Composer Steven Stucky



Lutoslawski in Retrospect

by Steven Stucky

Los Angeles Philharmonic program book

One of the greatest composers of the twentieth century died on February 7, 1994, in Warsaw, Poland, just two weeks after his 81st birthday. For me, Witold Lutoslawski was — and is — an artist worthy of comparison with Stravinsky, Bartók, Berg, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev. Like their music, his music embodies brilliant technique, vivid imagination, and largeness of human spirit. Like them, Lutoslawski offers the willing listener at once both challenge and consolation, at the highest levels. Of course this is only my opinion; fortunately other listeners have frequent opportunities to judge the matter for themselves, as at this month’s Chicago Symphony performances of the Fourth Symphony under Zubin Mehta.

We all know the romantic myth about composers: that they are doomed to remain misunderstood figures who can never be properly appreciated until after they are dead. Nobody is expected to like or understand their music while they are still alive. And yet, while I suppose there are such cases in history, there are really remarkably few, at least until recently. In our own century, now nearly complete, the popular notion is that composers and listeners have grown farther and farther apart — so far apart that nowadays there is virtually no chance of an important composer’s receiving his due in his own time. The idea that only posterity will appreciate today’s composers has become more deeply entrenched than ever.

Frankly, I have no patience with this way of thinking, and I hope you haven’t either. It suggests that we aren’t intelligent enough to cope with the art of our own world, and it suggests that we needn’t even make the effort: if only our grandchildren can expect to understand the music of Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez or Michael Tippett, then that lets us off the hook!

Lutoslawski shows us how foolish these ideas are. He was, like Stravinsky or Bartók or Shostakovich, that rare phenomenon: a composer whose music appeals equally convincingly to connoisseur and amateur alike. Perhaps you remember Mozart’s famous letter to his father, the one where he says that he has put some things in his latest piece to please the amateurs, and others that only the connoisseurs will appreciate. That has always seemed to me to be an ideal approach. I don’t know whether Lutoslawski actually thought of himself this way — as deliberately including both highfalutin technical polish and broad appeal in the pieces he wrote — but that is certainly a fair description of the outcome: music that is built to last, out of the finest materials and using the most painstaking modern methods, but music that at the same time is immediately inviting to a large public, even at first hearing.

Small wonder, then, that he developed long, warm friendships with the symphony audiences and orchestras in several American cities, especially Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. (In my nine seasons working with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, that orchestra has presented almost 20 different works by him.) Nor is it surprising that he was one of the very, very few composers born later than Shostakovich who during his lifetime saw several of his works firmly established in the repertoire. The Paganini Variations have been recorded more than 20 times, the Concerto for Orchestra, almost 10 (including twice by Chicago) (including twice by Chicago). His Cello Concerto is the most important such work since Shostakovich, his String Quartet the most widely admired and most often performed since those of Bartók. His Third Symphony, now 13 years old, has already been recorded 4 times, most recently by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony. His Piano Concerto, just 9 years old and already the most popularly successful since the days of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Bartók, has already been recorded twice.

What explains this kind of success for a living composer whose music is atonal, devoid of trendy allusions to pop culture, usually missing the sort of tunes you go out whistling, not about ecology or AIDS or war or politic s— whose music, in short, makes no concessions to current fashion, mass culture, or the habits of easy listening?

Let me suggest five reasons — five hallmarks of Lutoslawski’s music. If you are new to his work, I hope these will help prepare you for the way this music sounds and speaks and behaves. And even if you are an old friend of Lutoslawski, I hope you will find these five points useful as you re-hear even the most familiar pieces.

1. Lutoslawski’s music sounds beautiful — ravishing, in fact, in a kind of French-Slavic way that might remind you distantly of the sound world of Debussy, Ravel, and early Stravinsky. From early in his career, Lutoslawski was a virtuoso at handling instruments to create magically colorful sound worlds. Moreover, in Lutoslawski’s music sounding beautiful is not merely cosmetic, it is an essential attribute of the way the music speaks, of what the music “means.” The very sound itself is the heart of the matter.

2. Lutoslawski’s music emphasizes the importance of harmony. Virtually alone among modernist composers, Lutoslawski rehabilitated harmony—chords—as a crucial expressive element in his music—without simply returning to the old, worn-out formulas of tonal music. In this respect, he was neither a neo-this nor a post-that, but rather a composer of sufficient originality that he managed to reinvent harmony from the ground up, using his own technique to serve his own purposes. His chords may be enormously rich and complex, but they may also be simplicity itself—as in the melody-and-accompaniment texture that opens the Fourth Symphony.

3. However rich and complex its sonic surface may become, Lutoslawski’s music is usually laid out in broad, clear, simple, audible forms. These are almost never the received forms of earlier times: sonata, rondo, theme and variations—though on rare occasion he revived an old form to remake it for his own, new purposes. Usually, though, Lutoslawski’s formal plans are strictly his own, unconventional ones, and this is what makes his commitment to clarity so valuable: even when Lutoslawski’s musical landscape is unfamiliar, he leaves us plenty of clear signposts to guide us through it.

4. The notion of drama plays a crucial role in his music — sometimes the idea of dramatic confrontation, as in the Cello Concerto; sometimes a subtle, psychological “plot” that leads us, as listeners, through a narrative as compelling, as convincing as it is impossible to put into words. A simple example is his penchant for beginning a long work with a series of disconnected episodes intended to draw us in as listeners, to engage our attention, but — by continually starting and stopping, or by constantly changing the subject — to frustrate our desire for logical development and emotional expression. Typically such a first movement will give way to a longer, more substantial, more continuous main movement. This is precisely what happens in the Fourth Symphony.

