With 2013 marking 100 years since the birth of the late, great Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, the Musicroom blog spoke to Professor Charles Bodman Rae, author of The Music of Lutoslawski about working with the composer, arranging his works for sheet music and his memories of the man.
What was Witold Lutoslawski like to work with? What was he like to know as a person outside of work?
Lutoslawski was the epitome of charm and courtesy. He was not at all ‘prickly’ or ‘difficult’, characteristics that some might consider to be prerequisites for a great creative artist. He was particularly generous with his time towards young composers. It is well known that he did not teach, as such. But he was always prepared to make time to meet with young composers who sought his guidance. He realised – and vividly remembered from his own experience – that the young composer often feels adrift in a sea of competing ‘isms’.
Some people tended to be disconcerted by his impeccable manners and felt that this aspect of his persona kept him somehow aloof and slightly distant. But as one got to know him, and as he became less guarded and more relaxed, his sense of humour shone through.
Lutoslawski’s work is regarded as quite technical, advanced and atmospheric. What do you think are the biggest challenges when performing his music?
Well, it is true that over many years he gradually developed a consummate technique. Advanced and atmospheric, yes to both of these observations. But the music was and is approachable. It speaks. It communicates. This does not mean that it tries consciously to ingratiate itself with a generalised audience. The music does not, in my view, strive to be accessible (in the negative sense of being eager to please). There are austere elements, but there are also engaging ones.
As far as performing the music is concerned most of the work has been done by the composer. There are certain composers – only a few – surprisingly few – whose scores convey a mastery of the art of performance. There are plenty of examples of the opposite tendency, but I will resist the temptation to identify them. The two ideas tend to come together when the composer is also a conductor or an accomplished instrumentalist. Lutoslawski was both. He thought through his ideas so that they were perfectly tailored to the instrument, to the situation. Every detail is shaped and articulated.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is for conductors who feel uncomfortable with the non-conducting role in Lutoslawski’s ad libitum writing. The type of conductor who is mostly ego driven ( a threatened but by no means extinct species) might find it odd merely to cue entries and relax their control. The control is still there, but it is the composer’s control, rather than the conductor’s.
How did his professional relationship develop over multiple projects? Do you think he influenced your work in any way?
He certainly influenced my own work as a composer. During the time I was writing a thesis, books and articles about his music – the late 1980s and early 1990s – I found, inevitably, that my immersion in his scores caused a creative problem. The pieces I wrote at that time were, of course, too strongly influenced. I still have them, in a drawer, but I chose not to release them. It took some time to regain the necessary distance, so that my own works did not feel compromised. My Second String Quartet – composed to mark the tenth anniversary of his death – is a kind of turning point. It pays homage, but occupies its own space.
What effect did his experiences and struggles within Soviet era Poland have on him and how did it inform and affect his work?
His struggles during the communist period of the so-called ‘People’s Republic’ of Poland did have a profound effect. In many ways his background and upbringing typified that of a certain kind of ‘class enemy’, to adopt socialist terminology. So it was necessary for him – and many others in post-war Poland – to adopt a low profile, to keep their heads down. But as he became more famous, internationally, and as he garnered honours, prizes and awards, his position became untouchable. So much so that through the 1980s, during the attempted suppression of the Solidarity movement, his principled observance of the artists’ boycott of the state media – even after many others had caved in – became a symbol of moral and cultural integrity.
Still, it would be a grave mistake to interpret his music merely in terms of its historical and political context. The music has great intrinsic value and is not merely a reflection of external events or circumstances.
What influence and impact has he had on music, both within the classical scene and other less obvious areas?
Lutoslawski has had – and continues to have – an enormous impact on young composers in many parts of the world. This is evident when one serves on the jury of an international composition competition and is confronted with a pile of many dozens of scores to read. There will be many scores that show an understanding of his controlled aleatory techniques, his use of ad libitum sections, and his overall approach to ensemble rhythm. There will be some that show empathy for his harmonic language and harmonic techniques. Recently I came across a major development in the field of jazz piano improvisation which aimed to explore and apply in a jazz context his harmonic language of complex twelve-note chords.
Now, at the time of his centenary, we are reaching an interesting and decisive moment when the interest in Lutoslawski’s music makes a generational jump – from those of us who knew him personally and witnessed him conducting his works – to a younger generation which did not have this direct contact. The signs are that this jump is taking place.
Are there any particular works of his that you are hoping to see in concert during this centenary year?
One of my all-time favourites is the magnificent work for baritone and orchestra, Les Espaces du Sommeil. I am delighted that this is one of the works featured in the performances by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Since the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and John Shirley-Quirk this work is rarely performed. So its reappearance – thanks to Salonen – is a real treat. But there are many other treats in store: all four symphonies; the Piano Concerto, played by its dedicatee, Krystian Zimerman; the unique Partita-Interlude-Chain 2 triptych, played by Anne-Sophie Mutter; the Livre pour orchestre; and many more. Many of us will have the classic recordings of these works, so they still have a presence. But having recordings is rather like having photographs of friends. The image is there, and the memory is triggered, but there is a distance. There is simply no substitute for the thrill of live performance – the sense of occasion, the passage of musical ideas through real time, and being part of the sonic space where the orchestral sound is swirling. The Lutoslawski Centenary concerts in Warsaw, London and many other cities worldwide will enable a new, younger audience to be part of this thrilling experience.