Composers / Witold Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski on himself in 1993

‘I was born on 25 January 1913 into a landowning family, whose estate lay in Drozdowo, some 150 kilometres north of Warsaw. It was a beautiful spot, with a wonderful view from the garden over the Narew Valley. The early years spent in contact with nature were not without influence on my character. I still recall the beautiful forests, fields, rivers, meadows and gardens, although the estate has not belonged to my family for many years.

One year after my birth, the First World War broke out. At that time, a considerable part of Poland lay under the rule of tsarist Russia. The German offensive against Russia began in 1915 from Polish territory, and so many Poles sought refuge in Russia. My family joined them, and that is how I came to spend three years in Moscow. That stay ended in tragedy. My father was involved in the underground movement among emigrants organising Polish military units, which were to be used at a suitable time to liberate Poland. After the outbreak of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks arrested my father, and in 1918 they shot him.

Shortly afterwards, Poland was free, and we could return to our homeland. Our estate had been ruined during the war, and it never returned to its previous state. I lived there until 1924, when I went to school in Warsaw.

A few years earlier, I had begun to learn the piano. I don’t actually remember ever being indifferent to music. It always fascinated me, and I couldn’t imagine any other profession than musician, and even composer.

At the age of fourteen, I began private lessons in composition with Professor Witold Maliszewski, who was a composer and a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. Later, I found myself in his composition class at the Warsaw Conservatory. In 1936, I graduated from the Conservatory in piano, and in 1937 in composition.

In the autumn of 1939, I planned to travel to Paris to continue my composition studies, but the outbreak of the Second World War meant that instead of Paris, I went to Cracow as commander of a military radio station at First Army HQ. In Poland, without any outside assistance, when our country was being attacked from the west by Germany and from the east by the Soviet Union, the war lasted less than six weeks. After eight days in German captivity, I escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and reached Warsaw on foot, walking around four hundred kilometres.

The period of German occupation, in the years 1939–1945, was a very painful experience. Besides the numerous forms of persecution, more or less well known, such as the concentration camps, street executions and arrests, Polish culture suffered terrible losses. For the Germans, the Polish nation was destined for complete annihilation. Consequently, all cultural activity was banned. The universities, libraries, theatres and institutions of concert life ceased to function. The composer Andrzej Panufnik and I performed in a piano duet, playing every day in the cafes.

In January 1945, Poland was ‘liberated’. Although the Polish state was formally reborn, it was not a free country, as it is today, but rather a Russian colony. Nevertheless, all Poles felt a powerful need to rebuild their ruined country, including the totally razed city of Warsaw. My modest contribution to that work was connected with my profession. At that time, there was an acute demand for so-called “functional music”: repertoire for music schools, small ensembles and also for children. I composed quite a lot of it, often using folk tunes as my material. At the same time, I also worked on my larger compositions, and in 1948 I completed the First Symphony.

In 1949, Stalinism began in Poland. The politicians in charge of the country wanted to imitate their counterparts in the Soviet Union and attempted to impose on artists the principles of socialist realism and to eradicate what they called “formalism”. At that time, no one knew what the word “formalism” was supposed to mean and how that “realism” was to be implemented in music. I thought at that time that only my “functional music” would be performed in public, and my more important works would remain on a shelf to the end of my life. Yet that period lasted for a much shorter time in our country than in the Soviet Union and other states of Central-Eastern Europe. Already in 1955, the authorities lost interest in what composers were doing and what kind of music they were writing. I think they understood that music was not sufficiently effective in realising the aims of political propaganda, and they stopped exerting pressure on composers.

For many years after the end of the war, I earned a living by composing functional music: music for theatre and radio plays, and children’s songs for radio programmes. PWM Edition couldn’t do anything to support the performance of Polish music in other countries, especially in the West. Until I was more than fifty years old, I remained an almost entirely unknown composer outside Poland. Publishing works in Western countries was banned for a long time. I came into contact with my present publisher in England in 1966, at the age of fifty-three. Only from that moment on could my music be performed wherever there was a demand. Copyright and royalties allowed me to stop composing functional music, since my works began to “work” for me’.

