The Czech capital was the first foreign city to appreciate Witold Lutosławski’s compositional talent. In 1948, during a tour of Czechoslovakia by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted performances of Lutosławski’s First Symphony, including in Prague, where it must have made quite an impression, because when Polish and Czechoslovak radio were reaching a cooperation agreement, the latter, invoking one of the points of the agreement, commissioned from Lutosławski a work for the Prague Symphony Orchestra. The result was the Overture for Strings, performed on 9 November 1949 in Prague under the baton of Grzegorz Fitelberg, in the composer’s presence.
That commission guaranteed a fee for the composer, but the currency regulations in force in this part of Europe at the time meant that his attempt to pick up the fee proved to be an extremely complicated undertaking, involving a wait of more than a week for permission from the National Bank. On his return to Warsaw, Lutosławski was also informed that he was obliged to submit a report informing the authorities of the source of the revenue obtained in a foreign currency and the way in which it had been spent.
Lutosławski did not attempt the operation of securing his own money until 1950, when on behalf of the Polish Composers Union he travelled to the Pražské Jaro – a festival of classical music organised in Prague since 1946. He attended concerts, but also tedious meetings. The Czechs’ pro-soviet sympathies – a result of an anti-German attitude inherited from the times of the Habsburg monarchy – meant that Prague was the centre of activities propagating soviet ideology among artists. Thus in 1950, in connection with the Prague Spring, another conference was held in which the musical milieux of countries under the influence of the USSR were urged to adopt and to propagate socialist realism.
In 1957, Witold Lutosławski was a guest of the Prague Spring once again, this time in a calmer ideological atmosphere and accompanied by his wife. The reason for his visit was a performance of his Concerto for Orchestra by the Prague Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Václav Smetáček. The work was appreciated by the audience, but reviewers criticised it for its avant-garde character. That did not deter Smetáček, who remained an admirer of Lutosławski’s music and in those years often included his works on his programmes. It was thanks to the Czech maestro that the Little Suite, and with it the name of Lutosławski, became known in such distant lands as Iceland, Brazil and Japan. Jan Krenz again conducted the Concerto for Orchestra in the Prague festival in 1973, and then no one complained that it was too avant-garde.
Let us return to the year 1957. The festival organisers, seizing on a slight parting of the Iron Curtain, began inviting artists from the West. Thus Prague was visited by a couple of pianists of Russian origins who were regarded at that time as the leading American piano duet: Vronsky & Babin. The playing of Vitya (Victoria) Vronsky and her husband Victor Babin pleased the Czech audience so much that the artists felt obliged to play an encore, and then – to the great astonishment of Lutosławski, who was present in the audience – they played his Variations on a theme of Paganini. After the concert, the composer introduced himself to the pianists, and then it was their astonishment which knew no bounds.