Cornish on Lutosławski

by Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham


Witold Lutosławski (1913-1944): Chain 1 (1983)

Witold Lutosławski (pronounced ‘Lootoswavski’) was born in Poland in 1913. He is considered to be the country’s most important composer of the 20th century. His style both features folk-music influences, and pushes the boundaries of musical form, as we see in this piece. During WW2 he made a living playing the piano in bars. Under Soviet rule, his music was looked down on as ‘formalist’ because the communists saw it as only accessible to an elite, and they even banned his First Symphony. Lutosławski however, strove to maintain his musical integrity and refused to conform to what he perceived as a step in the wrong direction, boycotting the Polish Military Government in support of ‘Solidarity’ by refusing to perform his music.

Chain 1 was written for the London Sinfonietta in 1983 on the requests of Michael Vyner, the conductor, who had wanted to play Lutosławski’s music, but found that it was all for an ensemble either much bigger, or much smaller, than his own. That is why the piece is written for such an unusual selection of instruments. In fact, it was designed simply ‘for fourteen instruments’, but we have chosen to represent the original selection by which it was first performed. It is an intense, brooding work, full of melodic twists and turns to create both discomfort and resolution through its unorthodox structural techniques.

Lutosławski wrote three ‘chain pieces’ related only in their use of ‘chain’ form. This is an attempt to do away with conventional musical structure, creating music that neither exactly begins nor ends. Most of this piece is notated without a time signature, and the musicians rely on the conductor’s downbeats for direction. They play short motifs, in this piece specified exactly by Lutosławski, ‘in time’ according to their own intuition. The idea is that these ‘chain links’ flow into each other by merit of the musicians’ slightly differing tempos to create an unbroken musical line. Hence, every performance of this piece will be different, and yet the effect will be the same. In the later ‘chain’ pieces, Lutosławski wrote complementary ‘hexachords’ from which the musicians could create melodic lines.

The piece is made up of three sections. First, a fragmented introduction featuring overlapping ‘links’. This starts with the whole group (minus double bass) performing an introductory ‘gesture’. The section then moves through a unison passage before diverging into separate parts. This convergence and divergence is a key feature of the work, allowing Lutosławski to create structure through unifying and dividing the musical texture. Another device he uses to change the harmonic density is ‘chord aggregates’ (big piles of notes) to mark out sections. For example, both sections 1 and 2 begin with such a chord aggregate.

After this, the second section continues with a unison passage, and gradually builds up to a climax. This features ad libitum (free) sections whereby the players create their own tempo. Through this, the texture is manipulated to create the ‘chain link’ structure. Through such passages, chord aggregates, and convergence and divergence, Lutosławski subverts the normal way of writing music and constructs a piece that is almost totally original in its form and texture.

The second section ends with a 12-note chord-aggregate by way of a climax, which may be reached by the players at different moments. This will therefore be unique in every performance of the piece. It is followed by a decisive tam-tam strike, which clearly marks out the high point of the composition. From here, the third section winds the piece down through more ad libitum passages as the music slips away into an ‘inconclusive conclusion’.

When this piece was written in 1983, Lutoslawski was boycotting the Polish Government by refusing to play music there because of its repressive attitudes. This went even to the point of letting another conductor make the recording of one of his own pieces, Novelleto, for his home country. However, he did send a recording of his third symphony to be played in a church in the city of Gdansk as a political statement supporting the church and the ‘Solidarity’ movement in Eastern Europe, which was gaining significance at the time in opposition of Russian Soviet influence. He was even awarded, that year, the ‘Solidarity Prize’, which was of high significance. He is reported to have treasured this above all his other accolades as a composer.

Nathan Cornish, Divisions