Creative Links

By Leon Botstein

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

The composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) is frequently quoted as having said, “The most fundamental aim of any piece of art is its reception by the audience.” On the face of it, this claim seems obvious enough, but for a composer born in 1913, whose career spanned the mid-twentieth century through neoclassicism, high modernism, minimalism, neoromanticism, and eclecticism (pardon the excessive number of isms), this comment is exceptional. The twentieth century can be seen as an era in music history when the relationship between composers and audience was deeply troubled. In the early part of the century, the successful spread of musical culture from the previous century generated its own reaction. The modern piano was the ubiquitous instrument of a remarkable democratization of high musical culture. A staple in a growing number of middle-class homes, the piano and music education in general became widespread sufficiently to generate a commercial opportunity for the manufacture of instruments and the publication of sheet music. Parallel to this came the explosion of music journalism and the extension of interest in art and concert music through daily and weekly publications. The decade before World War I was the high-water mark in the sales of pianos, the number of publications devoted to music, the frequency of public concerts, and the ubiquity of amateur organizations including choruses and chamber music societies. This explosion in public and private musical activity coincided with the acceptance of a generalized vocabulary of musical expression that we now recognize as the clichés of late Romanticism. Expressivity and melodiousness were integrated with a variegated color achieved in part through elaborate chromatic harmonies. Furthermore, given the extent of amateurism there was an extraordinary premium placed on virtuosity and on the brilliance of technical finesse characteristic of the professional performer.

All this, including the overheated gestures of the post-Wagnerians, struck a new generation of composers beginning in the early twentieth century as troublesome. Along with the noble extension of musical taste and the expansion of public concert life, came what appeared to be an increasing conservatism in taste. A canon of classics was established which still influences concert repertory today. Among composers, the dominant middle-class taste soon became the object of scorn and contempt. Surface familiarity with the great literature of music, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata or Chopin’s Nocturnes, actually became for some an indication of philistinism. The result was a modernist revolt against Romanticism and the “standard” language of musical expression, which may roughly be compared to realism in novelistic technique. The quest for new language of musical expression was also a self-conscious attack on the smug taste and attitudes of the concert audience.

This sometimes violent clash between modern music and its intended audience took place not only in Vienna and Paris but throughout Europe, first on the eve of World War I and then with greater frequency in the 1920s. Its consequences are still being felt as audiences today continue to flee from the names of Schoenberg and Ives as difficult, incomprehensible, and certainly not enjoyable. Despite the many analogies one would like to make between musical modernism and modernism in visual art, audiences for music have never approached the acceptance of abstraction, non-objective and conceptual art that art lovers exhibit. The alienation between composer and audience has been both justified and reviled. There is little doubt that the extent of the degree of the breakdown in communication created the conditions that encouraged the abandonment of the modernist compositional strategy beginning in the mid-1970s. Having lost the audience, a new generation of composers abandoned the credo of its teachers and returned to the idea that new music needs to be written to which an audience will respond. Gone is the critique of the bourgeois and of the middle-class concert-goer as agent of capitalist oppression, false expressivity, consumer mentality, and materialism.

More importantly, composers during the last quarter of the twentieth century understood that the breakdown of contact between composer and audience failed to be repaired because something else entered the vacuum left by the aggressive retreat of early twentieth-century modernism. In western societies more popular musical genres emerged, fueled by new hospitable technologies such as the gramophone and radio. Popular music diversified from song and dance music into music for the theater, movies, and television, and eventually created its own vocabulary of musical expression. The integration of jazz and folk elements, both urban and rural, led the way from Tin Pan Alley to the modern rock band. The cultural need for music did not diminish but it was now satisfied by the personalities of popular music. No classical composer of the twentieth century could aspire to the political presence and activity that Wagner attained in nineteenth century Europe, but Bono has done precisely that.

All this provides a context for understanding the path of music in a part of Europe that gained its political independence only in 1919. Lutoslawski was born in a nation that was held together only by culture and religion. He was born in the Russian part of Poland. In fact Lutoslawski spent part of his youth in Moscow, returning to Poland only at the end of the Russo-Polish war in 1920. Lutoslawski’s father and uncle were executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks for their participation in military efforts to create a free Poland. The Poland created by the Treaty of Versailles out of the defeated Germany and Austria-Hungary was geographically different from the Poland we know today. It bears repeating for American audiences that the Poland for which Lutoslawski’s father died included what became in 1945 part of the westernmost section of the Soviet Union. Part of the price of the victory of World War II was the forced transfer of population by Stalin, shifting Poles from what had once been the eastern part of Poland to the west, to regions of modern day Poland that had been part of Germany. The Germans were moved westward to east Germany. The most notable example is Wroclaw, formerly Breslau, where the population until 1945 was heavily German. The Poles of today who live there are largely descendents of Poles who were transferred from Lvov and other locations in the eastern part of Poland.

