Author: Nicole Restle
ca. 4 minutes

Light stripes on a dark background created by shadows

For Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, his First symphony was both an end and starting point. An enthralling rediscovery.

No sooner premiered than banned. Witold Lutosławski’s First Symphony, begun before the Second World War and completed in 1947, is one of those works whose reception needs to be viewed in close connection with political developments in Poland. After the founding of the People’s Republic of Poland in 1944 and the end of the Second World War, a communist state based on the Soviet model emerged. This also had an impact on cultural life.

While the communist regime was still forming in Poland, artists were able to work freely in the first years after the war. But from 1949, they were also subject to the doctrine of socialist realism. Premiered in Katowice in 1948 by Grzegorz Fitelberg and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra with great success, and hailed as the “first true symphony since Szymanowski”, Witold Lutosławski’s First Symphony did not fit into the new regime’s concept.

After the work was heard at the opening concert of the Chopin Competition in 1949, the Polish Minister of Culture at the time reportedly scoffed: “Composers like Lutosławski should be thrown in front of a tram.” The symphony was scorned as “formalistic”, i.e. not in keeping with socialist taste, and banned from concert halls.

Artistic companion of the Berliner Philharmoniker

When it found its way back into concerts in Poland ten years later with a performance under Leopold Stokowski at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, the situation had changed – not only politically, but also with regard to Lutosławski’s own aesthetics. Following Stalin’s death, life was again less restrictive for Polish cultural workers as well, and Lutosławski had developed as a composer and was now experimenting with his techniques of “controlled aleatoricism” and “aleatoric counterpoint”.

Western concert organisers, who saw Lutosławski as a representative of the Polish avant-garde, were particularly interested in his newer pieces. The First Symphony, although politically rehabilitated, already represented a past phase of the composer and as a result received little attention.

This is also reflected in the fact that the Berliner Philharmoniker played a work by the Polish composer for the first time ever in 1960, his twelve-tone Musique funèbre for string orchestra. Fifteen years later, on the other hand, Lutosławski himself conducted the orchestra and presented an evening of his own compositions, all of which were written in the 1960s.

An artistic friendship developed between him and the Berliner Philharmoniker; until the mid-1980s he regularly came to Berlin to conduct his own works. As a conductor, Lutosławski possessed a compelling musical authority; his manner was – according to the press – “aristocratic” and “passionate” at the same time. He was hailed in Berlin as a “classic of the avant-garde”.

A “dead end”?

He didn’t include his First Symphony in a Philharmoniker programme until very late: in March 1981, he conducted it together with his Five Songs (in the version for female voice and chamber orchestra) and the cello concerto Mi-parti. It has remained the only performance of the symphony by the Berliner Philharmoniker to date.

Lutosławski was quite critical of his first symphonic work – and not only after a few years, but even during its composition. He confessed in an interview: “Interestingly enough, while I was working on my First Symphony, which had been labelled formalistic, I felt that I was at a dead end, that I could not develop further in this direction, and that I had to create something new for myself.

My First Symphony was the true expression of my aesthetics at that time and, moreover, completely 'emotional' music. So why a 'dead end'?” Lutosławski felt that not only the tonal system but also all attempts to overcome it had reached an end point and no longer offered any prospects for development. He felt the urge to find a new organisation of the tonal material. For him, his First was both an end and starting point.

From a formal point of view, the work comes entirely from the tradition of the classical symphony in its four-movement structure and its treatment of themes. When it was performed in Berlin in 1981, the music critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt wrote: “In tonal language, Lutosławski aims away from tonality without going beyond it. In his work, conservative traits are combined with developing ones, which sometimes results in a stylistically fluctuating position.”

What is immediately noticeable on first hearing is the masterful, colourful orchestration, and the tonally sensuous playing of individual instruments and sections, which are clearly inspired by the French models of Claude Debussy and Albert Roussel.

But the influences of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and Sergei Prokofiev are also recognisable. Literature on Lutosławski often refers to the composer’s musical treatment of the horrors of war. Some of the music does in fact have a military feel to it: the fanfare-like main themes in the first and last movements, an energetic, often march-like style, and the frequent use of the piccolo.

Waltz and twelve-tone elements

There are no indications from Lutosławski himself as to what extent war experiences were incorporated into the music; rather, he once told us that he had already had the idea for this symphony before the war and that the piece was of a cheerful character. It is obvious that he works with the dualism of different themes.

In the first movement, he contrasts the excited trumpet fanfare as a second theme with a calm, expansive string melody; the same applies to the finale, in which the main theme also has a signal character and the solo violin introduces a very song-like second theme as a contrast. He second movement also draws its strength from the contrasts of an expressive, lyrical horn melody and the mischievous, jaunty appearance of the oboe.

The third movement, a scherzo, has a dance-like setting with flashes of waltz elements. It seems avant-garde with its twelve-tone form of the main theme in the second movement, the dissonant, cluster-like fortissimo chords at the beginning and shortly before the end of the symphony, as well as the parts that are already atonally conceived.

“Instinctively, I had always tended towards atonality,” stated Lutosławski. The First Symphony forms a bridge between tradition and the avant-garde and is a testimony to the early mastery of Lutosławski, who was 35 years old when the work was premiered. This notwithstanding, the symphony is above all a captivating composition that is worthy of being performed more often than it has been.