A son of Warsaw and a citizen of the world

Witold Lutosławski entered the world in Warsaw, spent most of his life in that city and also died there, two weeks after his eight-first birthday. Yet fate allowed him to become a ‘citizen of the world’, which during the period of the ‘cold war’, seriously hindering contacts between East and West, was by no means a straightforward matter. During the 1950s, de-Stalinisation enabled Polish music to open itself up to Europe, whilst artists were among the first to venture beyond the Iron Curtain. As soon as the border was opened a little, Lutosławski went out into the world. Availing himself of the relative freedom to travel enjoyed by the citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland (in countries like the USSR and GDR, such freedom was inconceivable), he became the best ambassador of his own music.

As a composer, a conductor and occasionally also a commentator on his own music, he visited four continents: Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. Particularly prominent on the map of his artistic contacts were France, the UK, Germany and the US.

Lutosławski owed his first contacts with French culture to his maternal grandmother, who taught her grandson French and praised him a great deal for his rapid progress. Soon afterwards, he became captivated by French music: the piano works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel and then the Third Symphony of Albert Roussel, which he heard at the Warsaw Philharmonic. He improved his French at school and for many years most often used French when abroad. He also distinguished that language as a composer, writing three of his four song cycles for voice and orchestra to French verse.

Like many of his contemporaries, on graduating from the conservatory, Witold Lutosławski planned to continue his studies in Paris. His plans were thwarted by the outbreak of war, and the composer only travelled to the French capital in 1946.

He went to France many times after that: initially for concerts of his music performed by others; later, to conduct it himself. In Paris, he was awarded several music prizes, and in 1990 the Légion d’Honneur. Another link to that tradition was his wife, Danuta, née Dygat, from a Polish-French family, who for many years was a French citizen, although she was born in Poland.

Lutosławski was invited to the United Kingdom very often. His music soon found excellent interpreters there, ending up not just in the repertoire of performers specialising in new music, but also on the programmes of events geared towards a wide audience, such as the London Proms. His Western publisher was located in London. The comportment of the English was perfectly suited to Lutosławski’s temperament, and so he felt most at home in England. He had a fluent command of English – a language he had learned from his mother as a child, but which he only mastered as an adult.

In the United States, Lutosławski’s music was first heard on a record released in 1953 on the Vanguard label of New York, in the short-lived series ‘Music of Poland’. That disc included three children’s songs for voice and chamber orchestra, which the composer conducted himself. Thanks to the conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski, who settled in the United States towards the end of the 50s, Lutosławski’s works were soon being played in concert halls. The composer first travelled to the country in 1962, making a journey that in those days was quite extraordinary. First he taught at a music summer school in Tanglewood, then he and his wife set off on a month-long ‘goodwill tour’ sponsored by the Department of State as part of the policy to mollify the cold war relations between East and West. The organisers made it possible for Danuta and Witold Lutosławski to get to know Los Angeles and San Francisco, and also to visit an electronic studio at Urbana University, where Lejaren Hiller was studying the possibilities for employing mathematical machines in composing.

Lutosławski visited the United States seventeen times, and each year from 1983. His position as one of the most outstanding European symphonic composers of the twentieth century was consolidated by American commissions. It was for orchestras in Chicago and Los Angeles that his two late symphonies were written. American universities and foundations awarded him many distinctions and several prestigious prizes, and only the Immigration Office demanded extensive documentation before each journey proving that Mr and Mrs Lutosławski would not pursue any illicit paid work or illegally extend their stay in the US.

The greatest density of symphony orchestras in the world can be found in Germany, and so it is not surprising that Witold Lutosławski appeared most often in concerts there. Over the period 1964–1993, he appeared as a conductor in the two Germanies more than sixty times, in nineteen cities. The interest in modern music in West Germany gave rise to commissions for two works during the mid 60s. In 1993, in recognition of his artistic achievements, he was awarded an order of merit (‘pour le Mérite’).