In spite of this admittedly confusing and somewhat tragic political history, and well before it from the late eighteenth century onward, there was always a Poland in the minds of Poles from the intelligentsia, aristocracy, and peasantry. Despite its poverty and high rates of illiteracy, a Polish national consciousness existed based on language and Catholicism. In a near second place as an instrument of nationalism, there was music. The national folk music of Poland can be heard not only in Chopin but also in Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra (1954). Beyond folk music there was a national sensibility among Polish composers. That sensibility was given greater emphasis in 1919 when Poland achieved its political independence. No greater symbolism is needed than the fact that the first Polish president was Ignaz Paderewski, a world-famous concert pianist, mediocre composer, and renowned editor of Chopin’s piano music.

It is because of this special national/cultural history that an attitude to the audience marked by contempt, disregard or snobbery even for an avowed modernist would be unthinkable for a Polish composer. The making of music was understood as an essential dimension of keeping a spirit of independence, freedom, spirituality, and community alive in the face of oppression, both of foreign powers and later a more complicated and often subtle internal sort. That internal oppression first initially took the form of a proto-fascist dictatorship in the interwar period dominated by Jozef Pilsudski, and then was replaced by the oppression imposed by Polish communism. True freedom for the Poles began only in earnest with the Solidarity movement and the fall of communism.

Lutoslawski lived through this complex maze of political circumstance. He grew up in a semi-democratic Poland of interwar years and witnessed the brutality of the Nazi occupation. He made his reputation as a composer during the most restrictive Stalinist era before the thaw of the Gomulka government. He became part of the Polish avant-garde of the 1960s which included Polish cinema and theater and was feted in the west, particularly in France. (One can observe in the careers of Chopin, Szymanowski, and Lutoslawski the enormous affinity between Polish and French culture.) France represented liberation from the political and cultural dominance of Russia to the east and Germany to the west. The Polish avant-garde represented during the Cold War the liberal possibilities of communism. Since culture had always been the medium of national self-expression in the absence of political independence for Poles, it was not surprising that after 1945, despite nominal political independence, culture would continue its independence as the medium of individual freedom in the presence of totalitarian communism (even Polish communism). It is unreasonable to condemn those of Lutoslawski’s generation (including Lutoslawski himself), for having believed in the possibilities of communism in Poland, throughout the Cold War, even after 1968 when the Polish regime shifted to the right. National pride overcame revulsion with the limits of communism and the overbearing presence of the Soviet Union.

Throughout his career, despite important shifts in his musical strategy, Lutoslawski always retained the belief that he was an artist with an obligation to his contemporary audience. His music had to make its point emotionally and viscerally to a public that needed art. The First Symphony was designed to provoke the reaction of the authorities. It was an artistic response to two forms of oppression, one associated with Hitler and the other with Stalin. The second period, during which Lutoslawski sought to retain his place in pubic life, he composed the music of Musique funèbre. Written in the 1950s, it seeks to integrate a self-conscious avant-garde, a twelve-tone method. This was also a period in which Lutoslawski paid homage to Bartók and employed folk materials. In this way, Lutoslawski balanced adherence to official aesthetics with an undercurrent of resistance. The last period examined in this concert is an era in which Lutoslawski used his fame in the west as well as in Poland as an instrument of covert expression of resistance. The Third Symphony and Chain 2 are works composed during the era of conflict between Solidarity and the imposition of martial law. The Polish government could not afford to do what the Russians tried in the Brezhnev era: to expel internationally visible cultural figures such as Solzhenitsyn. Lutoslawski was among one of Poland’s most revered and respected figures. His music of the 1980s, in its integration of chance elements and accessible expressivity, was an act of cultural solidarity with the Solidarity, movement as the composer confessed privately to many of his younger colleagues.

The elaborate framework that Polish politics of the twentieth century offered Lutoslawski represented an amalgam of limitations and opportunities. It offered him the chance to defend the use of modernism as more than an aesthetic strategy. It became an essential means of communicating to a people after 1945 struggling to reconcile political independence with freedom and social justice. A proper musical language for such a condition could not be nostalgic, reminiscent, or sentimental. At the same time modern music could not be abstract, unemotional or ambitiously clever. Every note in tonight’s concert reflects intensity and integrity, as well as originality.

Lutoslawski will remain one of the great masters of twentieth-century music. He will be remembered as the greatest Polish composer after Chopin and Szymanowski. Like his two predecessors, his music has a consistency in its originality, craftsmanship, economy, and elegance. But perhaps the most telling mark of greatness in his music is that when all of the political elements have been forgotten, his music, precisely because it was created to reach the hearts and minds of an audience, lends itself to the construction of meaning by all audiences from different times and nations. Music essentially always has specific and local origins, but the translation into extended, wordless musical forms permits music to emancipate itself from that which is bound by time. Lutoslawski’s music will continue to be played by musicians in New York, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Kuala Lumpur. Some day future audiences may hear something in Lutoslawski’s music when Poland is for them at best merely a place on the globe. Of its politics, history, and language they may know practically nothing. And it is to Lutoslawski’s immortal credit that to respond to his music they will not need to know.