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Witold Lutoslawski

Polish Born 25 Jan 1913 Died 07 Feb 1994

Witold Lutoslawski learnt piano and violin as a child, taking formal lessons at the Warsaw Conservatoire from 1932. He fought at the start of the Second World War; imprisoned by the Germans, he managed to get back to Warsaw and eke out a living playing piano in cafes. Even at this time he was composing, his 1941 Paganini Variations (originally a duet for piano) being from this period. After the war he began to teach; by the sixties he was lecturing around the world and receiving prestigious awards for his compositions. A position as composer in residence at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, allowed him free rein to explore new ideas.

Lutoslawski’s techniques as a composer are interesting both to discuss and in terms of the results they yield. When composing as a serialist he could devise simple motives which built into a series, giving it a strong coherence; his 1958 Musique Funebre, written for, and reminiscent of, Bartok, begins with a series constructed from only two intervals. The same work builds towards an ‘Apogee’ containing another of Lutoslawski’s hallmarks, a chord containing all twelve notes. The First Symphony (1947) contains similar methods of serial construction, its ingenuity and drive sounding rather like Shostakovich.

Lutoslawski was also keen to explore indeterminism; his Venetian Games (1961) give performers parts which they can follow at their own pace, the conductor serving only to bring them back in line at pre-specified points. The composer claimed that he had planned the work considering every resulting eventuality; Stravinsky was unconvinced that this could be done!

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