Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000

Witold Lutoslawski, 1950, photo by DJ Dorys,  Nowy Swiat, Warsaw
  Trauma and
M U S I C:
What Vastness of Suffering?
Different approaches to
Witold Lutosławski's First Symphony

Nicholas Reyland

Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) composed his First Symphony around the time of World War II, a conflict which impacted severely on his personal life and career. However, there are different ways of hearing this work in light of the circumstances surrounding its creation and Lutosławski's steadfast disavowal of his music's "extra-musical" content.

The temptation to try and connect the life and music of a composer living through momentous times can be great indeed, and the resultant myths and legends can fundamentally alter musical experiences by influencing the reception of such works. Musicologists may quibble over the biographical details and argue even more about the nature of any relationship between surrounding events and the music composed, but there can be little doubt that knowledge of even the most unsubstantiated piece of extra-musical evidence can drastically change the ways in which one responds to a composition.

In the case of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-94), the desire to make such connections can be almost overwhelming, for many of the events which so profoundly remoulded Poland during the 20th Century had a direct effect on Lutosławski's family, career, and personal circumstances.

Even the briefest, and most inadequate outline biography of the composer - say, up to the end of World War II - must include a series of incidents with an historical significance as remarkable as their substance is shocking. For example, Roman Dmowski, founder of Poland's National Democratic Party, was a family friend of the Lutosławski's, and Witold's father Józef was a political and military activist imprisoned by the Bolsheviks for his involvement in anti-Soviet activities

In fact, one of Lutosławski's earliest memories was of an harrowing visit in 1918 to Moscow's infamous Butyrki prison, where he saw his father alive for the last time. Józef was about to be executed, alongside Witold's uncle Marian, by a Soviet firing squad.

Lutosławski later served as an Officer Cadet in the Polish First Army, commanding a signals and radio unit stationed in Kraków during World War II. He was taken prisoner of war by the Nazi's in 1939, but managed to escape after just eight days of captivity, eluding German forces as he returned on foot (along with several members of his squad) to the relative safety of Warsaw, some 400 km from his point of capture. Witold's brother Henryk, meanwhile, suffered a more terrible fate at the hands of Soviet captors, having been transported to the Kolyma region of Siberia where he was forced to mine gold in inhuman conditions. Henryk perished in 1940, half-starved and riddled with typhoid.

  A formalist at the ivories
Back in Warsaw, Lutosławski managed to eke out a perilous existence in the cafés of the occupied city, where he performed as a pianist, famously combining his talents with Andrzej Panufnik's as one half of their celebrated piano duo. On several occasions, the pair came close to being rounded up by German forces seeking to imprison, or summarily execute, members of Warsaw's native population.

After the end of the war, Lutosławski then became the first composer to have his work branded formalist by Poland's quasi-Stalinist cultural dictators, who sought to "encourage" Polish artists into producing art with a common purpose: the expression of Socialist Realist aims.

Mixed reception

The criticised work in question was his First Symphony (1941-47), a composition whose Warsaw premiere - at the Philharmonic Hall in the autumn of 1949 - provoked a walk-out by Poland's then Vice-Minister for Culture, Włodzimierz Sokorski, who later fulminated that a composer such as Lutosławski should be thrown under the wheels of a street car.

The First Symphony provides an excellent example of how differing views can develop regarding the possibility of links between a piece of music and historical or personal circumstances. After all, one might expect events in Lutosławski's life between 1941 and 1947 to have affected any extra-musical content of the First Symphony quite profoundly, given the fact that the work's compositional period included Lutosławski's escape from his wartime captors, grief over the death of his brother, and time spent in hiding with his mother while the Nazis obliterated Warsaw.

Actually, we know at least one member of the audience at the work's first Warsaw performance felt this to be the case. As the composer later recalled in an interview given to Irena Nikolska (one of his most proficient interviewers), "after its premiere, one of the older listeners came over to me and while looking deeply into my eyes said, 'What vastness of suffering!'" (Elsewhere, Lutosławski attributes these comments to a relative and connects them to the second movement of his work, the Poco adagio.)

Lutosławski's own opinion about the First Symphony's "meaning" differed quite radically from the views of his elderly audience member. The composer claimed to consider his work, "to be a rather serene piece, the finale at least should leave a person in such a mood." Ever the ardent formalist, especially where his own music was concerned, this disavowal comes as no surprise.

