The Listening Room: The Embraceable Modernist
23 Jan 2012
Inside the Classics

It’s time for this month’s edition of The Listening Room, in which our MicroCommission composer Judd Greenstein selects a recording he loves and invites you to have a conversation about it. We’re going to change things up a little this time around, spreading out the discussion over more posts and more days, rather than hitting you with everything Judd has to say right up front, so check back each day this week for a new post.

You can join the discussion at any point in the comments, and feel free to bring up points that Judd and I haven’t touched on – if some good side discussions develop, we’ll include them in future posts. You can get this month’s recording from Amazon by clicking the image at the top of this post, or on iTunes by clicking here. (Yes, we’re asking you to pay for the recordings we feature, but seriously? This one is $2.99 – you can probably afford that.)

Since Lutoslawski isn’t as familiar a name to many American listeners as he probably should be, I asked Judd to kick things off with a little background on who this composer was, why his music is important (or at least worth listening to,) and how he came to the particular compositional style that defines both him and his era. Here’s Judd:

Witold Lutoslawski is the greatest symphonic composer you’ve never heard of. He is a towering giant of the late 20th century, a “composers’ composer” whose music exists on an island unto itself, truly original and deserving of more imitators than it has received. His more-famous Polish countrymen, Penderecki and Górecki, each have established their place in the symphonic repertoire, Penderecki as a lingering legacy of his confrontational early works, with their radical approach to texture and color (as well as, it must be said, their controversial titles), and Górecki for his spiritual, almost mystical scores that manage to be directly beautiful without dipping back in the well of Romanticism. Of those two, Górecki is the better composer, and has a number of excellent works, but even he doesn’t hold a candle to Lutoslawski.

From the CD I’ve chosen for The Listening Room, I want to focus on the two Symphonies, Number 3 and Number 4. The four Symphonies of Lutoslawski mirror his life’s progression as a composer, which roughly mirrors the arc of European modernism as it progressed through the Cold War, from the 1940s through the beginning of the 1990s (Lutoslawski died in 1994). In the early part of his career, he wrote folk-influenced works for standard instrumentation, highly suggestive of late Bartok. Some of Lutoslawski’s great works of this period, particularly the Concerto for Orchestra and the Paganini Variations, are his most-performed pieces today, by far — even though he had three more periods ahead of him. This is typical for composers who had an early, “populist” period that preceded their move toward modernism, and usually is a tool for classical institutions to claim that they’re programming more “modern music”. (Yes, I’m calling you out, orchestras — we see what you’re doing!) [Guilty. I'm pretty sure the Concerto for Orchestra is the only Lutoslawski we've played since I've been in the orchestra, and Sarah conducted it. - Sam]

As the political climate shifted following Stalin’s death, Lutoslawski was exposed to more radical styles; hearing John Cage’s Concerto for Piano was a big influence, as it suggested a way forward using “aleatoric” techniques — what we might call “chance” operations. For Lutoslawski, unlike Cage (who embraced chance as a philosophical guidepost), aleatoric procedures were useful in very controlled circumstances, embedded in a highly structured, formal context. In his scores from the early ’60s onward, instruments would only sometimes be directly synced up with each other. Instead, they’d be cued at specific moments, but left to their own devices, playing exactly what was on the page, but not lining up directly (note-to-note) with the other players. This did two things:

1) It created textures which would otherwise be extremely difficult to notate, and which varied more from performance to performance than those in a completely-notated piece.

2) It gave each player a lot more freedom in their performance, since they didn’t have to line up directly with anyone else. Think about dancing by yourself versus dancing with a partner — neither is necessarily better or worse, but you have a lot more freedom in the former, right?

Tomorrow, Judd talks specifically about Lutoslawski’s 3rd and 4th symphonies, and the distinct periods of the composer’s working life. For now, if you’ve listened to the disc and have thoughts or questions, fire away in the comments…

<February 2020>

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