Symphony No. 3 (1983)

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.

Beginning in the 1960s, Lutoslawski’s international reputation brought him enough commissions and performances to allow full devotion to composition. In 1974, while receiving an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University, Lutoslawski accepted one such commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Though he immediately started sketching what would become his Symphony No. 3, he soon had to put the project aside to complete other commissions. In addition, he may have felt that his next Symphony should only proceed after solving the problems of melodic writing that came with his limited aleatory technique. Finally, in 1981 Lutoslawski resumed intensive work on his Symphony No. 3, which Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered in September 1983.

Following a plan found in his Symphony No. 2, Preludes and Fugues, and String Quartet, the work employs a two-movement form where the movements proceed without a break. The first movement is brief and episodic, with each episode framed by a four-note jab in the brass. The second movement becomes more lyrically narrative, leading to a culminating climax that concludes with that same four-note motive. As the second movement proceeds, we hear the fruits of Lutoslawski’s labors with melodic writing. In particular, the final section features a long-breathed melody that reaches a rather ecstatic moment punctuated by a fabulous, sustained texture in the percussion, evoking a gamelan effect. It is difficult to refrain from gushing over this passage, which brings the work to an instant of unqualified optimism rarely found in Lutoslawski’s uncompromisingly modernist music. The Symphony No. 3 is Lutoslawski’s masterpiece among masterpieces. It fulfills the promise that a young Polish composer once pursued among the ashes of a culture dashed by war and tyranny.