He also won popularity, albeit anonymously, thanks to the jingle of the political television magazine ZDF-Magazin, which was presented every other Wednesday by Gerhard Löwenthal. Broadcast at peak viewing time, almost six hundred times it summoned viewers to the screen with an excerpt from Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, which was used without the composer’s knowledge and consent. Spice was added to the situation by the fact that the programme was aimed against the states of Eastern Europe and often contained anti-Polish accents. When conducting the Concerto for Orchestra in Germany, Lutosławski apparently experienced quite a surprise when during the Intrada there was quite a commotion in the auditorium. The audience was perfectly familiar with the music and suddenly discovered its source. Lutosławski did not conduct that work in Western Germany until 1990, in Stuttgart, shortly after the unification of the FRG and the GDR. Ten years earlier, it had been performed by the Staatskapelle in East Berlin. Everything suggests, therefore, that East German listeners recognised the jingle of a programme that in the GDR was officially banned.

Lutosławski was a regular visitor to Norway, although rather for personal than professional reasons. He was esteemed there, of course, as a composer and a conductor, evidence to that effect including the three-day festival ‘Lutosławski – dagene’ (Lutosławski Days), held in 1990. In token of their recognition for the output of their Polish colleague, Norwegian composers elected him an honorary member of their union, and in 1991, when the First Stavanger Chamber Music Festival was held, he was invited there as the first ‘festival composer’. Above all, however, he and his wife had close family in that country. Oslo was home to Danuta Lutosławski’s son from her first marriage, who from his childhood had also been brought up by Witold, namely Marcin Bogusławski, with his wife Gabriela and their three daughters.

‘In the past, we stayed with my stepson in a very nicely appointed attic, which was converted into a pleasant, cosy room – Lutosławski said about his sojourns in Norway. – Nonetheless, they were not conditions in which I could work. In light of that, we decided to have our own house in Oslo, simply so that we could spend a couple of months at a time with our loved ones. And there I can work normally. It’s a small house, but comfortable and quiet. I have everything there that I need for composing, and I also have a small grand piano there. Besides that, we have a small house fifty miles from Oslo, where I can also work. […] The house is on water that flows out of the largest Norwegian river and flows back into it again. And so on a branch of that river, as it were. It’s a very lovely place. On the other bank, we have such an idyllic landscape of woodland and fields. Behind us there is a forest perched on rocks, with a high perpendicular rock right behind the house. It’s a very beautiful and diverse landscape. We like it very much.’

Different aspects of family life together were discussed by his daughter-in-law, Gabriela Bogusławska:

‘To begin with, Danuta and Witek used to stay with us. After a couple of years, they concluded that since we were their only family, they would naturally be wanting to keep visiting us and in light of that they had to have their own place, because Witek wasn’t able to work at our house. Then they bought themselves a little house that was quiet and peaceful. Normally, Danusia would often come to us when the girls were coming home from school or nursery, and Witek would sit and work alone. Then I would drive them back and they would sit with the girls, which he liked very much. When the girls were older, Witek liked to go shopping with them, because he was an expert on women’s fashion. And when the girls went shopping with my mother-in-law, afterwards there would be an obligatory fashion parade: they had to dress up and show Witek, and he would comment on what was good, what he liked or disliked. My mother-in-law would never buy anything for herself; Witek always had to be with her and help. He really did have a flair for it. He liked it very much. From time to time, in Oslo, on a special occasion, we would go to a restaurant with the children – the girls like that very much, Danusia and Witek as well. There was just a problem there sometimes: music. Noise was the only thing that bothered my father-in-law. He really did suffer’.


‘The element in which I feel most at home is the symphony orchestra’, declared Witold Lutosławski. In his four symphonies and his instrumental concertos, his dozen or so orchestral works and his songs with orchestra, he forged a soundworld that captivates one with its wealth of timbres and its irresistible force of expression. By coincidence, he entered the world not far from the Warsaw Philharmonic, a place about which he would say: ‘I learned music at the Philharmonic’.

During the 20s and 30s, like many of his peers, he composed in a style resembling impressionism, neoclassicism and the music of Karol Szymanowski. Sometimes, he referred to folklore, since in those decades that is how composers wanted to create a distinctive Polish tone in European music that was dominated by Austrian and German composers.

