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About this Piece

Composed: 1954

Length: c. 28 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd + 3rd = piccolos), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, field drum, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tenor drum, tambourine, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, piano, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 11, 1965, Paul Kletzki conducting

Like Ligeti and Husa, as a young composer Lutoslawski took Bartók as one of his chief models, especially when, during the difficult post-war reconstruction of Poland, he earned his living writing "functional" music for radio, theater, film, and schools. The chance to turn his functional, folklore-based style to a more ambitious purpose came in 1950, when Witold Rowicki, director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, asked him to write something brilliant with which the orchestra could celebrate its rebirth after the devastation of the German occupation, and could show off its abilities. In the event, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra took four years to complete. While this concerto is often (and far too easily) compared with Bartók's own Concerto for Orchestra written about ten years earlier, in fact the two works have rather little in common. Unlike the Bartók, the Lutoslawski concerto is shot through with Polish folk melodies, but here they are mere raw material for radical transformation into themes, counterpoints, and elaborate orchestral textures. It is an ingenious approach: the substance of the music is demonstrably so "national" as to be politically unassailable, yet modern and personal enough to burst the bounds of what in Poland was called socrealizm, the local variant of the Soviet artistic creed. Here the composer is master, not slave, of folklore.

All the folk melodies used as source material are drawn, appropriately, from Masovia, the region around Warsaw. All were collected by the pioneering ethnographer Oskar Kolberg, who first published them in the 1880s. (A comparison to Stravinsky and works like The Rite of Spring, whose folk sources likewise came from library shelves, not from a deep attachment to peasant culture, is understandably tempting.) The opening Intrada weaves together several of these tunes to form a massive contrapuntal exposition whose upward-building shape is reversed, and whose aggressive character is calmed, in a placid coda. The second movement, Capriccio notturno e Arioso, is a scherzo of a lightness and nocturnal mystery worthy of comparison with Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream or the "Queen Mab" scherzo of Berlioz' Romeo and Juliet. This scherzo is interrupted by the broad, dramatic trumpet theme of the Arioso, made the more stirring by hammered interjections from the rest of the orchestra.

As so often in Lutoslawski's music, the main movement of the Concerto for Orchestra is the last, here a vast finale that summarizes, unifies, and finally resolves the materials and dramatic tensions of the much shorter first two movements. The finale is in two large parts: a Passacaglia ingeniously constructed over a folksong ground bass, followed by a Toccata e Corale - a large-scale sonata-form movement whose main theme is in fact the same as that of the passacaglia we have just heard, while its second theme is made of music first introduced in the Intrada. The chorale that occurs at the heart of this final movement is newly invented, but its countermelody, first given to solo flute, is descended from yet another Polish folk song.

- Steven Stucky is Consulting Composer for New Music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.