Biography

Witold Lutosławski

At the beginning of the 20th century, Western classical music was in a specific situation. The method of composition – universally followed for nearly 300 years and cultivated by the greatest masters of the past – had run its course. A dilemma emerged: to create music in accordance with the old convention, at the risk of being imitative of one’s predecessors, or to compose in a new way, in accordance with rules yet to be invented? Very quickly it turned out that choosing the latter, unknown path required composers to solve three problems again: of harmony, melody and the form of a musical work.


An answer to the above questions was a spiritual task of no ordinary measure. Its difficulty can be seen to some extent in the reaction of listeners, who accepted only a small part of the new music, turning instead to the past or to popular music. Only three composers achieved the indisputable status of new masters in the minds of the public: Béla Bartók (1881–1945), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Alban Berg (1885–1935). Each found a different solution to that triple task. However, the new conventions they created did not receive widespread adherence – it was obvious that the crisis in music was far from being resolved and that composers had to seek excellence in each new work more strenuously than before. This was the situation of music, when Witold Lutosławski was born in Warsaw on 25 January 1913.

His family was of the landed gentry, living near Łomża, a town outside of Warsaw. The future composer’s parents – Józef Lutosławski, an agronomist, and Maria née Olszewska, a physician – were musically talented. Both were amateur pianists, with Józef reputed to have reached the level of a virtuoso player.


During the First World War the family moved to Moscow, where Józef and his brother Marian were active in the Polish independence movement. For this activity, Feliks Dzierżyński, the Pole who headed Soviet security, ordered them imprisoned then executed in 1918. After returning to Poland, Maria Lutosławska, Witold and his two elder brothers left the ruined family estate in Drozdowo on the Narew River and moved to Warsaw.

There Witold received a standard general education and took music lessons. He composed his first pieces around 1922 and in 1928 he began composition lessons with Witold Maliszewski, a now-forgotten conservative artist and an excellent teacher. Lutosławski began to study mathematics at the University of Warsaw in 1931, which he abandoned in favour of the conservatory, where he studied composition with Maliszewski and piano with Jerzy Lefeld. He left the conservatory in 1937 regarded as its most outstanding graduate since Chopin. A year later he completed his Symphonic Variations, and considered its performance in spring 1939 to be his official debut.

Barely a few months later, the composer was called up and took part in the battle against German invasion. After Poland’s defeat, he returned tooccupied Warsaw and earned his living as a pianist, playing in a duet with his friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik. With their performances in mind, he wrote his Variations on a Theme by Paganini, a work still well known and often played today.


During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Lutosławski remained outside the capital. He returned to the ruined city in 1945, finding only ashes of his pre-war scores (the pieces that survived were both cycles of variations and his graduate piece, Lacrimosa, which the author had kept with him). A year later Lutosławski married Maria Danuta Dygat (1911–1994), who faithfully accompanied her husband in his life and work until his death. The composer finished his Symphony No. 1, in 1947, summing up his previous creative experiences.

The following years produced smaller compositions inspired by folklore and by Bartók’s music. Many of them were functional; Lutosławski wrote them, forced by his financial situation. This and the earlier period in the composer’s oeuvre were crowned by the monumental Concerto for Orchestra (1954), the first of his indisputable masterpieces and for a long time the most refined work of Polish orchestral music – and today a hit of world symphonic music.

In the first period of his work, Lutosławski had not been ready yet to resolve the three problems of new music on his own, so he settled on existing solutions. His search for his own solutions dates to 1949 and the Overture for Strings. His artistic progress was made more difficult by the political situation and by socialist-realism doctrines imposed by the authorities. They demanded art for the masses, art using the simplest conventions from the 19th century; the pursuit of new music bordered on treason.

Lutosławski, therefore, experimented virtually in secret and without hope of the results being performed during his lifetime. Yet he did manage to solve the “problem of harmony” at the time and, as a result, created another masterpiece, the Funeral Music for string orchestra (dedicated “à la mémoire de Béla Bartók”).

To the crucial question of “which notes to include in a given section of the work and which are to be eliminated”, Lutosławski replied playfully: “I’ll include them all – and simultaneously at that”. Each of the 12 possible pitches was to appear surrounded by the remaining 11. These structures, the so-called 12-note chords, were formed in a specific way and regulated relations between notes. The same series of 12pitches could be used to form many combinations with different sound auras and expressive power.


