The first in a series of blogs celebrating the Polish composer’s centenary in 2013
I first met the leading Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) on my first visit to Warsaw, in September 1988, when I attended much of the internationally renowned Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music there, culminating in the first performance in Poland of Lutosławski’s new Piano Concerto, which had enjoyed a well-received world premiere a few weeks earlier in Salzburg. As in Salzburg, the pianist was Krystian Zimerman, to whom the work was dedicated – and the conductor was Lutosławski himself. I little knew that I would spend the next five years catching the composer whenever I could, attending his concerts and rehearsals and discussing with him not only music, but also wider political and cultural developments. He became a major influence on me and I still miss him in my life.
Rather poetically, this adventure came about because of an idyllic 10-day period I had spent in June 1988 at the Aldeburgh Festival, the creation of Lutosławski’s exact contemporary Benjamin Britten, where Lutosławski himself had enjoyed a considerable success in 1965, with the world premiere of his Paroles Tissées sung by Peter Pears. I had the great privilege of attending every event during the first half of the Festival, thanks to a generous bursary from the Princess of Hesse, targeted at young people interested or engaged in the arts. Another of the ‘Hesse students’ was Andrzej Bauer, a young Polish cellist who was studying for two years in London with William Pleeth, funded by a bursary from Lutosławski. I must admit, my knowledge of contemporary music was limited in those days and the composer’s name was not familiar to me, but Andrzej was a compelling advocate and I was intrigued by the philanthropy of a man who used his money not to set himself above his fellows, preferring to give young people opportunities they could otherwise never enjoy.
Andrzej told me he was scheduled to play Lutosławski’s Grave for cello and piano in Warsaw in September, when there would also be an important premiere. A young civil servant who was also there on the scheme did know his modern music and remarked that he found Lutosławski’s compositions ‘meretricious’. I had never encountered the word and felt encouraged, until I covertly looked it up (I am reminded of when Jim Hacker, in Yes Prime Minister, asks Sir Humphrey what someone meant by describing him as ‘egregious’ and Humphrey replies to the effect, ‘well, outstanding, in some way or other …’). I was due to return to Oxford at the beginning of October after an illness-enforced absence, but I decided the dates just worked and the temptation was too much. During the summer I earned enough to fund the trip. I booked the flights and called Andrzej to tell him I was coming.
By now I had listened, intrigued, to the fine Philips recording of the Third Symphony played by the Berlin Philharmonic, the other work which I would hear in Warsaw under the composer’s direction. My late mother was born in Budapest, wisely making her excuses and leaving as the Communists were taking over. I flew to Warsaw with a warning from her ringing in my ears: stick to music and under no circumstances discuss politics. No one was to be trusted. When I arrived I was swept up by a posse of Andrzej’s Warsaw friends, and I immediately found myself caught up in an incipient revolutionary maelstrom of which we in the West knew little or nothing. Discuss politics? The resurgent urban, liberal intelligentsia would speak of nothing else and they wanted to know my views. This semi-underground coffee shop society did not feel like a Communist society at all.
I duly immersed myself in the fervid atmosphere of the Warsaw Autumn, met Lutosławski for the first time after Andrzej’s recital and saw at once that this was, indeed, a remarkable man. Calm, courteous, with a pair of the most intelligent, piercing eyes I have ever seen, like Leonard Bernstein, Lutosławski could make time slow to a stop, not only because he had interesting things to say, but because he was also a good listener. Whenever I was with him, no one else seemed to matter to him and he appeared to have all the time in the world. He was immaculately smart, thoughtful and kind. I immediately adored him.
Never the nattiest dresser myself, at the morning rehearsal for the great closing concert of the Festival, I felt entirely at home, for the Hall of the Philharmonie was invaded by hordes of informal students in mufti, who packed the place out and welcomed Lutosławski as a conquering hero. The atmosphere was unforgettable. What I had not known was that he was a well-known supporter of the Solidarity trade union, having received a prize from that organisation for his Symphony No 3. A special meeting had even been arranged, to listen to a tape of the Third Symphony being played at its Chicago premiere, conducted by Georg Solti. Public performances of that piece hit three figures within a year – unbelievable really.
Furthermore, his background made it all the more extraordinary that he had survived, never mind emerging as such a creative and considerate soul. His father and uncle were murdered by the Bolsheviks, his family home was wrecked by German invaders and he was taken prisoner in World War Two, escaping back to Warsaw and evading the Warsaw Uprising and its dreadful consequences by days. His brother died of typhoid in a prisoner-of-war camp. Then the Communists took over and, of course he was everything they loathed and feared: an educated, liberal-minded member of the old landed gentry, whose family history of philanthropy and high-minded intellectual pursuits made him dangerous. His First Symphony was condemned with the meaningless charge of ‘formalism’ and he had to wait until a relative political thaw came in the latter half of the 1950s before he could make his serious, personal musical voice heard. Yet, defiant and patriotic to his nation if not the various wretched regimes that sought to exploit and ruin it, he never emigrated or defected.
Since the declaration of martial law in 1981, Lutosławski had continued to live in Poland and perform abroad, but he had refused to conduct on home turf. This was his comeback concert after seven years of self-imposed internal exile. Sitting in an aisle for the evening performance, I remarked to a companion that there were several spare seats available, stage right at the far end of the horseshoe-shaped balcony, on the keyboard side. Perhaps we could go and sit there? He was horrified. That box was the special preserve of representatives of the regime, with its own, special entrance, and the concert would not start until they took their places. With typical arrogance, these ‘heroes of the people’ kept us all waiting for 10 or 15 minutes, as the orchestra sat on stage looking awkward. They tried the same trick after the interval, but now Lutosławski’s patience ran out. He had no intention of waiting until the privileged elite finished quaffing their half-time treats and deigned to return to their seats. He marched onto the podium and began the symphony without them. It was electrifying.
As for the music – well, I knew at once that these two pieces, the Piano Concerto and the Third Symphony, would remain with me throughout my life, and so they have. Since then I have explored the entirety of Lutosławski’s surviving compositions. Some I like more than others. Whether his focus (as in the late 1950s and 1960s) was principally on harmony, or on melody too (pre-1956 and increasingly so again, post-1970), his compositions are full of unique effects and never dull. He was always meticulous and he always had something to say. The textures, helped no doubt by his experiments in aleatoric writing, are unmistakable. This centenary year will provide numerous opportunities for the concert-going public to reacquaint itself, in concert, with much of the canon. Personally, I cannot wait!
Michael McManus is an author, writing on subjects including classical music, theatre and politics. His latest book, 'Tory Pride and Prejudice', a history of the Conservative Party and homosexual law reform, was published by Biteback in October 2011.