Witold Lutosławski first travelled to Cologne in June 1960, for the World Music Days. On that occasion, he was elected vice president of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and he would hold that post for the next six years. Besides the official concerts, there was also an informal strand to the society’s work. ‘I remember when my stepfather returned from Germany and told me about what was happening in the so-called avant-garde – related Lutosławski’s stepson, Marcin Bogusławski, then a student of architecture. – That was a concert at which German professors dressed in dark suits, white shirts and appropriate ties were sat in the front rows. On the stage, meanwhile, the artists took a piano to pieces, before hurling eggs at those professors. When I started to laugh at this, Witold said: “Don’t laugh, it’s a very important function that they’re performing. They’re overthrowing the existing canons, which have to be overturned every so often”.’
It is not surprising that in a city so favourable to the then avant-garde as Cologne, Lutosławski’s latest and most unconventional work to date, Jeux vénitiens, was performed as early as 1961, and so just after its very first performance. On 24 October 1961, in the Musik der Zeit concert series organised by the WDR, it was played by the Warsaw Philharmonic under Witold Rowicki. After hearing the work, one reviewer wrote: ‘Lutosławski’s ideas tower above the imagination of his Western colleagues through a fusion of structurality and spontaneity’. Cologne radio broadcast that recording many times, all the more readily in that a great interest was arising in Germany at that time in the ‘Polish school’, and the emotional quality of that ‘Polish avant-garde’ was emphasised many times. A consequence of that attitude was the WDR’s readiness to commission from Lutosławski an oboe concerto for Lothar Faber, during the mid sixties, although ultimately nothing came of it. Another project that failed to get off the ground was the intention conceived a few years later of obtaining a second cello concerto from Lutosławski for another virtuoso, namely Siegfried Palm, an enthusiast of modernity who was associated with Cologne.
Lutosławski appeared in Cologne in the role of conductor in April 1973, invited to a concert combined with a recording by the WDR radio orchestra. He returned in October 1992, giving his last concert in the city at the then new philharmonic concert hall.
Situated in Cologne were the headquarters of the record company EMI-Electrola. In May and June 1976, that company recorded in Katowice a complete set of discs featuring Lutosławski’s most important works to date, in the cutting edge quadrophonic technique. A box-set of six LPs released three years later was excellently received. It won the Deutsche Schallplatenpreis, and Lutosławski was named ‘Artist of the Year’.
It was in Cologne that the musicologist Martina Homma wrote her 700-page doctoral thesis, a scrupulous analysis of Lutosławski’s composition technique that remains the biggest theoretical work on the subject of his music.