Funeral Music (1954–1958) marked the first breakthrough in Lutosławski’s oeuvre, and opened the door for him to international fame. Around that time, the composer began to accept attractive commissions from abroad and, having thus secured financial stability, could wholly devote himself to new music.

Harmony based on 12-note series was to some extent an answer to the “problem of form”. These chords – differing in terms of their colour and expression – made it possible to shape the dramaturgy of a piece, rich in varied “expressive characters”. Lutosławski still needed means that would enable him to differentiate the musical content in terms of its importance – to create fragments that were “introductions” and “destinations”, that were “denser” and “thinner”, more and less “weighty”, following the example of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He found that additional solution in the early 1960s.

It was then that he came up with a new idea for shaping ensemble playing. In designated sections musicians were to perform their parts with some degree of freedom (notes could last shorter or longer than written), as if they were playing themselves without paying attention to other musicians in the ensemble. Thus Lutosławski was able to obtain a previously unknown sound: simultaneously static, dense and flickering. To some extent it depended on chance, on how each part would overlap with the others, but the choice of the 12-note chord guaranteed that the colour of music would be preserved. The composer referred to the new procedure as “controlled aleatory technique” or “ad libitum technique”.

The sound of musical fragments based on this procedure was perfectly suited to, for example, shaping “unimportant” moments. Sections with more important content were performed traditionally – with all musicians sharing the same, determined pulse. The opposition between introductory and main movements enriched Lutosławski’s music, becoming one of its most recognisable elements.

The new solutions related to form and harmony enabled the composer to subsequently write a number of important works: String Quartet (1964), Symphony No. 2 (1967), Livre pour orchestre (1968), Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1970), Les espaces du sommeil for baritone and orchestra to words by Robert Desnos (1975) and the orchestral Mi-parti (1976). In the 1960s Lutosławski’s music displayed vivid and sharp sounds, becoming slightly similar to the avant-garde at the time. However, from 1970 on the colour of his works began to soften gradually. Throughout that period, there was still to be found a solution to the “problem of melody”.


Distinctive melodic lines appeared already in the Concerto for Orchestra and Les espaces du sommeil. However, usually massive 12-note series would slightly overwhelm the melody and stifle its expressive power. The situation changed in 1979, when the composer came up with an idea for thinning down the harmony to create more transparent structures, the so-called “thin textures”. It was about a simple rule that – in Lutosławski’s own words – made it possible for him “not to think about every single note but simply to write music”. The technical side of this solution still remains a mystery, despite certain partial explanations given by scholars. What can easily be heard, however, is its result: expressive melody and sophisticated polyphony supported by an understated accompaniment.

Synthesis-like works began to emerge, summing up Lutosławski’s compositional achievements: Chain 2. Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra (1985), Piano Concerto (1987), the Chantefleurs et Chantefables song cycle (1990), as well as Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4 (1983 and 1992, respectively). Lutosławski’s international stature was now confirmed, which can be seen in the prestigious awards he received, for example his honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge and the “musical Nobel Prize”, the Polar Music Prize.


Lyrical melodies and gentle, consonant harmonies bring elements of romantic expression to the composer’s last works. This type of expression would have probably dominated the Violin Concerto, begun in 1993. However, the work on this composition was interrupted by its author’s sudden illness. Lutosławski died in Warsaw on 7 February 1994.

His penultimate symphony, his third, combined in an exceptionally precise manner the most important elements of the composer’s individual style: 12-note harmony, controlled aleatoricism, opposition between “important” and “unimportant” ideas, and “thin textures”. It contains answers to the three overriding problems associated with harmony, melody and form. The dramatic “plot” of the symphony – painstaking construction of music out of dispersed elements – is an excellent parallel to the struggles to which Lutosławski devoted his creative life.

For Lutosławski, the situation of the art of composition in the early 20th century was a challenge that he met like his great predecessors Stravinsky, Bartók and Berg, as well as his great contemporaries Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), György Ligeti (1923–2006), György Kurtág (b. 1926) and Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1928). Today his music calls on composers of the future to compete with it and encourages us – its present and future listeners – to master the art of wisely listening to it.

Marcin Krajewski