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Concerto for Orchestra

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Witold Lutoslawski
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Krzysztof Urbanski, conductor / Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays MacMillan & Saint-Saëns Jun. 20 - 22, 2013
© Peter Laki

Concerto for Orchestra
WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI
Born January 25, 1913 in Warsaw, Poland
Died February 8, 1994. in Warsaw, Poland

The Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe, which purported to rule in the name of the people, held up folk music as the chief model and source of inspiration that all composers were expected to rely on. Witold Lutoslawski, living in Poland, could not escape those directives, and wrote his share of folk-music arrangements during those years. Yet for him, this was not exclusively a political expediency: folk music had also been at the root of the music of Béla Bartók (1881–1945), who had first begun to incorporate folk music in his style in the early 1900s. Bartók never lived under a Communist regime (excepting the 133 days of the Budapest Commune in 1919). His reasons to turn to folk music were entirely artistic: he managed to combine folk-music elements with his personal brand of modernism, and it was this synthesis that became extremely important to Lutoslawski.

Lutoslawski’s First Symphony, completed in 1947, was denounced as “formalist” after its 1948 premiere. This was an extremely serious charge in those days, even though its meaning was somewhat elusive. (The same year, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were similarly branded in the Soviet Union.) By the time Lutoslawski finished his next major orchestral work, Concerto for Orchestra, times had changed: Stalin had died and the political “thaw” had begun. In his monograph on Lutoslawski, composer Steven Stucky notes: “If the symphony was marked by youthful extravagance, the concerto... reveals an artist in complete control of his powers.” The Concerto was enthusiastically received by critics and audiences alike; it immediately established Lutoslawski as the foremost Polish composer of his time.

The title Concerto for Orchestra pays tribute to Bartók’s masterpiece of the same name (1943), although other composers had written orchestral concertos, both before and after Bartók. Both the Bartók and the Lutoslawski concertos works use strongly modified folk elements in a compositional framework that is “modern” and “classical” at the same time. Unlike Bartók, who did not use any actual folksongs in his Concerto (only original themes modeled on folk sources and isolated melodic and rhythmic fragments derived from folk music), many of Lutoslawski’s themes can be traced to a printed collection of Polish songs. The very first melody, Stucky says, is transformed “into a vigorous statement capable of supporting symphonic argument.” Another analyst, Charles Bodman Rae, observes: “Lutoslawski…places [the folksong] above the constant pulsation of a low F-sharp pedal and makes it grow from within, stretching the second and third phrases by making sequential insertions.” The result is an energetic first movement shaped in a symmetrical way somewhat reminiscent of Bartók’s arch forms. After an alternation of a singing theme (first in the horns) and a more jagged melodic idea, the original folksong returns. Yet it does so with a difference: it is now played softly instead of forte, and the F-sharp pedal, instead of being pounded by the timpani, appears in the high register of the celesta.

The second movement, a scherzo-like Capriccio notturno, is built on the contrast between a fast-moving, “murmuring” figure for muted strings and a powerful fanfare melody which, called Arioso, serves as the trio section. As in the first movement, the orchestration changes in the recapitulation: instead of the high-pitched instruments (violins, celesta, flute, piccolo), the low-pitched now dominate (lower strings, bass clarinet, tuba, timpani). The movement ends with a fascinating dialog between the double basses and the percussion.

The complex finale, which is longer than the first two movements combined, has a passacaglia (a set of variations over a bass) as its first section, followed by a virtuosic toccata incorporating a chorale and also including a recall of the passacaglia theme. Lutoslawski’s passacaglia theme appears in stages: the first time we hear almost nothing but notes falling on the downbeat; only later are the rest of the notes filled in. Over the course of twelve variations, the music gradually grows in intensity. One of the variations involves extensive “flutter tonguing” in the woodwinds and brass, and fast runs in which each woodwind instrument has its own part. This is a texture anticipating some of Lutoslawski’s mature works, although the strings keep the music grounded in tradition by holding on to the passacaglia theme (the “ground”). The set of variations reaches a climax, after which the music quiets down, with the violins remaining alone playing the theme in their highest register before everything stops.

A new section, the Toccata, now begins, with a powerful rhythmic ostinato (unchanging pattern) whose melodic aspect is connected to the previous passacaglia. A new development ensues and a new climax is reached, when we suddenly hear a gentle woodwind chorale with harp accompaniment. It is a complete change of mood, and the rest of the movement is spent exploiting the contrast between the toccata and the chorale. In the middle of it all, the trombones proclaim the chorale theme in full force, before a fast and brilliant coda brings the work to its close.

Within a few short years, Lutoslawski was to move light-years beyond the folk inspired classicism of the Concerto for Orchestra. In an interview given in 1973, he admitted: “I do not like this work of mine very much”—though he immediately added: “but apparently it has preserved some freshness,” acknowledging the work as “the only serious piece among the folk-inspired works.” As such, the Concerto, which quickly entered the standard symphonic repertoire, represented the acme of Lutoslawski’s first creative period, and brought him to the threshold of a new era in which he took his place as one of the most prominent figures of the international avant-garde.