Musique funèbre (1958)

By Michael Klein, Temple University

Written for the concert Creative Links: The Career of Witold Lutoslawski, performed on Nov 18, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Lutoslawski wrote that after a performance of his Symphony No. 1 in 1949, the Polish minister of culture “stormed into the conductor’s room and in front of a dozen people announced that a composer like me ought to be thrown under the wheels of a streetcar. It is interesting that this was not meant as a joke—he was really furious!” The seriousness of communist control of music had become evident in 1936, when Stalin’s government attacked Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth as a formalist work. In truth, the term “formalism” was ill-defined, allowing officials to censor anything they didn’t understand. Poland’s own Stalinist government pressured composers to write simple songs, or program music. In addition, composers were directed to avoid anything remotely smacking of the avant-garde. After the new guidelines, the Polish Radio might broadcast a “Song of the Six Year Plan,” or a Cantata in Praise of Labor.

The death of Stalin in 1953 (on the same day of Prokofiev’s death) started a thaw in the artistic life of Eastern Europe. In 1956 the protests of the so-called “Polish October” finally brought a return to some artistic freedom. In the same year, Polish composers initiated the first Warsaw Autumn festival of contemporary music. At the second Warsaw Autumn in 1958, audiences heard a performance of Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music, dedicated to the memory of Bartók. Polish and foreign critics were stunned—though based on a twelve-tone row, the music made a deeply emotional impact. The arch form and canonic writing made obvious connections with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, but the whole sound-world of Funeral Music pointed to new directions for Polish music. Lutoslawski gained instant international recognition as the premier Polish composer of his day.

Funeral Music is a single-movement work in four sections, marked Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogeum, and Epilogue. The emotional crux of the piece is the Apogeum with its distressing outcry of grief and loss. Hearing it, one readily imagines that it expressed the long suffering of a composer and a country that had endured in spite of that suffering.