Friday, May 22, 2009

Ad libitum: Witold Lutoslawski

I became a fan of classical music in college thanks to my friend Matt. He and I would often spend evenings playing wargames (which he usually won) and listening to his modest classical record collection. Beethoven and Mozart mostly, but he was a big Wagner fan too.

Later on I developed my own tastes and a small collection. After my return from India I began building what has become a classical collection of several hundred CDs. All periods interest me to some extent. I cover everything from Gregorian Chants and lute music of the Renaissance to music by modern composers.

As tradition would have it, I have more Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler than anything else. But, recently I have turned my attention to contemporary classical music, the stuff that is often so difficult for even lovers of classical music to listen to.

Classical music is not something that happened several centuries ago. It is very much alive, with a surprising diversity of compositional styles. About 1 of every 5 CDs in my collection feature compositions since 1950, most since 1980. My collection includes a healthy dose of Elliott Carter (still composing at age 100), Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Gyorgy Ligeti, Henryk Gorecki, and Wolfgang Rihm among many others.

By far my favorite modern composer is Witold Lutoslawski. I am not really acquainted with anyone who is connected with the happenings of contemporary musical arts, so I sort of have to stumble across great modern works on my own.

I discovered Lutoslawski in the late 1980's when Jennifer and I were spending regular weekends visiting friends in Atlanta. I would often work in a trip to a music store and peruse the modern classical music section for anything that looked new and interesting. Once I found a CD with a balding, aged man on the cover entitled Lutoslawski Conducts Lutoslawski. It looked like a recent classical work only about a few years removed from me. So I gave it a try.

The CD contained Lutoslawski's Third Symphony
which made a great impression on me. Its rich, layered and sustained musical textures are often lyrical but also punctuated with moments of aleatorical composition. Lutoslawski did not develop this technique but he used it in his more recent compositions in varying degrees to astonishing effect. The orchestra, under certain controlled cues from the conductor, plays somewhat randomly and spontaneously so that parts of the symphony literally are performed by the players without strict guidance. The effect changed my appreciation for modern composition.

A couple of years later I managed to pick-up Lutoslawski's dazzling Piano Concerto as well as his composition entitled Chain III. It is fairly safe to say the Lutslawski’s Piano Concerto is the standard by which all works following it are measured. It is the greatest such concerto of the last half of the 20th century. You can listen to the entire concerto in four parts on youtube.


These were among the few works I knew during his lifetime. Lutoslawski died in 1994. It was only after that that a wider range of recordings, including his complete orchestral compositions on the Naxos label, were released. I gathered everything I could.

Somewhat distinctive among composers (Mahler also comes to mind), Lutoslawski
was working on musical ideas and theories that could best be realized only in an orchestral setting. So, the great majority of his creations are not chamber works but intended for the abilities unique to orchestral composition.

By now I have listened to Lutoslawski's Third and Fourth Symphonies probably more than any other symphony in my collection. This would include Mozart's 40th, Beethoven's 3rd and 9th, Mahler's 6th and 9th and Shostakovich's 5th and 10th - all of which I consider to be brilliant.

Since the start of spring I have found myself listening to everything Lutoslawski, including some exciting performances conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen has conducted several world premiere recordings of Lutoslawski's music (including his Fourth Symphony) and Salonen’s own work is obviously influenced by Lutoslawski.

It is no longer difficult to become a Lutoslawski aficionado. Unlike composers such as Carter and Rihm who have seemingly countless compositions to collect (Rihm is so prolific that many of his 400+ compositions have never been performed), Lutoslawski's entire output consists of little more than 50 - 60 compositions, including incidental music and songs. I own perhaps 45 or so of them. He was painstakingly exact with his compositions, often taking years to complete a piece of music.

Again, I have no musical training, so I have to grasp at words to try to convey what it is about any musical work that I find captivating. With Lutoslawski, I find that the concept of "musical space" is best.

