‘He has died with much music still in him…’


While sorting out some files recently, I came across a single page from the Arts section of The Sunday Telegraph, dated 13 February, 1994. There were reviews of exhibitions by two artists: Claude, and John Lessore, a review of Marina Warner’s Reith lectures heard on radio, and a review of  ‘Curse of the Werewolf”, and other plays, in the Theatre section.

Lutoslawski meets BoulangerThe Music section, however, written by Michael Kennedy, began thus: ‘It has been a sad week for the world of music. It has lost … two fine conductors in Norman Del Mar and Rudolf Schwartz, and a great composer in Witold Lutoslawski.’ And here we are in 2013, nearly 20 years later, commemorating the centenary of Lutoslawski’s birth.

Below, Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire perform Lutoslawski’s Variation on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos.

Michael Kennedy’s tribute to Lutoslawski is so well written, and so comprehensive, that it bears re-reading. So here is it…

‘When his Fourth, and alas now last, Symphony had its first London performance last summer, I wrote here that it was an outstanding example of the present-day survival of the art and craft of composition. That was true of all his music – even the look of his scores betokened a fastidious care for the quality, balancing and placing of each note. 

Although he had more than enough excuse for his music to be filled with an emotional subtext – a father executed by the Russians, a brother who died in the Gulag Archipelago – there is nothing of nuclear-age angst in it, not any recourse to bogus religiosity. He just wrote music, developing his highly individual style from the impressionistic yet crystal-clear tradition of Debussy, Ravel and Bartok.

I do not mean to suggest that his music lacks emotion, far from it, but it is an emotion generated entirely from thematic and harmonic sources and a dramatic sense of structure. It has a rigorous inner discipline typical of the man who, while composing works which satisfied (to some extent) the ”formalistic” demands of Communism after his First Symphony was banned, secretly developed his own system of 12-note harmonic chords, and composed the Funeral Music and Second Symphony ready for a day when a less rigid officialdom controlled Poland’s art.

Nor should it be thought that the earlier works are dross, composed mainly to placate the bureaucrats. The Concerto for Orchestra of 1950-54, based on folk song, is a magnificent piece which has kept its place in the repertory  alongside important later scores such as Livre, Mi-Parti, the concertos and the Symphonies Nos 3 and 4.

His principal concession to avant-garde tendencies was his use, as in Venetian Games (1961), of ”chance” or aleatoric passages where performers are instructed to improvise. But in Lutoslawski’s scores these episodes are never a free-for-all. They are strictly controlled, like everything else.

In recent works, such as the Piano Concerto, the adorable song-cycle, Chantefables et Chantefleurs (1990) and the last symphony, the melodic element is more obvious, leading some commentators to detect a more lyrical, softer approach. But the lyricism was always there. The last period was merely an intensification of an integral aspect of his style.

Lutoslawski as a conductorHe has died with much music still in him, but what he has left will, I believe, be increasingly cherished.’

Hear, hear.

Following this blog’s 2013 Venetian theme, for further reading re Lutoslawski’s Venetian Games, premiered at La Fenice, click here for excellent notes by Michael O’Brien describing the background, etc –

‘The title Venetian Games pays homage to both Venice, the city of its premiere, and to the freedom of play and interpretation which occurs during performance. Many details of sound realization are left to chance. However, unlike John Cage’s indeterminate works, open form is not a predominant feature in Venetian Games. Instead, a more formal organization prevails. For a successful realization of the work, all elements of chance must yield to Lutosławski’s structural framework …’

… and Adrian Thomas’ article here which features excerpts from the score.

And below is a recording –



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