French President’s Prize; the incumbent at the Elysées was Georges Pompidou. Unfortunately, that distinction did not open the doors to concert halls for Lutosławski, since the work was not performed in France until ten years later. A suitable opportunity was provided by an annual festival held in August with the catchy name ‘Festival estival de Paris’, which in the summer of 1982 placed Lutosławski’s music at the centre of its programme. After the main concert, held at the Salle Pleyel, the composer was made a commander of the order ‘des Arts et des Lettres’.
That festival brought the only premiere of a Lutosławski work in France: the orchestral version of Grave, with Misha Maisky performing the cello part. No work of Lutosławski’s was ever written to a French commission, although such attempts were made every so often. In 1970, the Opéra de Paris wanted to commission from him music for a ballet, but nothing came of the project. In 1980, the composer carried on correspondence on the subject of a song cycle, which he was to have written for Jessye Norman to a commission from the French Ministry of Culture. Those plans also came to nought, although years later they may have provided an indirect inspiration for Chantefleurs et Chantefables.
In Lutosławski’s case, the idea for composing songs to French poetry was perfectly natural; he turned to French poetry – or more precisely to French surrealist poetry, which he considered the most suitable for his music – largely out of practical considerations. After writing the Five Songs to words by Kazimiera Iłłakowicz, he realised that translating them into English, German or French was highly problematic. Either a translation was poetically satisfactory but did not fit the music, or else it sat well with the music but was devoid of artistic qualities. Thus Lutosławski decided to avoid in future a situation where potential performers of his compositions might be hindered by what for them was a difficult foreign language. French, which the composer knew very well, was still a quite widely known language, particularly among his own generation. So for the English singer Peter Pears he composed Paroles tissées to verse by Jean-François Chabrun, and for the German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Les espaces du sommeil to poetry by Robert Desnos. Lutosławski would turn to the work of Desnos once again towards the end of the eighties, writing Chantefleurs et Chantefables, when, exceptionally in his career, he did not yet have a specific performer of the work in mind. The Norwegian singer Solveig Kringlebotn, to whom he ultimately entrusted the first performance, had a good command of French, like her predecessors. The most striking ‘manifestation’ of this French-language output was a concert that Lutosławski conducted himself on 18 November 1992 at the Opéra Bastille, when in the first part he conducted two vocal works: Les espaces du sommeil and Chantefleurs et Chantefables.
Lutosławski sometimes travelled to Paris for sessions of the UNESCO Music Council. At his initiative, in 1959, the Council passed a motion concerning the need to curb the growing noise in the environment. In that motion, there was condemnation of ‘the inadmissible violation of personal freedom and of people’s right to silence through the abuse of recorded music and of music broadcast on radio in public and private places’, and the UNESCO authorities were asked to adopt suitable measures ‘aimed at putting an end to that abuse of music’. Lutosławski would return to that problem indefatigably, since the adopted resolution never gave any effect.