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Witold Lutoslawski in Interview

Author(s): Bogdan Gieraczyski and Witold Lutoslawski

Source: Tempo, New Series, No. 170, 50th Anniversary 1939-1989 (Sep., 1989), pp. 4-10
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Witold Lutoslawski in Interview

Witold Lutoslawski is one of the foremost

creators of contemporary music, and as a Pole
he has attained a rank second only to Chopin.
His art is recognized as a brilliant contribution
to the European musical heritage, and he has
gained the reputation of a contemporary classic
- the reward for many decades of painstaking
effort to construct and develop his own vision
of music.
One of Lutoslawski's characteristicfeatures
has always been his unswerving faith in the
direction of musical development that he took at
the start. This ruthless, radical and uncompromising creative stance did nothing to draw
prompt public recognition of the value of his
work, especially in his native country. Many
yearshad to pass beforehis unconventionalmusic
gained favor with internationally-acclaimed
orchestras and soloists.
The composer, now 76, in keeping with the
measured pace of time and in spite of its
inexorable passing, continues to produce new
works which - as the enthusiasmof music lovers
and critics all over the world attests - enrich the
whole canon of music, not only of our era. It can
only be due to an ironic decree of Providence
that the steady swell of admiration for Lutoslawski's work has arisen only in the second
half-century of his life.
Recently I enjoyed the rare privilege of a
private meeting with the composer in the latter's
Warsaw house. I attempted to lead him to
revisit, through reminiscence, the various stages
of his musical career.
B.G.: When did you discover that music was
your vocation?
Lutoslawski: In very early childhood. When I
was nine I managed to properly write out a little
piano piece. But even before that - from the age
of six or so - I was improvising on the piano. I
very soon realized that it was my fate to
compose music.
Q: You had an early start, then - and yet a late
one, considering that your most significant
works - the ones whose scores are found on the
music-stands of the world's most famous

virtuosos - started to appear 30, 40, 50, even 60

years later. But in the meantime you produced

dozens of piano pieces, carols,music for schools,
theatre and so forth, searchingall the while for
your own musical language, one that would set
your music apart from the underbrush of the
world of sound...
A: Exactly. My searchfor a musical language
and my effort to develop it - which hasn'tceased
to this day - led me to write many different
kinds of pieces over the years. During the period
when I was still working out the method I
wanted to use in my futurework as a composer,
my temperament wouldn't let me suspend my
creative efforts. When Arold Schoenberg was
struggling to crystallize his dodecaphonic
system, he didn'tcompose at all for eight years.*
For me, that kind of voluntary creative void
would be unthinkable,and so, for many years, I
wrote what music I was capable of, not yet
being able to compose as I would have liked.
Q: There was a peculiar interlude in your
musicalcareerduringthe war, when you worked
as a pianistin Warsaw cafes...
A: The Nazi occupation forced the whole
musical life of Warsaw to hide out in cafes.
They were the only refuge for independent
music, and even the greatest artistsmade use of
them, regardingthem as the only means to stay
in contact with art. On what used to be called
Saski Square, where the Victoria Hotel is now,
there was a very prosperous cafe called SIM
(short for SZTUKA I MODA - Art and
Fashion). Andrzej Panufnik, the Polish
composerwho now lives in Britain,and I formed
a piano duo. Besides popular music, our repertoire included highlights from the classics Bach, Debussy, Mozart, Ravel, Brahms,
Schubert. In the face of the Fascists'contempt
for art, live contact with it was like a balsam
against all the horrors of those years, not only
for us professionals, but for the public as well.
Q: The times soon to come also brought along
something not unlike contempt for art:in 1949,
* Hardly true, for a period that included the composition of
DieJakobsleiter. Lutoslawski possibly means that he published
nothing of importance from I915 to 1923 (Ed.)