5. Lutoslawski’s music always communicates, or at least strives to communicate, something deep and eloquent and human, because it comes from a composer who felt keenly the need to converse with his fellow human beings on the level of the spirit. In 1973 he wrote the following words in his diary: “I have a strong desire to communicate something to people, through my music. I am not working to win myself many ‘fans’; I do not want to convince, I want to find. I would like to find people who in the depths of their souls feel the same way as I do. They are the people who are closest to me, even if I do not know them personally. I regard creative activity as a kind of soul-fishing, and the ‘catch’ is the best medicine for loneliness, that most human of sufferings.”

It is an interesting fact that Lutoslawski — who was a person of refined manners, lively but dignified bearing, impeccable dress, and great reserve about expressing his emotions in public (or even, largely, in private) — could be in his music so frankly, deeply emotional. The slow movement from his Partita for violin and piano (which he also scored for violin and orchestra) is a moving example of his urge to communicate soul-to-soul. But the strong emotional content is achieved not through Mahler-style egocentrism, not through gushy, confessionial baring of the soul, but through the expert application of Lutoslawski’s own melodic and harmonic techniques.

There you have my five hallmarks for appreciating Lutoslawski: (1) beauty of sound and mastery of color, (2) renewal of harmony, (3) clarity of form, (4) drama, and (5) eloquent communication.

As recently as 15 years ago, there seemed to be general agreement about the shape of that career and the evolution of his musical language. Briefly, the story ran this way: Lutoslawski, though a child prodigy, was slow to develop his true musical personality. His early works from the 1930s and 1940s were influenced by Debussy, Ravel, early Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Albert Roussel. His music in the 1950s, drawing on folk music and modelled to some extent on Bartók, was skillful but basically utilitarian (a sort of Polish answer to German Gebrauchsmusik). Only in middle age, the story continues, did he begin to achieve the personal, private sound language of which he had long dreamt, and toward which he had long striven, in such celebrated works of the 1960s and 1970s as Venetian Games, Trois počmes d’ Henri Michaux, the String Quartet, Paroles tissées, Livre pour orchestre, the Cello Concerto, and Mi-parti. In this account, the first thirty years of Lutoslawski’s music are merely preparatory to his mature, modernist output in the pieces from 1961 on.

Yet the view that he only truly found himself at the beginning of the 60s (a view Lutoslawski himself held for many years) turns out to have been short-sighted. Declarations that his greatest contribution was as a leader of the modernist avant-garde turn out to have been premature. Because in 1979, his compositional technique took yet another turn, beginning with the short piece Epitaph for oboe and piano: a turn toward thinner textures, simpler harmonies, and lucid, even neoclassic melodic lines and rhythmic shapes. I now believe that the works from the last 15 years of his life, and especially those after 1983, can be thought of as constituting a separate “late” period, and that they are in some ways the most important works of his entire catalog. What interests me especially about these late works is that they seem to embrace elements from every period of Lutoslawski’s life, even the earliest, in a way that summarizes and consummates his whole development. His last orchestral work, the Fourth Symphony of 1992, is a clear example. It has much in common, of course, with the Third Symphony of 1983 and the Second Symphony of 1967; but what is striking is how much it also shares with the First Symphony, written in 1947 during the so-called neoclassical period he is supposed long ago to have left behind.

Let me conclude by telling a couple of stories about Lutoslawski’s last work for orchestra, his Fourth Symphony. This work was commissioned, first performed, and first recorded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and that fact gave me and some of my colleagues there an unusual privilege: ring-side seats from which to watch its conception, its birth, and its growth out in the world. The story sheds light on both his character and his working methods. By dumb luck, I actually witnessed the commissioning: it was over lunch at a restaurant called Scandia, in West Hollywood, now closed. Present were Witold, executive director Ernest Fleischmann, and I. Ernest said, “We’d be honored if you would write us a new symphony.” Witold gave a very characteristic reply: he was flattered by the request, he said, but he never accepted deadlines, advance fees, or other encumbrances. He did not want a contract until and unless the piece were written, because everything would depend on whether the right idea came along. He would let us know if anything occurred to him. Well, knowing that his Third Symphony, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, had required an 11-year gestation period, we resigned ourselves to waiting, perhaps for many years, for a symphony that might or might not ever be written. Imagine our surprise 3 years later when Witold ran into LA Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen in Europe and said something like, “By the way, your new symphony is ready.” Nothing had ever been said about money; there was no contract; what mattered was the music.

Although I think he had a clear-eyed view of his own value as a musician, he remained genuinely modest all his life. When I spoke to him about plans for the premiere (which he was to conduct himself in February 1993, a few days after his 80th birthday), he confessed that he was worried about the piece. Compared to the Third Symphony, which had been an enormous success in LA as elsewhere, the new Fourth was quieter, shorter, more serious—less likely, he thought, to please the orchestra and the public. He was afraid we would be disappointed. As soon as we saw the score, we knew better.

Earlier I quoted Lutoslawski on his desire to communicate, to find other human beings who, deep down, feel as he felt, to regard composing as fishing for souls. In this month’s performances of his Fourth Symphony, Lutoslawski will once again be soul-fishing, and I hope he catches some of you.

© Steven Stucky

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