Throughout Lutosławski's writings and many interviews, the composer unswervingly stressed that his art's only "content" or "subject" was itself, and most definitely not himself. Yet he was also ceaselessly sympathetic to people with alternative views of his music and particularly to those who linked his compositions to Polish history. For example, the composer once responded with great sensitivity to a query about the possibility of a link between his Third Symphony (1981-83) and recent momentous events in Poland, which included the heady optimism of the months following the formal recognition of Solidarity in 1980, and the subsequent terrors of Wojciech Jarużelski's savagely exacted period of martial law.

Lutosławski: There was a question: "Did the events in Poland influence or affect your music at that time?" I said... "No. Please. I can't answer such a question with one single word." And I began speaking about it… We live in a certain kind of world, but creative artists live a sort of double life, because several hours a day they are in another world, in the world which has (apparently at least) nothing in common with the external world in which we live. I think this ideal world is the world of our dreams, of our wishes, of our notion of ideal… [and] our task, our role, our mission, is to make this ideal world available for those who are not accessed to it… [Yet we] have one psyche only. So both worlds in which we live have a certain influence on our psyche... So, probably the external world and our life experiences must intervene in a way in this ideal world… but it's never conscious, never wanted.

(Here, as so often when prompted to discuss an element of his artistic credo, Lutosławski seems to be paraphrasing similar thoughts by his favourite author, Joseph Conrad and, in particular, Conrad's elegiac introduction to his horribly dated novel The Nigger of the "Narcissus.")

Music with a programme?

Lidia Rappoport-Gelfand, a musicologist who has published an excellent and provocative study of Polish musical life during the post-war years, clearly has sympathy for the "vastness of suffering" view of the First Symphony. In her opinion, although the work is not as explicitly programmatic as, say, Bolesław Woytowicz's Warsaw Symphony or Panufnik's Symphony of Peace, the music's, "vivid concrete imagery and generic analogies do evoke definite associations," and the symphony provides, "an indirect reflection of emotional states and impressions of actual events."

She goes on to describe the waltz theme which provides the final movement's second subject, an evocative depiction of the Allegro vivace's formal structure which deserves to be quoted in full:

Entering tentatively, [the waltz theme] gains strength until it triumphantly dominates the scene, symbolizing peace. This line of general development determines the resolution of the finale, whose bubbling energy and bright major tone seem to affirm the jubilant approach of victory. Yet, repeated disruptions, incursions of grotesque images inject anxiety, speak of contradictions, and of the difficulty of attaining the ultimate goal.

Although one might wish to scrutinise just how overtly Rappoport-Gelfand states her views - phrases like "concrete imagery" and "definite associations" seem rather misplaced in the midst of an attempt to explore the possibility of links between the First Symphony and historical events - one has no right to question the basic validity of her views. This is how she hears the music, and whether or not one accepts her reading of the Allegro vivace, one has to acknowledge that her description does seem to capture something of the music's dramatic essence.

In this regard, it is equally hard to dismiss the elderly listener who heard the "vastness of suffering" in the symphony's Poco adagio. The second movement opens with a mournful horn melody atop a chromatic string line, a combination seemingly designed to evoke the utmost unease; but when the theme is repeated and scored ever more richly as the movement builds towards its first climax it is all but impossible to remain unmoved.

Lutosławski's statement and development of this horn and string music provides an alternative, and possibly less subjective, starting point for a reading of the movement, by allowing one to suggest revealing links to works by composers who influenced and inspired him. There is, for example, a striking similarity between the opening string line and the canon for strings which opens Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, one of Lutosławski's favourite compositions.

Slightly more obscure, but no less blatant, is the horn melody's allusion to a theme in the slow movement of Roussel's Third Symphony, another work Lutosławski admired greatly. Charles Bodman Rae has observed how this shared melodic motif - the falling tritones about which the horn's closing refrain gently lilts - fulfils a similar structural and dramatic role in both works.

Like Roussel, Lutosławski plants the idea early in the movement, allowing it to blossom gradually until the Poco adagio's stirring central climax. This culmination, which grinds to ritualistic peaks of intensity, nods in passing to another key influence on Lutosławski's music - Igor Stravinsky. Before that, one hears a further allusion: in the movement's central section, a solo oboe performs a trenchant march parody highly reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev.