WitoldLutoslawskiin Interview 5
your First Symphony - a work that culminated
all your previous experience, after which you
embarked upon a new phase of creative exploration, a momentus work in every way was branded a 'formalist'piece and banned from
public performance in Poland. Why was that
infelicitous term so significant in relation to
such an asemantic art as music?
A: I never understood what it was supposed
to mean. In my opinion it was nothing but
typical 'artofficial'jargon, useful for persecuting
artists who retained some individuality, whose
creativity didn't conform to the 'socialist
realism' that was obligatory in Poland at that
time. But in any case the fact remains that my
Symphony was labelled 'formalist'and, as such,
was not performed in my own country for ten
years. After the last performance of the work at
the Polish National Philharmonic Hall in I949,
the minister of culture stormed into the
conductor's room and in front of a dozen people
announced that a composer like me ought to be
thrown under the wheels of a streetcar. It is
interesting that this was not meant as ajoke - he
was really furious! This story is quite true,
although nowadays it does sound anecdotal; it
is also an illustration of most artists'situation in
Stalinist Poland.
Q: A bit of background should be added here:
The campaign against formalism in art was of
Soviet origin, and it dominated all of Eastern
and Central Europe. It was a battle - to use the
official terminology of the time - against
'bourgeois influences' and 'artisticimperialism'.
Atonality, dissonance, serialism, amelodic
composition and the like were regarded as
excessively intellectual - that is, as reactionary
and formalist tendencies. Formalism,in the view
of the communist bureaucrats, was a synonym
for subversion. In those days it was a particularly
serious and dangerous accusation against an
artist, and it was not at all difficult to deserve it:
All one had to do was to follow the traditions
and progressive trends in European music!
Could you tell me what the sources of your
aesthetic, artistic and compositional inspiration
were in these days, or even earlier?
A: I don't suppose a composer ever lived who
did not worship some great artists in his youth.
Copying favorite masters in order to learn their
skill is a pastime not restricted to painters. In
my musical career the works of various
composers have served as models for me. The
Viennese classics, above all; Beethoven, as an
unequalled master of large-scale forms in
general; Haydn and Mozart as well. Brahms's
symphonies and concertos, on the other hand,


despite my sincere love for them, had a 'negatively creative' impact on me, and its polemical
reaction is evident in many of my works, such
as my Second Symphony or String Quartet,
which oppose Brahms's concept of large-scale
forms as a matter of principle.
Among the Romantics, it is Chopin's work
that moves me the most deeply, and for me his
music is an inexhaustible source of inspiration
for my composing imagination. Another master
whose work had a very constructive influence
on me is Albert Roussel. Even in my early
youth I was unsettled at the thought that the
richesof the Frenchsound-palettethat Debussy,
Ravel, and their successors created still hadn't
been fully exploited in large-scaleworks. And it
was Rousselwho, in his Third Symphony (1930),
managed at least partiallyto fulfil this ideal.
And I must not neglect to mention Bartok
and Stravinsky,whose music made an enormous
impression on me and, I am sure, on every
composer of my generation. All the various
inspirations,cults and even imitations have their
place in the formation of a composer's creative
stance. But the time comes when all the outside
influences undergo a process of elimination,
and there comes a crystallizationof what we call
the composer's
personality- that is, of course, if he
has one.
Apropos the precedingremarks,I considerthe
form of my Third Symphony (1983)is the result

WitoldLutoslawskiin Interview

of my many years of experience listening to

music, particularlylarge-scale forms. Although
Beethoven's extraordinarystrategy in this realm
has always fascinated me, and was a supreme
lesson in musical architecture, it is the preBeethovenian symphony, particularlyHaydn's,
that has always served as a model for me. I
confess that I always feel exhausted after a
performance of a Brahms symphony, concerto
or even a sonata, probably because there are
two main movements (the first and the last) in
each of them.
These considerations led me to search for
other possibilities, and I finally found a solution
in a two-movement large-scale form in which
the first movement preparesfor the main one to
follow. The first is meant only to interest, to
attract, to involve, but never fully to satisfy the
listener. During the first movement the listener
is supposed to expect something more important
to happen, and may even grow impatient. This
is exactly the situation when the second
movement appears and presents the main idea
of the work. This distribution of the musical
substance over time seems natural to me, and
conforms with the psychology of the perception
of music. I have composed several works in this
form, the most characteristicbeing my String
Quartet (I964) and Second Symphony (I967).

