Symphony No. 3
Lutosławski worked on Symphony
No. 3 with great difficulty, convinced that it would sum up his creative
achievements. He began the composition in 1972 and it took him 11 years to
The work does indeed combine the main ideas of his oeuvre: harmony based on 12-note series, controlled aleatory technique, opposition between the introductory and the main part, and the strategy of surprising the listener. There are also ideas characteristic of successive stages in the development of Lutosławski’s musical language: alongside aggressive, dense sound blocks from the 1960s we have expressive melody and distinctive multi-plane structure, typical of the composer’s later works. We cannot help but get the impression that all elements we know from elsewhere are presented here in a purified, more subtle form, as it were. Their variety makes the dramaturgy of the symphony more complicated, and although it does not seem to be too complex, it is worth listening to the work with a short “summary” of it at hand.
The composition is divided into three movements performed without intervals. The first of these is a casual introduction, the task of which is to build up expectation for more vivid music. This is brought by a lively, dramatic second movement and a lyrical finale. Each of the three movements breaks up into varied sections. The coherence of the work and the clarity of its “plot” are strengthened by repetitions of two distinctive ideas: a “signal” and a refrain. The former consists of repetitions of a single E note and its instrumentation is dominated by the brass (Lutosławski had introduced a similar “accent” in the String Quartet). The refrain – performed every time together by oboes, clarinets or bassoons – is a series of short melodies with capricious outlines, similar to that in the Symphony No. 2.
Symphony No. 3 opens with a robust entry of the signal. It is followed by two sound blocks – the first is more lively and “brighter”, in flute, oboe and horn parts, the second is “darker” and more static, in clarinets, bassoons, harp and piano. The entire initial section is soon repeated in a shortened form. Only then does the appearance of a repeated E note initiate the first movement proper.
Now the musicians play three episodes separated by the refrain and the signal. The first of these, the fastest is a lively dialogue between sections of the orchestra, emphasising the sound of woodwinds, strings and piano. The middle episode – moderately fast – is filled with a cor anglais melody presented against a background of chords played by four horns, piano and harp; this group is then joined by flute, oboe, bassoons, clarinets and tuba, later also by the strings. A measured pizzicato rhythm in strings and harp, long notes played by flutes, horns and bassoons, and “sliding” notes in the strings – these are all characteristics of the third, slowest episode. Broken phrases played by flutes, clarinets, violins and percussion lead to a short, lyrical interlude; only after it has been played do we hear the refrain and a longer version of the signal, which opens the main movement.
Its action develops in a more dynamic manner. Immediately we hear two main ideas of the movement: “angular” phrases of violas and violins as well as a cantilena played by string sextet (two violins, two violas, cello and double bass), which is continued by the oboe. Both themes are separated and summed up by another return of the signal. A succession of short, quickly changing episodes suggests that the climax is approaching. Indeed, a massive sound block in the winds sounds almost “climactically”, but soon “dissolves” in lively figures of the strings playing the next section. Its sophisticated sound involves gradual acceleration of movement with simultaneous transition from pizzicato to bowing. At the height of this excitement the rest of the ensemble joins in. Both main ideas of the movement – “angular” phrases and lyrical cantilena – return, separated by a longer link. The melody previously played by the oboe captures the parts played by other instruments, and a triumphal tutti constitutes the climax of the work. However, the huge pyramid of sounds soon collapses accompanied by piercing wails of trumpets and trombones.
The leading role in the epilogue is played by the strings. Their task is to “kick around” the events that have just taken place. The din of the strings soon calms down, turning into a long lyrical melody wrapped by selected “subsections” of the orchestra in a discreet counterpoint. The melody gives in to another wave of string “chatter”, which in turn is interrupted by a “cry” of the brass. The lyrical melody returns in the horn part and is slowly taken up by other instruments. This majestic singing grows, but its final apotheosis does not seem to be a triumph. The symphony ends with lively, almost joyful playing of the orchestra with the percussion being exceptionally active, then the last, powerful return of the signal.
The special time during which the work was composed, culminating with the imposition of martial law in Poland, and its passionate expression prompted many listeners to look for non-musical content in the Symphony No. 3. Some even managed to find in the score an encrypted date of 13.12.81 (the introduction of martial law in Poland) and the word “Solidarity” – which was not very reasonable. The composer tried to dismiss such speculations, but never denied that the circumstances in which the work was written may have indirectly influenced its shape. The musical content of the work – interventions, returns, painstaking and unsuccessful build-up to a climax, unification of divided voices into one melody – is very suggestive, “theatrical”, and its meaning in its universality must go far beyond any date, even that of December 1981.
The nature of this kind of content was well described by Karol Berger, an eminent Polish-American musicologist: “In a work of art, formal logic and expressive significance are inseparable. [...] temporal form [of music] can be expressive of a general sense of ‘how things hang together’, how life is likely to turn out. An individual biography or a collective history would then serve as no more than [...] the kind of stories this music might illustrate. [...] musical narrative [...] [is] an utterance in which individuals or nations may choose to read the general shape of their destiny”.