HomePractical AdviceOrchestralA centenary guide to the music of Lutosławski: 6 key works

A centenary guide to the music of Lutosławski: 6 key works

This year marks the centenary of Witold Lutosławski.

One the most important composers of the twentieth century, Lutosławski gained widespread international recognition in the 50s and 60s for his fresh, tonal and highly individual style after being freed from the censorship of the early Cold War following Stalin’s death.
Born in Warsaw, Poland on January 25, 1931, Lutosławski was renowned for both his drive and creativity, retaining his energy right to the end of his life. He completed one of his greatest works, his Symphony No 4, just shortly two years before his death in 1994. Under the pressures of the Soviet state, awareness of his early work was limited, making the Polish composer’s full emergence into the sphere of the Western Art traditions an exciting and surprising development for twentieth century music.
The individuality of his mature style, based upon a unique and personal blend of aleatoric techniques, colourful and dynamic orchestral textures and increasingly a lyricism can be found in a range of compositions. To celebrate 100 years of Lutoslawski, Musicroom have collaborated with Music Sales Classical to highlight the composer’s finest, most influential and most important pieces, including the Paganini Variations, dance preludes, Subito, Partita and notable symphonies and concertos for this special centenary page.
Below are six of his key works described and explored by Michelle Clare. You can also find a full range of his music for violin, choir, piano, orchestra and other arrangements over at Musicroom.com.

Concerto for Orchestra

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Concerto for Orchestra was composed as a request from Witold Rowicki for the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, a new-born ensemble in 1950. This gave Lutoslawksi the perfect opportunity to show the orchestra’s abilities whilst demonstrating an even more ambitious approach of handling folkloristic styles. The jovial Intrada section interweaves folk melodies true to his home country. This gives in to the delicate nature of the Capriccio notturno e Arioso, signalled by playful woodwinds. Not straying from his approach concerning length and structure, the final movement is a vast one. Passacaglia Toccata e Corale summarises and shapes together all previous material used to produce a stimulating end to this significant piece of contemporary music.

Musique Funèbre

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Written in memory of Béla Bartók, this work for strings gained Lutoslawski international status following a Stalinist-Regime ban on his first symphony.  His persistence to continue composing delivered a piece which Lutoslawski believed marked the start of an exciting phase of his career. It is formed of four joining sections based in a single movement which delves into the composer’s experimentation with the twelve tones. The Prologue exudes canons, tritones and minor seconds creating intensity for the aggressive nature of Metamorphosis. A climax is reached in Apogeum ready for the canons to make a re-appearance in Epilogue. This arch form produces an emotional threnody making subtle references to Bartók’s work.

String Quartet

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This work marked Lutoslawski’s time to develop and increase his use of what he called ‘controlled aleatorism,’ where interpretation plays an important part. Having wanted to improve on this technique used previously in Jeux Venitiens, Quartet explores the aspect of chance to produce the rhythmic and expressive qualities, defining the piece itself. It is structured in two movements with an introduction that ends in riveting suspense. The bursting introduction of the second movement works perfectly against the end of the first. This clever piece of writing seeks to emphasise the dramatic and frantic nature of the piece before it finally closes with a much calmer approach.

Cello Concerto

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Lutoslawski’s continuous four-movement Cello Concerto, commissioned by Royal Philharmonic Society, was dedicated to and written for Mstislav Rostropovich. It does not adopt the conventional concerto form having only sections to be conducted or more interestingly ‘ad libitum.’ The cello boldly begins the concerto alone, followed by an explosive stab in the trumpets, firing up the interesting banter between soloist and orchestra throughout this piece. The relationship between the two increases with intensity as they battle for dominance climaxing to heavy brass and percussion. The cello part eventually appears on top form and establishes its right as a soloist by re visiting the opening during the coda.

Livre pour orchestre

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Written for the Hagen Orchestra of Westphalia and dedicated to conductor Bertold Lehmann, Livre pour orchestre is powerfully formed. It boats of short interludes between ‘chapters’ with their prime purpose being to give the audience a rest, which could cunningly question why Lutoslawski feels the need to do this. His adept writing for orchestra in particular turbulent whirlwinds of sounds, are expressed tirelessly throughout this work. A remarkable contrast to these textures are portrayed through a lyrical coda of flutes and strings creating a feeling that the piece has changed its course, which at this point it shrewdly ends.

Symphony No.3

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Symphony No.3, commissioned by Chicago Symphony Orchestra, exhibits thirty minutes of sheer unique 20th century music. The ever contrasting phrases within this through-movement symphony never cease to surprise with its flurry of frenzied woodwinds and strings and bold brass statements. Sudden dream-like phrases at the end of the vivo section demonstrate Lutoslawski’s ability to create an excellent sound journey displaying the orchestra’s varying sounds. The complete work ends with repeated Es punched out by the whole orchestra that appears by audacious brass in the introduction. The cleverness of such writing implies that this symphony has finally reached its conclusion.

What are your favourite pieces by Lutoslawski?

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