Listening formally

Yet how might one construct a more "Lutosławskian" or formalist reading of the Poco adagio? One useful approach might be to listen to the ways in which the different themes, motifs and harmonies gradually cohere to form a dramatically compelling symphonic argument. The word symphonic, of course, has many connotations, but it is used here principally to denote the exposition and polarisation of musical materials which are subsequently developed through manifold variations, thereby increasing their oppositional tension before one idea triumphs over the others.

Such compositional thinking was the bedrock of sonata style, the manner of composing which dominated music's high Classical and early Romantic periods. It therefore formed the basis of music by composers - especially Haydn and Beethoven - who greatly influenced Lutosławski during the formative stages of his compositional career. Importantly, from the perspective of the current investigation, symphonic thought seems to have been vital to Lutosławski's own compositional aesthetic.

In the course of his conversations with Nikolska, one finds several references to Lutosławski's notion of akcja. Music, according to the composer:

...must be properly shaped into a process with a perceptible akcja [ie action]. By "action" I understand a purely musical "plot" - not what is described as programme music. A purely musical plot. That is to say, a chain of interrelated musical events. For the listener to follow the thread. From beginning to end."

Elsewhere, Lutosławski links akcja to sonata style - a method of structuring music with what he describes as "certain universal qualities" - and to symphonic musical thought. For example, when discussing Les Espaces du Sommeil (1975), he explained how his marvellous setting for baritone and orchestra of poetry by Robert Desnos, despite having a shorter duration than any of his actual symphonies, has an equally profound "plot" or:

"action"… a structure tending toward the final - culminating - stage of development. In short, a symphony en miniature. But not a miniature in terms of structure (and development of musical material). A symphonic work, to sum up.

Subconscious associations

So how does one experience Lutosławski's symphonic structures, and what does one hear when listening to the Poco adagio formalistically? Such questions, loaded as they are with negative connotations of dry analysis and technical description, could seem like an open invitation to casual listeners to stop reading, at this point, and simply enjoy the music.

Yet symphonic arguments, crucially, might be heard to contribute something approaching emotional depth to music's more obviously dramatic gestures - such as affective changes in mood, style, volume, orchestration and register - by offering the listener an opportunity to associate events in their life, consciously or subconsciously, with developments in a work's abstract structural narrative.

Some musicologists would even argue that, whether or not one realises it, one always listens formalistically, either consciously or subconsciously, although the connections formed can remain subliminal, and be magnified, subverted, contradicted, marginalised or overshadowed by more blatantly manipulative musical devices demanding an immediate emotional response.

Listening, therefore, with one ear to the Poco adagio's formal structure, the crux of the movement woukd seem to be the point in the martial middle section when the optimism of the music's increasingly animated march parody is suddenly and irreparably crushed by the return of the opening theme, after which interjection the solemn material again comes to dominate the score.

In fact, using the word "argument" in relation to the Poco adagio's structure is somewhat misleading: the fleeting hopefulness of the central resistance movement is mercilessly crushed by the oppressive forces which dominated proceedings before the insurgence, and have now returned to compel the music towards its tragic finale.

Opportunities to hear extra-musical connections to the material in the Poco adagio - consider, for example, associating the above (admittedly carefully worded) description with events in the Warsaw Uprising - are clearly there for anyone who chooses to make them. That is not to say, however, that Lutosławski consciously built these associations into his music. For Lutosławski, the recognition of extra-musical connotations could never be anything more than subconscious sidebars to formalist readings of his works, let alone elements affecting his compositional process.

Music, from his perspective, was an entirely self-sufficient dramatic form, and it would certainly be fair to argue that one needn't understand why his compositions are moving to experience emotional responses to them. There could, after all, be any number of reasons for reacting to the Poco adagio's affective qualities, and musicologists are only beginning to understand a few of the sociological, psychological and physiological triggers which control each person's individual responses to music's formal - and not so formal - content.

A man of his time

Yet the historical context of Lutosławski's consistent disavowal of his art's extra-musical meanings must also be examined here. Having being forced to consider and justify the content of his music in front of various culturally prescriptive committees during the decade following the censure of his First Symphony, is it any wonder he eventually became less than keen to discuss conscious compositional motivations other than a composerly delight in the abstract play of note upon note?