Imagine a large orchestral hall. It is empty, designed to be filled with music in various ways. Handel's "Messiah" or Beethoven's 9th Symphony can fill it with what are considered more traditional musical works involving a choir in addition to an orchestra. The notes and chords are familiar to us. Easy on the ear.

But these musical compositions focus more on the harmonies and lyricism of the classical form. That is, they fill the space but call no attention to the space itself. By contrast, for example, the final movement of Mahler's 9th encapsulates the space with string instruments performing long, sustained notes that define the space more specifically. A vast, loving space. You can feel an openness in listening to this part of that work.

Other composer's have used this same approach (Carter and Rihm come to mind but they are fractured and spiky, not lyrical) but none as effectively, in my opinion, as Lutoslawski. There are passages in the Third Symphony or in Chain II that are punctuated with bold, ad libitim, aleatorical moments
where large portions of the orchestra are simply playing notes or chords of the composer’s choosing but at the player's discretion.

These moments often end abruptly, falling into a soft, supportive sustained use of just a few strings or woodwinds. The immense boldness succumbs to a soft, gentle, drift of melody. You get the feeling, as with Mahler, that you are suddenly in this immense, relaxed space of music, lovingly nurtured as the listener. These are magnificent experiences that are quite distinctive. And they point specifically to the space within the music. Silence and ambiance are as critical here as any other compositional element.

You can listen to an example of his compositional style for orchestra on in a two part youtube video here.
This example predates the more mature style of his Third Symphony and the Piano Concerto, however.

These moments are combined with the usual modern classical elements of atonality, dissonance, chord complexity that gives the music its edge or bite. But with Lutoslawski the bite is always innovatively ensconced in textured layers of lyricism and melody that are captivating yet not in any way “romantic.” It is, rather, fully of this artistic time, perhaps more akin to “space music” than anything else.

Lutoslawski is uniquely ambient. He composes large sections of complex music where sections are played boldly and often spontaneously. But, these do not dominate his greater works. They are punctuations for extended periods of sophisticated yet relaxed sound. Few notes, most extended, few instruments, each moving in and out of harmony and melody, generally not in sync but in layers distinctive to Lutoslawski’s mature style.

All of this makes Lutoslawski a gardener of sound spaces. Richly complex stratum of assorted types of musical textures
– varying from loud, utter chaos to string sections sounding like a swam of bees to lovely isolated oboes and flutes floating in gentle Khachaturian-like beds of sustained harmony. All of these are cultivars of his craftsmanship.

Lutoslawski experimented with a “chain” method of composition that is worthy of note. It was presented over the course of 1983-1986 in Chain I, Chain II, and Chain III. According to a program note by the Chicago Symphony:


“In the mid-1980s, after the success of the Third Symphony, Lutosławski wrote three independent works he called Chain, after the overlapping forms of their design. (The first, for chamber ensemble, dates from 1983; both the second, for violin and orchestra, which is performed at these concerts, and the third, for large orchestra, were premiered in 1986.) ‘Over the last few years I have been working on a new type of musical form,’ the composer explained, which consists of two structurally independent strands. Sections within each strand begin and end at different times. This is the premise on which the term “Chain” was selected.

“Chain 2, for solo violin and orchestra, has four movements, alternately ad libitum and a battuta (with the beat)—that is, switching back and forth between the free and the strictly conducted kinds of music that define the mature Lutosławski style. In the ad libitum sections, the conductor presides over the written ‘improvisations’ of the various instruments without dictating the way they unfold: ‘Any coordination is undesirable,’ Lutosławski writes in the score. The last movement is itself a microcosm of the whole, beginning and ending a battuta, but with a short, ‘elastic’ ad libitum section in the middle."
The entire note is here.

Click here to watch Lutoslawski himself conduct Chain I in a youtube video.

I am fortunate that I knew of and appreciated Lutoslawski during the last six years of his life, though his wider body of luminous work only came to me in the years following his passing. Today, my appreciation for him has grown. He was a musical genius, and a primary influence on new music by both Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, among many other young composers.

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