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Composed: 1986
Length: c. 18 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 29, 1990, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting, with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter

In 1983, 70-year-old Lutoslawski had already finished a composition for chamber ensemble entitled Chain (which was later expanded into full orchestra). Three years later, Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (1906-1999) liked the idea enough to nurture it even more, commissioning Lutoslawski to write a sequel, Chain 2. (Lutoslawski also wrote Chain 3 for orchestra the same year, completing a trilogy.)

Using a principle he referred to as “chain-form” to describe, rather simply, musical “links” that fit together to create a larger form, Lutoslawski still embraced improvisatory techniques and open forms borrowed from his ongoing fascination with John Cage’s music, which he often cited as a major influence. Still, his deft, virtuosic instrumental writing never stopped challenging a performer’s basic skills as a musician. Melding these compositional styles — improvisation and tight instrumental writing — fit a general trend in the 1980s towards a more conservative, conventional musical language than what had become the apex of the avant-garde in the 1960s. Another famous Polish composer, Krzystof Penderecki, certainly followed a similar path in the 1980s, phasing out of his music the very tone clusters and notational techniques that had made him famous in the 1960s.

In the end, Chain 2 is in four movements, alternating between a first and third movement titled “ad libitum” and a second titled “a battuta” (with the beat). The fourth and final movement recapitulates this form in three sections: the first and third sections again called “ad libitum” and the second section called “a battuta.”

Sacher had already commissioned other works by Lutoslawski, as well as a list of 20th-century masterworks throughout the decades: Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; Honegger’s Symphonies No. 2 and 4; Stravinsky’s Concerto in D; and Strauss’ Metamorphosen. Apparently he could afford such generosity after his marriage in 1934 to his wife Maja, who was not only an accomplished sculptress but also the widow to the son of a gigantic Swiss medical supply and pharmaceutical company, Hoffmann-La Roche. The arrangement made Sacher arguably the wealthiest man in Europe.

The twist with Chain 2 is that Sacher wanted Lutoslawski to write a piece for a specific young German violinist, then in her 20s, who had made an impressive solo career as a Wunderkind playing mostly Beethoven and Vivaldi: Anne-Sophie Mutter. The collaboration would force Lutoslawski to keep the solo lines challenging enough to showcase her artistry, but not with the types of extended 20th-century techniques she would be less familiar with (much as Lutoslawski did years earlier with his Cello Concerto, written for Mstislav Rostropovich). Of course, writing difficult works for famous virtuosos had been the norm in the late 19th-century, when fewer and fewer virtuosos actually attempted to compose works of their own. Today, the trend of using famous “classical” instrumentals in new works continues through works by composers such as Tan Dun and John Corigliano for artists such as Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman.

Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.