Lutosławski centenary: an interview with James Rushton

In our second interview to commemorate 100 years since the birth of Witold Lutosławski, the Musicroom blog talks to James Rushton, Managing Director of Chester Music about what it was like to work and collaborate with the Polish musical icon.

What was Witold Lutoslawski like to work with? What did you enjoy most out of your working relationship?

Conversations With Witold Lutoslawski is available now at Musicroom.com.

Conversations With Witold Lutoslawski is available now at Musicroom.com.

Witold was a huge pleasure to work with.  Of course, he was who he was, and so maybe I can be excused if there was a slight nervousness on my part in my initial meetings! But communication was quick and easy; in the days before before email etc, questions were asked and quickly answered by phone or letter.  We, as Witold’s publisher, always knew where we stood, therefore; and as a result there was a clarity to our approach to the publication and promotion of his work which, of course, is the ideal both for us and for our customers.  Further, Witold’s concern for accuracy and efficiency was epitomized by his delivery of new scores.  Witold’s wife Danuta, who was trained as an architect and had a draughtsman’s skills, therefore, prepared the scores from Witold’s precisely laid out manuscript.  Their layout and clarity are a perfect reflection of the works themselves and their content.

What was he like to know as a person outside of work?

Witold was essentially a private person, a serious individual, but a great listener and always interested in the health and well-being of others.  Essentially, it is that warmth of concern for others, exemplified by the funding that he gave later in the life to many deserving individuals (that is, in support of medical needs or musical education etc), that best describes the man, although beneath the surface was a strong and often unexpected sense of humour, represented visually by those twinkling eyes!

How did he approach new commissions and collaborations?

As might be imagined, Witold was continually approached by the leading performers and orchestras of the day to write new works.  He would rarely say yes immediately (a) because the gestation period  tended to be long and (b) because he didn’t want to tie himself down.  It was not unusual, therefore, for a new, large-scale work suddenly to appear and for conversations to have to be had with the organization who had approached Witold many years before and suddenly find themselves with the possibility of commissioning and premiering a major new score.  The initial reaction to such conversations tended briefly to be panic, soon changing to pride and excitement.  And, no doubt, the homes for new orchestral works were very much determined by the artistic leadership of the ensemble concerned.  An example would be the Symphony No 4, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen was hugely admired by Witold.

What effect did his experiences and struggles within Soviet era Poland have on him and how did it inform and affect his work?

Witold and his family suffered harshly at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918 and during World War II.  In the 1950s his Symphony No 1 was banned for its formalistic tendencies. In the 1980s he was a member of Solidarity’s Committee for Culture, and was always active in the struggle for a free and democratic Poland.  No doubt all of this was central to his experience of life, and no doubt it would be impossible for this not to have affected his music.  But Witold was adamant that there was no ‘programme’ in his music and that no subjective interpretation should be placed on his work; during his lifetime, for instance, he never gave permission for his work to be choreographed.

What did he look for and enjoy most about other composers’ works and music in general?

Clearly, the music of the French tradition was important to him – the music of Debussy, Ravel and of Roussel, whose Symphony No 3 he often referred to as a favourite (and did much to popularize as a result!).  Eastern European music – in particular, Bartok and early Stravinsky – was influential.  Beethoven was also important but not the Brahmsian tradition.  As regards the latter he felt that there was too much material in relation to the time available.  He regarded as one of his key achievements a form which features two parts, with the first part acting as preparation (the appetizer) for the main part / main course.  The Symphony No 4 is a prime example of that form.

What influence and impact has he had on music, both within the classical scene and other less obvious areas?

Witold Lutoslawski showed that by applying single-mindedly his skills and creativity to an existing tradition it was still possible in the second half of the 20th century to create symphonic music of the highest quality and originality, on the one hand, part of the great western tradition but, on the other, unique, memorable and entirely recognizable as coming from the hand of one man.  This has inspired the greatest solo performers and conductors of our day, but also composers of the younger generation, who have taken a huge amount from his approach to form, to harmony and to orchestration.  And no doubt, whether it is the exhilarating virtuosity of the early Concerto for Orchestra, the psychological narrative and battle of the Cello Concerto or the lyricism of the masterful Chain 2 and Partita, audiences have found and will continue to find much to enjoy, re-visit and explore for the future.

The Music Of Lutosławski published by Chester Music is available now at Musicroom.com.

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