Q: Every musical utterance, even the most

original, is set within some tradition. What
tradition would you connect your music with?
A: 20th-century music has split into two
streams. One arose from the Second Viennese
School, that is, from Schoenberg, Weber and
Betg, while the source of the other is Debussy.
There is a widespread belief, cultivated mainly
by the heirs of the Viennese School, that these
two musical currents were amalgamated in the
works of Webern. I find this idea far-fetched.
For the time being, the two main traditions are
still distinct, although this is not to say that they
may not, in the near future, unite into one
musical amalgam. Needless to say, I feel a part
of the second tradition, that of Debussy.
Q: And yet the work that marked the beginning of the individualizationof your art- Funeral
Music,of 1958 - is based on the serialtechnique.
A: Only partially. Every 20th-century composer is naturally interested in the 12-tone-row. I

use the 12-tone-row in my compositions in a

non-tonal way, but it is not orthodoxly
dodecaphonic. The methods I've been working
on for the last couple of decades have nothing in
common with Schoenberg'sdoctrine,apartfrom
the use of the flow of all 12 tones in a relatively
limited space. That is all that links me with

Schoenberg's technique. But this use of the I2

notes is not Schoenberg's invention; it was
known before, and it formed the basis of the
doctrine that he worked out.
I can go further:The I2-note scale was used
earlier by composers who employed the tonal
system - but it was not used fully. Certainworks
by Scriabin, or even Straussand Mahler - who
were by no means dodecaphonists- foreshadow
the use of the row. There's a fugue in Bach's
Clavierthat proves that this is a
natural stage in the development of musical
thought. It uses all the sounds of the chromatic
scale. But it is not a dodecaphonic work; it's a
tonal one.
These examples indicate a tendency that can
be traced as far back as the early i8th century,
to use all I2 tones in compositions in an
abbreviated space. So it wasn't Schoenberg's
invention!Josef MatthiasHauer came up with a
similar theory, but since he wasn't as important
a composer as Schoenberg, the significance of
his discovery was overshadowed by the fame of
his great colleague.*
Q: It sounds as if you intend to thoroughly
debunk Schoenberg...
A: Not at all. After all, I regard him as the
source of one of the two main 20th-century
musical traditions, although I ascribemy work
to the other.
Q: Can we look forward to the emergence of
a new musical convention, a new tradition?
A: The 20th-centuryhas revealedan enormous
wealthof possibilitiesin sound and the patterning
of sound - possibilities which still haven't been
fully exploited. So it is very probablethat a new
order or new convention for using sound-media
will emerge - something as sweeping as the
tonal system. The I2-tone system cannot be
considered such a convention. Besides, dodecaphonic music - in its pure form - has already

exhaustedits inspirationaland creativepotential.

We must keep waiting for some kind of
'classicism'to emerge in the future.Is it possible?
Of course. When we considerthe vast wealth of
musical potential that has been discovered in
recent decades, as opposed to the small number
of musical works characterizedby great and
lasting value, it's clear that my optimism is
Q: During the course of your musical career
you have departedfrom one sourceof inspiration
* Michael
Kennedy, in The Oxford Dictionary of Music, writes:
'one of the first, if not the first, to devise such a system was
J.M. Hauer' [...1 who 'wrote his first I2-note piece, Nomos
- Interviewer's note. (See further Roger Gustafson's
articles on Hauer in Tempo I30 and 161i/62 - Ed.)

WitoldLutoslawskiin Interview
after another. To use the metaphor - you took a
seed, as it were, from 20th-century music and
cultivated it in your own artistic soil. Since
1961, it has been possible to speak of Witold
Lutoslawski's musical tradition. Your compositionJeux Venitiens,using limited aleatoricism
(which, briefly, consists in loosening the
temporal relations among the sounds so that the
performers have a certain freedom as regards
the tempo and rhythm in some passages), was
the culmination of all the experience that
contributed to the formation of your style. What
was the origin of aleatoricism in your music?
A: In 1960 I happened to hear a radio broadcast ofJohn Cage's ConcertforPianoandOrchestra
(I958), and in a flash I realized what potential
this entirelynew - for me - method of composing
had. Of course, Cage's actual music, which I
had heard long before, didn't have very much
to do with it.
Cage's answer to the so-called total serialism
of the I950s was to create somethingin absolute
opposition to that doctrine: he countered it with
music as a product of chance. Hence the term,
aleatoricism. For me, this method has always
been completely alien. Nevertheless, that one
momentary encounter with Cage's music,
during the radio concert I mentioned, excited
my imagination. And of course a composer can
listen to music in two ways: he can passively
expose his receptory faculties to it, or he can,

