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Music

Witold Lutoslawski: The music of chance

Hundreds of concerts in Germany's music hubs celebrated Witold Lutoslawski's 100th birthday on January 25. He's considered one of the 20th century's most influential composers.

There's an anecdote about Beethoven that the main theme of his famous Fifth Symphony derived from the knocking of a mailman on his door. Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913 - 1994) could likely have described something similar; after all, coincidence played a major role in his work.

In 1960, Lutoslawski heard John Cage's piano concerto on the radio. Eccentric American composer Cage was a pioneer of aleatoric - or chance-controlled - music. "Alea," from the Latin, means "games involving dice" or "a game of chance." Such aleatoric compositions deemed that performers randomly bring together ready-made musical fragments to create a musical piece as a whole. Just as with jazz, no two performances of an aleatoric music piece are the same.

Lutoslawski (l) worked together with people such as Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman

Lutoslawski (l) worked together with people such as Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman

Lutoslawski was wild about Cage's concept, but forged his own path, thus "controlled" aleatoric music became the Polish composer's trademark. Passages in his works at times contain meticulously detailed composition notes, while others are left to chance. The result is a unique, often highly expressive soundscape.

Musical signature

"He created his own personal, immediately recognizable music language," said Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer, who distinctly remembers his encounters with Lutoslawski, "Only very few 20th century composers managed that."

As a young music student, Meyer was permitted to present his own compositions to the master. The hours spent with Lutoslawski some 50 years ago in Warsaw remain unforgettable. It became clear to him that music was more than just an experience of sound for Lutoslawski.

"What surprised me was that he began to talk about politics," Meyer recalled. "He prompted me to consider that we were not living in a free country. I think he probably wanted to express his own kind of patriotism, and perhaps wanted to teach me - as a young man - something of a different nature."

Dramatic history

Musicians standing on a stage in Düsseldorf - just one of many concerts celebrating Lutoslawski this year Copyright: Barbara Cöllen

Just one of many concerts celebrating Lutoslawski this year

Indeed, Lutoslawski's own life reflected the dramatic events of his native country. Born during a time when Poland did not exist as a state, the composer was part of that first generation of young people who saw the reestablishment of Polish statehood following World War I, and had to once again defend it during the Second World War.

After World War II, his country became a satellite Soviet state. Lutoslawski, who came from an aristocratic family, never came to terms with the status quo of Communist Poland. Music became his escape, while also facilitating his departure from the country. His international renown lent him authority, which he was also able to employ in his support of the "Solidarnosc" movement of the 1980s. He ultimately spent the last years of his life in a free and democratic Poland - the dream of his generation.

Artist and cosmopolitan

Krzysztof Meyer (l) speaking with concert host Andrey Boreyko Copyright: Barbara Cöllen

Krzysztof Meyer (l) with host Andrey Boreyko speaking about Lutoslawski

Lutoslawski wrote music for the 20th century's greatest performers: Russian cellist Mstislav Rostopovich, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman and German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, to name just a few. As a conductor of his own works, he performed with the world's leading symphonic orchestras.

Lutoslawski's works, such as "Concerto for Orchestra," his four symphonies, "Jeux venitiens," "Livre pour orchestre" and his cello and piano concertos have long been part of the 20th-century musical canon. Krzysztof Meyer is convinced that these works will stand the test of time. "Lutoslawski had a habit of saying that just as the primary aim of science is discovering the truth, the central aim of art is beauty," he noted - certain that the works of his musical mentor had achieved that aim.

Perhaps Poland's most significant composer after Chopin, Lutoslawski embodied the "Polish School" after 1945 - a period of incredible creativity. The compositions of Lutoslawski, who died in 1994, have enjoyed reception far beyond the world of the avant-garde.