Surely, from the Polish cultural thaw of the late 1950s onward, the opportunity simply to immerse himself in the joy of artistic creation, without having to consider the relationship between his music and the outside world, must have seemed like a blessed release? Tantalisingly, however, Lutosławski's statements about his Third Symphony, and how, "the external world and our life experiences must intervene in a way in [the artist's] ideal world," suggest that, although "never conscious, never wanted", those influences did, in some way, affect his music.

For the 21st-century listener to Lutosławski's First Symphony, such statements add intrigue to one's consideration of the work; but however one chooses to hear the Poco adagio, and the other movements in the First Symphony (or, for that matter, the magnificent Third), it is a tribute to the richness of Lutosławski's music that so many plots can be derived from a single text.

Personally, in this regard, I can see no reason why one shouldn't seek to unite Rappoport-Gelfand and Lutosławski's seemingly different views of the Allegro vivace with the elderly listener's comments and my own analysis of the Poco adagio. After all, could the waltz theme's triumph at the end of the finale not be heard to resolve the structural tension created by the oppression of the second movement's similarly populist march theme, thereby enabling the music to achieve a sense of formal balance - and, therefore, structural serenity - before it closes? Maybe; and, then again, maybe not.

Ultimately, however, the only interpretative crime one could commit against Lutosławski's compositions would be to privilege any single (or composite) reading - even the composer's own - to the detriment of all others, thus robbing oneself of the opportunity to return afresh, time and time again, to his structurally compelling, emotionally fulfilling and endlessly fascinating music.

Nicholas Reyland, 6 March 2000

Also by Nicholas Reyland in CER

Arks and Labyrinths, Nicholas Reyland explores Poland's transformation from a neo-classical backwater to the frontier of the avant-garde in the 1950s and 60s through one of Polish modernisms then leading lights, Krzysztof Penderecki.


  • Nikolska, Irina: Conversations with Witold Lutosławski (Stockholm, 1994)
    (not available through Amazon)

    A vitally important series of conversations between the incisive Nikolska and Lutosławski at his most revealing, here shedding light upon aesthetic and artistic topics he had been reticent to discuss elsewhere. Despite a shockingly bad double translation, the book is well worth the effort of seeking it out and reading it.

  • Rappoport-Gelfand, Lidia:
    Musical Life in Poland - The Post War Years 1945-1977
    (Amsterdam, 1991)
    (from Amazon.com), (from Amazon.co.uk)

    A fine and provocative book about a remarkable period in Poland's musical history.

  • Rae, Charles Bodman: The Music of Lutosławski,
    third edition (London, 1999)
    (from Amazon.co.uk)

    Comprehensive, accessible, and meticulously researched, Charles Bodman Rae's book is the essential source of reference for anybody with an interest in Lutosławski's music.


  • First Symphony:
    Antoni Wit/Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
    (Naxos 8.554283)
    (from Amazon.co.uk)

    Wit's thrilling account of the First bustles with wit and energy, and the Symphony is coupled here with an especially welcome recording of the wonderful Silesian Tryptych (1951). Also includes the beautiful late song-cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1989-90) and the classic Jeux Vénitiens (1960-61)

  • Third Symphony/Les Espaces du Sommeil
    Esa-Pekka Salonen/Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony SK 66 280)
    (from Amazon.co.uk), (from Amazon.com)

    A marvellously proportioned recording of the Third - a work which can drag in even the most famous hands - capturing everything from minute details to the panoramic splendour of the music's sumptuous climax. Les Espaces, sung here by John Shirley-Quirk, is no less impressive, and Salonen's version of the brilliant Fourth Symphony (1988-92), though lacking in bite, is never short on profundity.

    About the author

    The author is currently undertaking doctoral research at the University of Cardiff into Lutosławski's theory of akcja and its analytical implications when applied to interpretations of the composer's works from the 1960s and 1970s. He is also investigating the possibility of connections between the composer's life, psychology and music.

    Nicholas Reyland is Editor of the journal British Postgraduate Musicology - soon to be available online - and Marketing Officer of the London Sinfonietta.



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