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Concerto for Orchestra

The Concerto for Orchestra was foundational for Lutosławski, who went on to become one of the major composers of the later 20th century.

Witold Lutosławski was born January 25, 1913, in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) and died there February 8, 1994. He began his Concerto for Orchestra in 1950 and completed it in 1954. Its dedicatee, Witold Rowicki, led the premiere on November 26, 1954, with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra.

The score of the Concerto for Orchestra calls for 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, snare drum, three drums [low, medium, high], military drum, bass drum), celesta, two harps, piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The duration of Concerto for Orchestra is about 28 minutes.

While Poland’s music history does not begin and end with Chopin, he is easily the most famous Polish composer; the mazurkas and polonaises of that cosmopolitan, Paris-dwelling piano virtuoso were Poland’s most important musical emissaries in the early 19th century. After Chopin the history of Polish music parallels in many ways that of many other European countries, notably Russia, with both German-dominated musical factions and nationalist ones. The composer and violin virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski in the mid-1800s and the composer Karol Szymanowski, a Bartók contemporary, are the two most famous names of the generations following Chopin. Ignacy Paderewski, the great pianist, was a composer himself and nationalist enough to become Poland’s prime minister in 1919, the year after Poland regained its independence.

The 20th century’s Polish composers, including the internationally known Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki, look to Witold Lutosławski as a spiritual elder. His music makes a very real connection between the pre-WWII nationalist and late Romantic styles of Szymanowski and Paderewski and the ultra-modern thinking of the younger Poles. Lutosławski began with one foot in the traditional, studying at the same Warsaw Conservatory from which Chopin graduated a hundred years earlier. His primary composition teacher was Witold Maliszewski; he also studied piano and violin, and later, at Warsaw University, mathematics.

The Nazi occupation of Poland and the almost immediate post-war encroachment of Soviet socialism seriously stunted the nascent emergence of a Polish avant-garde, just as happened in Czechoslovakia and Hungary as they became increasingly isolated behind the Iron Curtain. An official drive for “Social Realism” beginning in 1949 demand ed that Polish composers use the materials and even the philosophy of folk music as the basis for their own compositions. As a result, the modern and avant-garde music—by Schoenberg or Webern, Stockhausen, Messiaen, or Boulez—that filtered into socialist Central and Eastern Europe, via the airwaves or through individual contacts, introduced techniques that Lutosławski and others could only explore “underground” or at risk of official reprobation. A loosening of these restraints (for Poland, at least) came in 1955, and the following year the now-famous new-music festival “Warsaw Autumn” was established.

Lutosławski, though, had been composing using Polish folk music since the 1930s, and he returned again and again to that rich body of material in his works after the war. Lutosławski’s First Symphony, from 1947, banned at the onset of the Social Realist doctrine, marks the beginning of his search for a new way of approaching musical sound. His use of folk tunes with far-reaching chromatic and non-tonal harmony was one aspect of his exploration. Lutosławski had already begun experimenting with the twelve-tone technique in the 1940s, but his first mature piece in that vein was Funeral Music in 1958. He moved further along the path of ultra-modernism after hearing a radio broadcast of John Cage’s Piano Concerto in 1960; he began incorporating into his pieces a localized indeterminate (i.e., chance) element, which allowed for an unpredictable and fluid surface to parts of his pieces but which came from a subtle concern for color of orchestration (learned from Bartók, Debussy, and Stravinsky) rather than from a Cage-like abandonment of traditional form. Form, both in his early works and through his late style in the 1980s, has always been at the heart of Lutosławski’s musical thinking, providing a substantial base on which to construct a music that is immediately engrossing but that also satisfies increasing familiarity.

Boston Symphony Orchestra audiences have had an opportunity to become familiar with some of Lutosławski’s more masterful achievements, including Chain 2 for violin and orchestra, which was given its United States premiere by BSO violinist Ronan Lefkowitz with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in 1987. Lefkowitz repeated the piece on an all-Lutosławski concert conducted by the composer for subscription concerts in October 1990. Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4 was conducted by Seiji Ozawa in February 1995 in memory of the composer, who had died the previous year. Most recently, Andris Poga led the BSO and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in his Concerto for Piano in January 2014.

Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra was one of the composer’s few large works growing out of his use of folk music materials after WWII. In an interview with Richard Dufallo in 1987 (published in Dufallo’s book Trackings), Lutosławski explains:

During the work on functional music, I developed a certain kind of style: a style consisting of folk, diatonic tunes, combined with non-tonal counterpoint and some colorful harmonies. In such a style I composed my first set of easy pieces for piano in 1945. And in 1946 the Twenty Old Polish Christmas Carols.... Then one day I considered this style to be useful for composing something more serious, and that was the Concerto for Orchestra, 1950-54.

The Concerto is in three movements. The Intrada movement (which is based on a popular melody from Mazovia, the district of Poland that includes Warsaw) clarifies the work’s title, in that the thematic material is presented in concertante fashion, with individual orchestral sections acting as soloists. (This is similar to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1944.) The rhythmically quirky tune introduced in the low strings is passed to other sections of the orchestra, with secondary melodies enhancing the texture as the movement builds. Contrasting episodes are linked to this opening, which returns later in the movement. The second, transitional movement is a rapid scherzo with Trio, similar in structure to minuet movements by Haydn and Mozart. Lutosławski’s prowess in orchestration is most evident here. The third movement, longer than the first two combined, can be heard as the main body of the composition. Mirroring the larger divisions of the piece as a whole, there are three sections: Passacaglia, Toccata, and Corale. A passacaglia is founded on a repeating bass line (as in the finale to Brahms’s Fourth Symphony). The passacaglia theme of the third movement is first heard in the harp and double basses, which are joined by the other sections of the orchestra, reflecting the opening of the first movement. The Toccata is a linking episode that diffuses the high level of energy attained by the Passacaglia. The Corale, first introduced in oboes and clarinets, is the high point of the movement. This is followed by a quick-tempo coda to close the work.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of the Concerto for Orchestra were led by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in December 1967, a single Providence performance, followed immediately by four subscription performances at Symphony Hall, then a Tanglewood performance in July 1968.