Lutosławski Symphony No. 3

On 13 December 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzełski, Prime Minister of Poland, imposed Martial Law (in Polish Stan Wojenny, ‘state of war’). From that moment until September 1988, as a protest Lutosławski declined all concert appearances in his own country and even avoided appearing on Polish television or as an audience member at public events, lest the authorities take the opportunity to make it appear as though he were cooperating.

The increasing clamour for liberalisation that had led up to the crisis had also resulted in the birth of the labour movement Solidarność (Solidarity), based in Gdańsk and headed by shipyard electrician Lech Wałęsa – the movement that would eventually lead to free elections, the ouster of the Communist government and Wałęsa’s presidency.

A little over a year later, in early 1983, Lutosławski completed his Third Symphony. Observers both at home and abroad soon seized on its passionate, dramatic character to speculate that the composer was using the symphony to comment on the political situation – and indeed, soon after the première, he had sent a recording to be played to a large, Solidarity-friendly crowd gathered in a Gdańsk church, together with a statement of support, and the work won him Solidarity’s S-Prize in late 1983. Lutosławski, of course, steadfastly maintained that his Third Symphony, like all his works, was purely music. Yet, whatever its meaning, the work became and remains hugely popular in Poland and around the world.

It was a long time coming. As was his habit, Lutosławski began at the most difficult point, spending almost two years in 1972-73 working on the big central toccata at the symphony’s heart. Dissatisfied, he discarded the movement and turned to other projects (Les espaces du sommeil, Mi-parti). In 1977-78 he tried again, and at that stage he told me that he was planning four movements, or perhaps four sections in a one-movement design: Invocation, Cycle of Etudes, Toccata and Hymn. Once again, though, he failed to solve the toccata problem and turned away. The intensive work that finally enabled him to complete the score resumed in 1981, he completed the troublesome main section in 1982, then the rest followed quickly. By that time the Chicago Symphony, which had first requested the piece 11 years earlier, were rather astonished to receive it, but a donor was quickly found to fund the commission and the première under Sir Georg Solti was speedily arranged for the opening of the following season, on 29 September 1983.

Lutosławski’s own formal outline lists three movements plus introduction and coda, played without pause. None of the original titles survive in the final score, but it is not difficult to see the original ‘invocation’ idea in the striking four-note motto that calls the proceedings to order, nor to see the ‘cycle’ of etudes’ idea in the episodic first movement, nor the ‘hymn’ in the lyricism of the third movement. Lutosławski’s frequent two-part formal model (introductory-main, hesitant-direct) surfaces here, too, in the relationship between the first and second movements: the first is engaging but tentative, and each episode is slower than the last, like a clock running down. When the main second movement arrives announced by the four-note motto, there is no mistaking that the music suddenly means business.

The vigorous rhythmic character of a toccata remains, launched by a muscular first theme on the violas. But the movement has something more surprising: a strong allusion to the old sonata-form pattern we know so well from Classical and Romantic symphonies (and neoclassic ones, too, such as Prokofiev, Stravinsky or Copland). The contrasting second theme comprises lush string chords and a brief tune on the oboe. Whether we ought to call the several episodes that follow a ‘development’ is dubious, but there is no mistaking the recapitulation of the first theme when it arrives, plumped out into a grand tutti modelled on a similar passage in the Concerto for Orchestra of 30 years before; nor can we fail to recognise the return of the second theme, similarly expanded and glorified.

The third movement is constructed as an alternating series of instrumental recitatives and cantilenas, or singing melodic lines – indeed a melody so haunting that one actually leaves the theatre whistling or humming it. The quick, brilliant coda that caps the symphony may have been a last-minute decision: the composer’s stepson, Marcin Bogusławski, recounts that Lutosławski phoned to say ‘I’ve finished my symphony; let’s have dinner tonight’, and that when they met that evening he said, ‘Do you know, I changed my mind. I rewrote the ending this afternoon!’

© Steven Stucky

More pieces by Lutosławski

  • Mini Overture for Brass Quintet

Forthcoming Concerts featuring Lutosławski