Lutosławski, Witold (1913–1994) By Reyland, Nicholas
The music and life of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994) pivoted around key events in his country’s tumultuous twentieth-century history. The so-called cultural ‘thaw’ at the end of Stalinism in the mid 1950s permitted Poland’s composers to begin experiments in a range of modernist styles. Lutosławski forged a unique voice by exploring tensions between the classicist sensibility underpinning his neoclassical pre-thaw compositions (a style that had brought him into a position of preeminence in Poland) and more radical, avant-garde alternatives. So while he created individualistic and, often, beautiful solutions to post-tonal compositional problems of pitch organization, rhythm, texture, orchestration and long-range musical structuring, his greater contribution was marshaling his technique to compose powerfully affecting musical narratives responding, albeit obliquely, to the events and cultural atmospheres of his life and times. In major works including his Trois poems d’Henri Michaux, String Quartet, Livre pour orchestre, Cello Concerto, Mi-parti, Piano Concerto, Chain 2 and Symphony No. 4 – compositions that brought him international recognition as one of the mid-to-late twentieth century’s finest composers – Lutosławski created (to speak drily) modernist musical narratives exploring the problems of plot and representation in an innovative language, or (to speak more evocatively) structures of feeling and form that transcend the mundane specificity of programme music to offer visceral, spellbinding and moving testimony on the late-modern human experience, and from a distinctive Polish perspective.