The Polish composer and conductor Witold Lutoslawski is awarded The Polar Music Prize, 1993. The Award Committee’s motivation is as follows: In Witold Lutoslawski, the Committee’s choice has fallen upon one of the pioneers of contemporary European art music.
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1913, the young Witold Lutoslawski showed great musical talent from an early age, writing his first compositions in 1922. He went on to study violin, piano and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory, graduating with diplomas in the latter two subjects in 1937. During World War II, the German occupiers greatly repressed Polish cultural expressions and restricted large gatherings; Lutoslawski supported himself during these difficult years by performing with different musical groups in less formal settings such as cafés.
Formalism in the Soviet Union
Formalism is an artistic concept wherein a work’s artistic value is based on its compositional elements and form instead of its context and content. In post-war Poland, as throughout the Soviet Union, the Stalinist regime insisted that composers and artists adopt Socialist realism in order to convey the ideas and goals of the regime in a “realistic” light. Painters were expected to depict happy, muscular workers in factories and on collective farms, while composers were expected to compose glorious hymns and vivid, happy music to reflect the desired sense of progress and collective spirit of the proletariat. The Zhdanov decree of 1948 specifically targeted formalism in music, persecuting a number of prominent Soviet composers whose works did not conform to the Soviet cultural policy.
This included Lutosławski who had performances of his works banned in Poland because they were considered to be formalist. To sustain himself, Lutosławski turned to writing what he called “functional music” for radio, film and theatre, as well as arranging folk songs and composing music for children. Another Polar Music Prize Laureate, Mstislav Rostropovich, was an outspoken critic of the anti-formalism campaign and eventually collaborated artistically with Lutosławski.
Polish folk music influences
Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra marked an important culmination of his early Polish folk music influences and established him as an important composer of art music. The conductor Witold Rowicki originally commissioned the work in 1950 for the newly reconstituted Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed the piece for the first time on November 26, 1954.
The Lutoslawski signature
In the years following Concerto for Orchestra, Lutoslawski expanded greatly upon his compositional style, departing significantly from his earlier folkloristic pieces to instead explore new harmonic and contrapuntal ideas and develop what would become his twelve-tone system. This new composition style is most evident in his pieces 5 Songs from 1956-57 and Muzyka żałobna (also know as Musique funèbre or Funeral Music) from 1958.
He continued to explore new compositional techniques, and with 1961’s Jeux Vénitiens, he introduced chance into his music by loosening the time relationships between sounds. These different compositional techniques became important cornerstones of the signature compositional style that would come to define his subsequent works.
Lutoslawski’s oeuvre is filled with examples of experimentation that helped contribute towards a renewal of the contemporary orchestral vocabulary, something that has made his music an indispensable part of today’s orchestral and chamber music repertoire. Moreover, his uncompromising stance and moral courage in times of severe intellectual repression, helped maintain Polish music’s relevance on the international stage.
Stockholm, May 1993
Witold Lutoslawski received the Polar Music Prize the same year as late bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie.