Lutosławski’s compositions to works written for children constitute an important part of his oeuvre. Some of them were composed for the youngest performers and listeners (“children’s songs”), others were addressed to both young listeners and professional performers (“songs for children”), and there were also some written by Lutosławski for adult musicians and adult music lovers. That last group includes two cycles, very charming and, at the same time, very important in the composer’s entire oeuvre: Five Songs to words by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna and Chantefleurs et Chantefables. Thus, songs for children is a term that should be applied to compositions from the two earlier groups, bearing in mind the distinction, consistently made by the composer, between “children’s songs” and “songs for children”.
Songs for children (as understood here) were composed by Lutosławski to lyrics by various authors, including Julian Tuwim, Teofil Lenartowicz and Lucyna Krzemieniecka; the composer also used folk lyrics. These songs make up 11 cycles (49 songs in total), written over a period of 12 years (1947–1959). The scores indicate that the songs should be performed by voice or unison choir and piano or orchestra, with works frequently having both versions – for piano and for orchestra. An exceptional instrumentation can be found in a cycle of 8 songs entitled Strawchain, written for soprano or mezzo-soprano and wind quintet (flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon).
Most songs have a simple, verse-based form (each stanza is accompanied by the same music) with some of them having a refrain. A more sophisticated form can be found in the finale of the Strawchain cycle, a series of 6 variations on an uncomplicated theme, and two works to words by Tuwim: The Overdue Nightingale and About Mr Tralaliński. In almost all cases the composer resorts to illustrating the text (murmur of a river, “warbling” of a nightingale), each time doing this in a subtle, ingenious manner. In terms of sound, the songs resemble Lutosławski’s pedagogical and “folk” pieces, in which a simple melody is wrapped in an elaborate accompaniment. In addition, they served a similar function, used by the author as a “testing ground” – where he could test solutions that were subsequently introduced into his main works.
Despite its functional nature, this children’s repertoire encompasses works of high quality. Seemingly modest songs, e.g. Year and trouble, Kitten, Little river, Sleep, sleep and Little shell, are musical lyrics of exceptional depth of expression.