The music lovers of Washington owed their first contact with the music of Witold Lutosławski to Yehudi Menuhin, who during a concert organised by Amnesty International in 1970 led a performance of a Postlude. Contrary to its title, on the concert programme it actually served as a prelude – to symphonies by Schubert and Beethoven.
A couple of years later, it was from Washington that Lutosławski received his first American commission. The initiator was Mstislav Rostropovich, who in 1977 had been appointed artistic director of the National Orchestra in Washington.
‘I always commissioned works for orchestra alone, without a soloist, since when preparing the first performance I had to concentrate all my energies on the new score – related Rostropovich with regard to his repertoire policy in Washington at that time. – Since experience had taught me that the public was rather reluctant to make the effort to come to us when a program contained solely contemporary music, any soloists had to have some “candy” waiting for them: Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Chopin, etc.
– I’d be rather sceptical about your candy – riposted his interlocutor, Claude Samuel. – It seems to me that in such situations nobody wins. Anyone who loves the classics will have to swallow new music for a whole half-hour, and anyone who esteems Lutosławski might despise Tchaikovsky.
– No, that’s not true – said Rostropovich, defending his stance. – There are at least ten times as many Tchaikovsky devotees as there are fans of Lutosławski. I have to convince that majority, and I am certain that Lutosławski’s huge talent will make an impression on them’.
Thus arose Novelette, performed for the first time on 29 January 1980 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It was programmed next to the Cello Concerto, well known to Rostropovich, in which he performed as the soloist, handing the baton to Lutosławski. In the second part of the concert, the audience was offered ‘candy’ in the form of Antonín Dvořák’s Fourth Symphony.
The concert was repeated three times, and whilst during the first evening ‘the hall was restless, and a few people were snickering’, the next day – as the reviewer for the New Yorker noted – ‘people were listening with much greater interest and attention’. The reporter for the Washington Post noted that ‘the work was very warmly applauded’. The reception for Novelette was commented on by the reviewer for Newsweek: ‘unlike the thin, repeated textures in most modern music, Lutosławski’s acoustic tissue is rich and diverse, with undulating lines and dramatic development. It has everything that people usually associate with good music – with the exception of traditional melody and harmony’.