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Composed: 1941-1947

Length: c. 25 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo 2), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat, 3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, woodblock, xylophone), harp, piano, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

On August 9, 1989, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute Orchestra gave the West Coast premiere of Lutosławski’s First Symphony, with the composer conducting. (The work is being recorded live at these concerts, to complete a Lutosławski symphony cycle by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sony Classical.) Steven Stucky, the author of Lutosławski and His Music and then Composer-in-Residence for the LA Phil, wrote the following note:

Despite the appalling conditions of Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Lutosławski began work on his First Symphony, his most ambitious work to date, in 1941 and by the summer of 1944 he had finished the first movement. With the outbreak of the ill-fated Warsaw Rising, launched on August 1, 1944, by the Polish underground, Lutosławski and his mother fled to Komorów, a few miles outside the capital. Lutosławski took with him the manuscript of the symphony in progress, but most of the prewar works he left behind were destroyed in the fighting. After Polish and Soviet troops had driven the Germans out of Warsaw, the Lutosławskis returned in spring 1945 to find the city devastated.

By 1947 the composer had completed the remaining three movements of the Symphony. Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the first performance with the Polish Radio Orchestra in Katowice on April 6, 1948, and repeated the work in Cracow on June 15. These, alas, were to be the last performances for a very long time. In August 1949 Poland’s new Communist government, following the lead of Stalin in Moscow, condemned modern music for the alleged crimes of cosmopolitanism, formalism, and Western decadence, and sought to impose on Polish composers the Russian-inspired doctrine of Socialist realism, calling for folklorism, 19th-century harmony, and “positive social content.” Lutosławski’s First Symphony became the first prominent work to be officially banned. Only in 1957, after the onset of the post-Stalinist “thaw” in Poland, was the score finally published, and it was not performed again until 1959.

The First Symphony marks the end of his early period and its culmination. As such it reveals clear traces of his youthful enthusiasms for Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bartók. At the same time, though, the score already points ahead, hinting at some of the abiding features of his life’s work: rich harmony, vivid and virtuoso orchestration, highly dramatized form. Even more fundamentally, the Symphony rests on Lutosławski’s characteristic paradox: a meticulous, precise technique, full of contrapuntal artifice and elaborately structured pitch relations, which produces a musical surface that is wildly colorful, eloquent, and passionate – rational means, emotional ends.

The first movement, an Allegro giusto in clear-cut sonata form, presents as first theme not an extended melody but rather a collection of contrapuntal motives to be developed throughout the movement. Despite the highly chromatic language, there is a clear tonal center of D. The second theme, in the remote key of D-flat, begins as a lyrical melody, quickly gives way to motivic fragments, then returns in canon.

The second movement, Poco adagio, is ternary in form, with the music of the first section (A) returning briefly as an interlude in the second section: A – B (A´) B ´– A´´. Here in the first theme (solo horn) is the sort of long and fully developed melody which the first movement lacked, while the brooding, chromatic accompaniment in the low strings brings to mind the first movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (and points ahead, perhaps, to Lutosławski’s own Musique funèbre). The sardonic second theme (solo oboe), reminiscent of Prokofiev’s grotesqueries, was adapted from one of Lutosławski’s wartime woodwind studies. The first theme returns transformed from melancholy ballad into anguished, relentless dirge, rising over an implacable ostinato to a climax of surprising intensity.

Nor is the third movement, the putative scherzo, a particularly light-hearted affair. Set in a kind of A-minor, this largo rondo at first alternates a macabre scherzo theme, Allegretto misterioso, with a bittersweet waltz. Later, in the turbulent middle section, scurrying figures form a backdrop for a brass intrusion of terrifying brutality.

The explosive, toccata-like finale was, according to Lutosławski, modeled directly on the large sonatina form (i.e., sonata form without development section) that Brahms chose for the finales of his first and third symphonies. As in the first movement, the key is D and the themes are constructed of brief contrapuntal motives. Here each theme is associated on its first appearance with a different section of the orchestra. Theme one is entrusted to the woodwinds (and indeed, its style suggests that it, too, comes from the 30 woodwind studies); a related, Bartók-like tritone idea appears in the first violins. The transition material is announced by the brass. The lyrical theme two is introduced by solo violin. The climax of the finale is prepared by pealing antiphonal brass set against staccato chords in the rest of the orchestra and leading to an immense, catastrophic polychord (already Lutosławski’s later pattern is clear!). Then, in an inspired stroke, the polychord dissolves magically into a quiet interlude based on theme two, before the final headlong rush to the cadence on D.

- John Henken