Twenty Polish Christmas Carols for soprano and piano
adaptation of 20 carols is markedly different from most other approaches to
this type of repertoire. The composer prepared the collection thinking about
performances by professional musicians, not by amateurs involved in
music-making during Christmas season. This can be seen in demands posed to
singer and pianist, especially Lutosławski’s original sonic setting of the
melodies, which has little in common with the “parish” style of typical
arrangements. In any case, the composer used variants of carols recorded by
Oskar Kolberg and Michał Marcin Mioduszewski, variants sometimes very different
from versions usually sung in homes and churches. When working with this
material, he applied a method he had tested in the Folk Melodies cycle:
a simple theme accompanied by a more complex one, a “conflicting”
accompaniment, as it were.
Lutosławski’s versions may jar listeners less familiar with contemporary music. This is not a collection of simple harmonisations, but arrangements on a par with Szymanowski’s Kurpie Songs op. 58 or Andrzej Panufnik’s 5 Folk Songs. Listeners used to the polonaise rhythm of the carol Bóg się rodzi (God Is Being Born)could certainly be disappointed on hearing Lutosławski’s lyrical melody and pastel harmonies. But if they hope for artistic thrills, they will find them listening to the sixth piece in the cycle, W żłobie leży (Infant Holy, Infant Lowly), for example. The moving mood in this lullaby is achieved thanks to an intricate three-layer structure: a simple melody of the carol in the highest register, below it the contrasting, persistently meandering melody of the accompaniment and, at the bottom of the scale, a constantly repeated single note. The other carols match this part of the cycle in their power of expression and artistry.
After 40 years the composer returned to the Twenty Carols following a request of his publisher in the U.K., writing a version for solo soprano, female choir and orchestra.