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Musique funébre

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Witold Lutoslawski
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hans Graf, conductor / Yuja Wang, piano, plays Chopin Dec. 6 - 8, 2012
© Peter Laki

Funeral Music

by Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994)

Witold Lutoslawski was born in Warsaw on January 25, 1913, and died there on February 7, 1994.  He wrote Muzyka zalobna ("Funeral Music") for string orchestra between 1954 and 1958 and dedicated it in memory of Béla Bartók.  The first performance took place on March 26, 1958, in Katowice, Poland, with the Polish Radio and Television Orchestra conducted by Jan Krenz.

This work runs about 15 minutes in performance. Lutoslawski scored it for violins (I-IV), violas (I-II), cellos (I-II) and basses (I-II).

 Witold Lutoslawski wrote his Funeral Music at a time when momentous political and cultural changes were taking place in his native Poland.  After Stalin's death in 1953, all the satellite countries of the Soviet Union began to see a "thaw," that is, a gradual release of the extreme repression that had hampered the countries' development for years.

During the Stalinist era, Lutoslawski had been largely marginalized after his First Symphony (1948) had earned him the label "cosmopolitan"-a very derogatory term in the vocabulary of those days.  For the next several years, Lutoslawski supported himself and his family writing children's songs and folk music arrangements, mainly for Polish radio.  (He steadfastly refused to write anything to glorify the regime, as many other composers were doing.)  All the while, he was working on his Concerto for Orchestra; the great success of that work at the 1954 premiere finally established Lutoslawski as Poland's leading composer.

Funeral Music was Lutoslawski's next major work, begun shortly after the completion of the Concerto and finished four years later.  The dedication to the memory of Béla Bartók is of special significance:  the music of the Hungarian composer, who had died in New York in 1945, had also come under attack during the Stalinist years for being "cosmopolitan" and only his simplest, folk-music-based works were accepted.  As a result of the "thaw," the tenth anniversary of Bartók's death in 1955 became the occasion for his re-evaluation in Hungary and elsewhere in the Communist bloc.  Originally commissioned for that anniversary, Funeral Music was Lutoslawski's way of expressing his deep spiritual connection with Bartók's music.

That connection has a lot to do with both composers' striving for a synthesis between uncompromising innovations on one hand and a classical ideal of order and perfection on the other.  But while Lutoslawski had written his share of folk music arrangements in his early years (as mentioned above), integrating folklore into his mature style was not an option for him as it had been for Bartók a generation earlier. 

It was another aspect of Bartók's music that was on Lutoslawski's mind during the composition of Funeral Music, and one piece (more precisely, one movement) in particular:  the opening fugue of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.  Like that fugue, Funeral Music is scored for divided strings and is shaped in the form of an arch, rising from a simple theme to a climax and returning to the same simple theme at the end.  More specifically, the first two sections of Funeral Music, called "Prologue" and "Métamorphoses," respectively, adopt specific techniques from Bartók's movement.  In the fugue-like first section, the half-step and the tritone (augmented fourth) are important intervals, and the texture expands and then contracts just like in the Bartók.  In the second section, where the "metamorphoses" are essentially variations on a theme previously introduced, each individual "metamorphosis" starts on a pitch a fifth below the preceding one-again a procedure very similar to Bartók's.

Despite these similarities, Lutoslawski's work doesn't sound in the least like Bartók, and not all of its features derive from the Hungarian's music.  The "Prologue" is based on a theme in which all twelve notes of the octave are used, and this theme is also presented in inverted form (all ascending intervals replaced by descending ones of equal size and vice versa).  These are essentially twelve-tone techniques, yet Lutoslawski was not thinking along the same atonal lines as Schoenberg had been when he first devised the twelve-tone method.  Once again, he followed Bartók, who had also used all twelve tones and extensive inversions in Music for Strings, yet never abandoned a clear sense of tonality.  At the beginning of Funeral Music, the  theme encompasses all twelve tones, yet the two solo cellos always converge on perfect fifths or octaves, the very cornerstones of tonality.  Lutoslawski relied a great deal on fifths and octaves but avoided thirds; as he himself explained, he wanted to create a "harmony without thirds."  This in turn enabled him to produce a texture of great transparency and a certain austerity reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

In fact, the composer combined his twelve-tone music with a principle from medieval music, namely the "talea/color" principle.  The 14th century knew a type of motet (the so-called "isorhythmic" motet) with simultaneous cycles of rhythmic values ("talea") and pitches ("color"); the two sets of cycles being of unequal length, the rhythmic value of a given pitch could be different in each cycle.

This strict technique, in conjunction with twelve-tone elements and the strict counterpoint, accounts for the feeling of order one has when listening to the "Prologue."  At the end of the movement, the complexities disappear, however, and the texture is reduced to a single interval, the tritone.  The next section, "Métamorphoses," then builds up the musical material again:  the fugue theme is taken up but its individual notes are separated by a constantly growing number of extraneous tones as the original theme is gradually "invaded" by other materials.  The music becomes ever faster and more agitated in this section, which is the longest of the four.  The climax is reached in the third section, called "Apogée" (or "high point").  The intense contrapuntal activity and the multiplicity of simultaneous events are here replaced by a unified gesture of massive proportions: all instruments participate in a single chord, consisting of all twelve tones played at the same time (in German, this chord is called the Mutterakkord, or "the mother of all chords").  The rhythm of this chord, repeated a number of times, changes from slower to faster and then back to slower.  During the process of slowing down, the pitches begin to change.  The number of simultaneous pitches is gradually reduced until the music stops on a single minor-second interval that resolves to unison at the beginning of the "Epilogue."  This section recapitulates the fugue theme from the "Prologue," and the work ends with soft cello solos just as it began.

The style of Funeral Music did not find continuation in Lutoslawski's subsequent works:  starting with Venetian Games (1961), the composer set out in entirely new directions.  Yet the importance of Funeral Music cannot be overestimated: it was a liberating work in which Lutoslawski put the "dark years" behind him for good.  After its resounding success in the United States and Western Europe, the composer's international reputation was made; from now on, the appearance of every new Lutoslawski work was greeted as a major event throughout the musical world.