almost involuntarily, listen in what I call an

'active-creative'way, so that the sounds entering
the ear serve as an impulse that activates the
musical imagination. The sounds, in a composer's imagination, generateimages and musical
combinations that don't exist at all in the work
he is listening to. That's exactly what happened
when I was listening to Cage's piece: I suddenly
realizedhow meaningful it would be to instil my
music with an element of chance - but in a very
particularway. It was a vision of sound - an idea
that I began to work on at that very moment.
The outcome was a certain type of music: I
called it controlledaleatoricism,limitedaleatoricism
or textural aleatoricism,and I gave the name
aleatory counterpoint to this compositional
technique, or at least some details of it. These
terms delineate a concept that was previously
quite unknown. When I heard Cage's Piano
Concertagain a few years later, I couldn't find a
trace of what had so strongly stimulated my
imagination. But I have never tried to hide my
gratitude toward Cage, since his work, albeit
accidentally, gave me a very singularexperience.
And when, in the '6os, Cage asked me to send
him a rough draft of one of my pieces for
reproduction in his book Notations, I sent him
the full score ofjeux Venitiens,the first work I
wrote as a result of listening to his Concert.This
whole story is an oversimplified picture of that
crucial moment in my musical development,

WitoldLutoslawskiin Interview

but still, it shows how very mysterious and

astonishing the sources of inspirationcan be.
Jeux Venitiens,which I wrote in 1961, was the
first composition where I used elements of the
aleatoric technique. Loosening the temporal
relations among the sounds - it doesn't seem
terribly innovative. But the consequences for
the composer's range of activity can be
enormous. I'm thinking about both the possibility of enriching the rhythmic aspect of the
composition without increasing the difficulties
for the performers, and about allowing free,
individualized play on the instruments in the
orchestra. These were the elements of the
aleatoric technique that interested me most of
all, because they permit me a wide vision of
sound that would otherwise exist only in my
I'm not interested in such achievements of
aleatoricismas elevating chance to the dominant
position during the composition, or creating
an element of surprise for the listener and even
the composer himself in each successive, unpredictable version - that is, performance - of

the composition. In my composition the leading

factor is the composer. The introduction of
chance at a precisely anticipatedmoment is only
a means of developing the action, and not an
aim in itself.
In my latest composition, ConcertoforPiano
and Orchestra(1988), the element of chance
appears to a somewhat lesser degree than in my
other works. It is, as always, preciselycontrolled
by the principles of organization of pitch
(harmony, melody, etc.). I tried to explain how
this works in an article published in 1969 in the
periodical Melos (No. I I). I won't repeatmy line
of reasoning here, but one point is worth
recalling:there is no improvisation in my work.
Everything that is to be played is preciselynoted
and must be precisely carried out by the
performers. There is only one difference- but a
fundamental one - between the ad libitum
sections (which are not conducted) and those
which are written by traditional methods (that
is, divided into measures, with a given meter):
In the former, there is no common division of
time for all the performers. In other words,
everyone performs his partas if he were playing
alone, not co-ordinating it with the other
performers. The result is a special, 'frail'texture
with rich and whimsical rhythms, which is quite
impossible to achieve in any other way.
All of this is connected with a matter of
secondary importance - namely, the means a
composer uses to attain his goal. What, then, is
this goal? This is a question that only music can

answer. Fortunately, it cannot be expressed in

words. If this were possible - if a musical
composition could be exactly relatedin words music would be a completely unnecessaryart.
Q: The 20th century has granted the intellect
absolute dominance in every area of human
endeavor, includingart. So-called'emotionalism'
on the part of either the artistor the audiencehas
become, to put it mildly, unfashionable. What
role do emotion and intuition on the one hand,
and rationalismand intellectualismon the other,
play in your work?
A: Anyone who is well-versed in the
composition process cannot fail to notice that
the rationalfactor dominates in my works. Mine
is a deliberate, organized working technique that is true. However, I ascribe the most
fundamental importance to what used to be
called 'inspiration'. Although this term may be
a bit pompous and imprecise, it is an absolutely
irreplaceable one to refer to the attitude, the
spiritual state, that is essential to the act of
creation. Everything that is authentic in a piece
of music is the result of inspiration. I will say
even more: what is usually called 'compositional
technique' - as opposed to 'inspiration' - does

