Symphony No. 1 (1947)

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.

Witold Lutoslawski began composing his Symphony No. 1 in 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Relatively unknown as a composer, and with no hope of hearing his Symphony performed, Lutoslawski nonetheless continued on the only path he could imagine—the pursuit of a singular musical voice even in the face of annihilation. Two years earlier, the composer commanded a military radio station that the Germans quickly seized during their invasion. (One imagines a scene like the opening of the film The Pianist.) Captured as a prisoner of war, Lutoslawski escaped eight days later and walked 400 kilometers to his native Warsaw, where he eked out an existence performing music in cafes. With the composer Andrzej Panufnik, the two performed their arrangements for duo piano of music ranging from Bach to Debussy. From this period comes Lutoslawski’s popular Paganini Variations, based on the Italian virtuoso’s celebrated twenty-fourth caprice, Caprice in A minor, Op. 1, No. 24.

Work on the Symphony continued through the failed Warsaw Rising of 1944, after which Lutoslawski hid in an attic while composing the first movement’s development section. For all this perseverance, though, the Symphony would not see completion until 1947, by which time Lutoslawski had gained modest recognition as a composer. The first movement has the same brilliant orchestration and infectious rhythm that we might expect from Stravinsky. Even its opening dissonant blast sounds more reminiscent of a Petrushkan prank than a frightened outcry. The second movement has a darker hue in its opening string melody, while a contrasting march bears the ironic tone we associate with Prokofiev. Though the Scherzo includes a driving middle section, Lutoslawski staunchly denied any extra-musical associations with the war. The brilliant fourth movement reaches a clanging climax followed by a sudden hushed suspension of time—an effect we hear again in his later music.

Grzegorz Fitelberg, formerly one of the conductors for the Ballets Russes, gave the Symphony No. 1 its premiere in 1948. Critics immediately recognized that Lutoslawski was now at the forefront of Polish music. But acclamation was short lived. A few months later the Soviet-style Polish Composer’s Union denounced this Symphony as formalist. Like Poland, Lutoslawski had endured the fury of fascism only to face the calculated tyranny of Stalinist communism.