Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) was the leader of the group of Polish composers who came into prominence in the 1950s. His work was performed and honored worldwide throughout his lifetime.
Witold Lutoslawski was born in Warsaw, Poland, and spent all of his formative years there. He received his musical education at the Warsaw Conservatory and also attended the university as a mathematics student. During World War II he served in the military radio section of the occupying German army in Warsaw.
Lutoslawski was active in reorganizing Polish cultural life after the war. He formed the Union of Polish Composers and the Society for the Publication of Polish Music, and he helped to organize the first Warsaw Festival in 1956. These annual festivals served as a showcase for Poland's young composers, whose number and originality astounded the musical world. Before the war Poland had not been strong in creative musicians, and during the war it had been cut off from the rest of Europe.
Lutoslawski's early compositions show the influences that helped to form his style. His Symphonic Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1938) for two pianos is a brilliant piece, strongly influenced by Igor Stravinsky's neoclassicism in its sharp dissonance and use of jazz. Lutoslawski's First Symphony (1947) is also a neoclassic work. His Concerto for Orchestra (1954) shows a new influence: the music of Béla Bartók. It has a strong folk-music basis, not in the manner of the 19th-century nationalists but in Bartók's forthright dissonant manner. The brilliance of the orchestral writing equals that found in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. Lutoslawski acknowledged his debt to Bartók in one of his most powerful compositions, Trauermusik (1958; Mourning Music). In this piece he uses a modified twelve-tone technique, showing his awareness of Arnold Schoenberg and the second Viennese school of composers, but this was not to be a permanent influence. "My music," Lutoslawski said, "has no direct relationship to the traditions of the Viennese school. I am much more strongly tied to Claude Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Varèse."
In Venetian Games (1961), Three Poems by Henri Michaux (1963), and the Second Symphony (1969) Lutoslawski uses controlled aleatory effects, giving the individual orchestra members freedom to play some passages as they choose with respect to notes and rhythm. In Poems, written for 23 instruments and a chorus of 20, each singer has an individual part, which they speak, whisper, moan, and shout as well as sing. Lutoslawski's use of such devices is always for expressive purposes. No matter how experimental and advanced these works are, his musical vitality, combined with his discipline of traditional craftsmanship, gives his compositions a seriousness, dignity, and power of communication rarely found among contemporary composers.
Lutoslawski won a UNESCO prize in composition in 1959 and was elected to the presidency of the International Society for Contemporary Music that year. He taught at the Berkshire Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, the Dartmouth Congregation of the Arts in Hanover, New Hampshire, the Dartington Summer School in England, and in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1985 he was invited to the dedication ceremony of the Polish Music Reference Center at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. During his two-week stay there, he presented five original manuscripts to the Center.
He and his work were recognized many times in his lifetime. Lutoslawski's awards included the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in 1985 for his Third Symphony; the 1993 Kyoto (Japan) Prize in Creative Arts and Moral Sciences; the Grammy Award, Cecilia Prize, Koussevitsky Award and Grammaphone Award, all in 1986, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Recording of his Third Symphony, and Britain's Classical Music Award in January, 1997, for his Fourth Symphony. He also received several honorary degrees.
Upon presenting the Kyoto Prize, the Inamori Foundation said, "His works have had a powerful effect on the postwar musical world. A new method of atonality, the distinctive aleatoric music, and development of contemporary forms of musical expression have made him a master of music in the 20th century."
Lutoslawski died Feb. 7, 1994, in Warsaw, at the age of 81. He is survived by his wife, Danuta.
Ove Nordwall, ed., Lutoslawski (1968), contains analyses of each of Lutoslawski's compositions up to 1967 as well as a biographical sketch, a complete catalog of his works, and an essay by the composer; see also David Ewen, The World of Twentieth-century Music (1968); and Peter S. Hansen, An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music (3d ed. 1971).
Wilk, Wanda, "Poland Loses a Great Son, A Great Loss to the World," Polish-American Journal. April 1, 1994.
Kaczynski, Tadeusz, Conversations with Witold Lutoslawski, London: Chester Music, c1984.
Stucky, Steven, Lutoslawski and His Music, New York: Cambridge University Press, c1981.