He made his debut as a symphonist in the spring of 1939, with the striking Variations for Orchestra. Soon, however, he had to abandon his dreams, both of continued studies abroad and of a career as a composer. War broke out. Warsaw fell under German occupation, and the only thing that the 26-year-old musician could do was to earn a living as a pianist, playing in Warsaw cafes. A souvenir of that period in his life are the virtuosic Variations on a theme of Paganini – a work performed today by perhaps all the piano duets in the world. He wrote his first symphony for his own pleasure, with the hope of better times to come.

It seemed that they had arrived when, three years after the war, the symphony was performed and met with an excellent reception. Soon afterwards, however, it was deemed overly dissonant – in other words, anti-socialist. Lutosławski had very negative memories of the turn of the 50s, but it was then that two of his works referring to folklore – the Little Suite and Silesian Triptych – brought him his first serious awards, and above all enabled him to elaborate an original style, one that was also attractive to audiences, since it was still a tonal composition. The post-war period was crowned by the Concerto for Orchestra, which is still Lutosławski’s most frequently played and recorded orchestral work.

From the mid 50s onwards, composers in Poland no longer had to worry about politicians’ expectations and could once more write for a particular audience, which was interested in modern art like never before or afterwards. In the new situation, Lutosławski quickly presented the emotionally suggestive, but clearly departing from tradition, Musique funèbre. In Poland, as in many other countries, there was a craze for anything new at that time, and creative artists were expected to come up with revolutionary ideas. Lutosławski, composing to commission for new music festivals and concert series, met those expectations quite splendidly.

At the Venice Biennale in 1961, he surprised audiences with the work Jeux vénitiens. There, he employed a new technique that would long remain so very characteristic of his style that it was treated as Lutosławski’s calling card. That technique became widely familiar under the name ‘controlled’ or ‘limited aleatory technique’, and for that reason its creator – the personification of precision – is still associated by many with John Cage and his apology of chance in music. In actual fact, there is very little chance in Lutosławski’s aleatory music, since the musicians play notes of precisely notated pitch, only in a free rhythm. That enables the ensemble to produce rhythms that are so complex that they would be essentially unplayable with the use of traditional notation. During a concert, the execution of such episodes looks different to music traditionally notated, since the musicians cease to play to the dictates of the conductor’s gestures. He shows only the moment at which those ‘almost free’ passages are to begin and end. The minimal differences between performances result from the fact that individual artists perform their parts slightly differently each time, but that does not alter the sound of the music.

In Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux, composed in 1963 for the Zagreb Biennale, the innovation was the choir’s independence of the orchestra, performing at the same time. That necessitated the presence of two conductors, one leading the choir and the other conducting the orchestra. What is more, in the middle movement of the work, the choir shouts and speaks, rather than singing. Also written on an avant-garde wave were the String Quartet, for a cycle of new music concerts organised by a radio station in Stockholm, and the Second Symphony, for a similar series organised by a radio station in Hamburg.

In joining the innovators, the fifty-year-old Lutosławski went in a different direction to composers of the ‘Polish school’ a generation younger, and instead of putting together – as did Krzysztof Penderecki, for one – aural frescos from clusters and glissandos, he attempted to reinstate, in his own fashion, harmony, creating it from twelve-note chords built of various intervals. It is precisely such twelve-note chords, together with the abundance of sonorities creating music that is airy, swift and shimmering with delicate hues, that lend his works such a distinctive character.

Lutosławski also had his own notions regarding the form of a musical work. He considered late Romantic symphonic music and opera to be overloaded with emotions and exalted climaxes, and so the dramatic structure of many of his works – such as the Livre pour orchestra, exemplary in this respect – unfolds completely differently. It is based on a contrast of episodes perceived as rather trivial with others more weighty. As a composition proceeds, the weightier episodes become more important, leading towards a single, distinctive culmination. In describing this characteristic form, the composer often had recourse to a culinary comparison, explaining that the opening movements, in which music of ‘lesser significance’ was to the fore, acted as ‘hors d’oeuvres’, designed to whet the listener’s appetite for the ‘main course’. And that could be only one.