Lutosławski’s century: A soundtrack of destruction

It's time to revisit a composer who was arguably the true voice of the twentieth century.

Witold Lutosławski. Photograph: WikiCommons

In a year bristling with big-name classical anniversaries – Wagner, Verdi, Britten – the centenary of the Polish 20th-century composer Witold Lutosławski is easily overlooked. But with a year of concerts dedicated to Lutosławski’s music starting this month, it’s time to revisit a composer who, for all his modesty and quiet diligence, is arguably the true voice of the century – a musician not just writing the history of his time, but living it.

In 1917, when the February Revolution toppled the tsar of Russia, the four-year-old Lutosławski saw his father and uncle executed by the Bolsheviks. A decade later, when Germany invaded Poland, Lutosławski was captured, eventually escaping and walking the 250 miles back home. His brother was less fortunate and later died in a Soviet labour camp. When Warsaw was razed to the ground by Nazi forces in the bloody uprising of 1944, Lutosławski was sheltering with his mother in an attic, composing to a soundtrack of destruction. And when communist rule in Poland finally fell in 1989, Lutosławski was second only to Pope John Paul II in receiving the Order of the White Eagle – Poland’s greatest honour.

His was an extraordinary life, but in keeping with the paradox of the man it was one lived in the most ordinary of surroundings.

Not caring for luxury, Lutosławski lived until middle age in a small flat in central Warsaw. Visiting earlier this month I found a brutalist, concrete block, distinguished from hundreds of similar blocks only by a small plaque to the composer that you wouldn’t find unless you were looking for it. It was only a visit from the celebrated cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who protested that it wasn’t fitting for Poland’s senior composer to live in such a way, that eventually prompted a move to the house in a quietly affluent Warsaw suburb still occupied by his stepson today.

Echoes of Lutosławski-the-modernist are still everywhere: in the abstract painting that dominates the sitting room and the Bauhaus- style chairs at the dining table. The composer’s grand piano might now be in Warsaw Castle but his study remains otherwise unaltered, separated tellingly from the rest of the house by two doors. “Every day he would work here behind closed doors,” explains the composer’s stepson, Marcin Bogusławski, as he shows me round, “and not even my mother could disturb him. He was such a private man that she would never know at the end of a day whether he had spent it writing letters, filing his nails, or having the most productive day of his life.”

The bookcase that lines one wall is still heavy with dictionaries, scores and reference texts in multiple languages – I catch sight of Wagner’s Siegfried jostled up next to Debussy’s Children’s Corner – the traces of a man who always strove to get the root of knowledge, fascinated by the full gamut of music and experience.

Yet all those who knew him also remember his humour. A large chest downstairs was the source of fascination to visitors; Lutosławski would solemnly explain that it held the family’s greatest treasures. “They assumed of course that he meant his scores,” recalls Bogusławski, “but in fact it contained all the alcohol in the house”.

An intensely self-contained public figure, a wit, a man of meticulous order and control who embraced the freedom of aleatoric writing, Lutosławski’s contradictions were nowhere more extreme than in his music. To audiences trained to read Stalinist oppression into the jaded battle-cries of Shostakovich’s symphonies it seems unthinkable that so politically embedded a composer – one who refused to attend public concerts during Poland’s years of martial law for fear of appearing to condone the regime – could compose music without political meaning. Yet that is exactly what the composer claimed, insisting on what the Polish musicologist Zbigniew Skowron has called the “purely musical, absolute dimension” of his works.

Yet listening to such pieces as the Cello Concerto and Third Symphony, such abstractions seem impossible – so urgent and evocative is their story. Not for Lutosławski the abstruse avant-gardism of Darmstadt; instead, his innovations charted a contrary path and he set himself apart from contemporary composers whose “creativity is mainly a dialogue with other composers”. His focus, even in later experiments with tonal systems and aleatorics, was the listener, the “perception of a work, not only the notes”. It’s a generosity typical of the composer, locating his art and its success in the listener rather than his own creative imagination.

Emotion is always urged in Lutosławski’s music – a permission rarely given by music of the 1970s and 1980s. For any contemporary music sceptic it offers a richly approachable introduction to the era, blending wistful cantilenas of melody with some of the most apocalyptic climaxes of symphonic music. The colouristic wash of orchestral song-cycle Les Espaces du Sommeil roams through the surrealist landscape of Robert Desnos’s verse with elusive beauty, while the Cello Concerto offers an impassioned musical narrative that pits the soloist in the orchestral arena against the brutal assaults of brass. The Concerto for Orchestra, by contrast, offers a glimpse of the composer in his early years, still working with Polish folk music in a vigorous and energetic work.

Stylistically, the composer is hard to pin down. Although he admired Karol Szymanowski, he had no wish to be assimilated into a “Polish School” of composers. His great love was for French music, for the gauzy orchestral watercolours of Debussy and Ravel, and their glinting colours and textural detail find a natural home in Lutosławski’s writing. Yet formally it was perhaps to Beethoven he owed most, sharing his ability to guide even an unfamiliar listener through the craggiest of musical structures without losing their footing.

Lutosławski was often heard to quote Debussy: “Music begins where words end”. It was the guiding philosophy of a career that witnessed some of the 20th century’s worst atrocities, yet somehow managed to continue a quest for order, truth and beauty. It’s not enough to talk or read about Lutosławski’s music; to understand anything of this brave and generous musician, we must adjourn to the concert hall, to sit and listen – as he so often did, with tears running down his face – to his concertos or later symphonies, some of the most vivid and heartbreaking musical abstractions in the repertoire.

The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, a friend and frequent collaborator with the composer, perhaps comes closest to capturing the experience of Lutosławski’s music. “The image I always have is of an old couple walking hand-in-hand through ruins which are still smoking. They are not even trying to find their family or possessions, they are just silently walking through the devastation.” And what of the oddly joyous codas that so often end the works? “It’s like he felt a sense of responsibility; you can’t leave your audience in that devastated place, you have to give them a tool to dig themselves out of the grave. He was that kind of man.”

The Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lutosławski season “Woven Words” runs from 30 January to 10 June 2013 at Southbank London and venues worldwide