not even exist. For if it did, what it would mean

would be the ability to create a work of art
without any sort of talent.
But there is something, something I have
been employing in my composing work for
decades, that could go by the name of
'compositional technique'. This technique
consists in the accumulation of specific,
individual components that help in the overall
task of organizing sounds, their pitch and their
interplay. Everything that makes up 'compositional technique', understood in these terms, is
a product of inspiration. In other words, it must
arise in the composer's imagination of its own
accord,not through intellectual effort. It must
intrigue; it must be original enough to make it
worth coming back to again and again. But the
only way to make that kind of discovery is
through years of systematic work, sometimes
drudgery. Apropos of this, I recallan apt saying
of Tchaikovsky's. When some lady asked him,
'Do you work regularly, Maestro, or do you
wait for inspiration?' - he replied, 'My dear
lady, I work regularly, for inspiration does not
come to idlers'. This is the crux of the matter:
When you wait for inspiration, it doesn't come,
but if you work regularly- like Bach or Mozart,
for example - then your rewardis thatsomething
arises in the 'mind's ear', something attractive
that didn't exist a split-second before.
Q: There are no operas in your oeuvre, and

WitoldLutoslawskiin Interview 9
you have never permitted the use of your music
in the ballet. As a composer you clearly imply
that music is the most asemantic of the arts, and
that any attempt to combine it with extramusical matters contradicts its fundamental
A: I have always subscribed to an abstract
concept of music. The only unambiguous
message that music in itself can convey is a
musical one. Music is music! Of course, that is
not an adequate definition, since we know how
strongly music affects human emotions. What
do they mean? What is their nature?Must these
emotions be given 'extra' meanings?
Some people are inclined to interpret music
in an extra-musical way. The world of sound
alone is not rich enough for them, not substantial
enough; music alone cannot encompass their
idea of music. Less sensitive listeners feel alien
in the world of sound; their thoughts escape to a
realm of images or feelings that do not exist in a
given piece of music. This is a subjectivereaction
to music. But there are people of greatermusical
sensitivity - composers, for instance - who do
not have this anxiety reflex, who confront the
sounds directly. For them, the sounds are part
of such a rich various beauty that they have no
need to search for anything beyond the sounds
Q: One of your characteristic traits is your
unwillingness to compromise in your creative
work, your expression of truth through your
music. Perhaps it was even because of this trait
that world recognition of your art came so late?
What does the concept 'truth' mean in relation
to such a non-semantic art as music?
A: The word 'truth' as it applies to a work of
art must not be confused with the common
understanding of the term. It would be easierto
clarify this concept in relation to the semantic
arts. But in music? What I understandby truth
in a piece of music is a genuine, honest expression
of what you have to convey to others. Loyalty
to yourself, to your own esthetics, to your own
aims... A piece of music is true when it reflectsa
personal, original artistic conviction without
regard for the consequences. You may wonder
whether this position is not utterly egocentric,
and whether society needs art created on the
basic of such principles. It is my deep conviction
that society needs only such art. A work based
on lies, on the abandonment of principles for
the sake of transitory, capricious aims like
pleasing the tastes of critics or the public, just to
get applause or fame or money - thoseare the
works that are not only unnecessary, but even
harmful. They are not the products of purely

Q: When it comes to art, our times, I think,
are no different from past epochs. Then and
now, one thing never changes: The ethics of
artistic creativity. Remaining in accord with
inner truth - the first commandment and
fundamentalduty of an artist- is often rewarded
only later. Your musical life is a prime example
of that. To speak of Witold Lutoslawski as a
classic of contemporary music, as a revitalizer
of musical language, and as the creator of his
own distinctive style is not merely a courtesy on
the partof criticsandmusic lovers ofthe I98os...
A: Very highflown words! I don't give much
weight to those opinions, although I can't deny
that every composer dreams of becoming a
classic. The hardestthing is to see yourself, and
what you are doing, from the point of view of
others. So I can't judge whether, or how, my
music has established a style. There are certain
indications that this is so. Some of my younger
colleagues are quite open about the influence of
my music on their work, they 'follow in my
footsteps', and have even - in England, for
instance - formed groups that imitate my
compositional methods. But although this is all
very pleasant and gratifying for me, it may be
misleading. I do not draw any far-reaching
conclusions from any of this, and I do not feel it
is my business to do so. Whether or not the
endeavorsof decadesof my life have any degree
of permanenceis a question that only the future
can decide.
Q: In the days ofJohann SebastianBach, artists
treated their work as a skill and did not worry
especially about the morality or immortality of
what they created. It was the i9th century that
began to pose the question of the future of art,
because by then art was no longer produced
specifically for a given occasion and time, but
had become something great, a lofty, grandiose
mission. I hope you will forgive my asking
whether somewhere in the deepest recesses of
your soul you believe in the permanent and
lasting value of your art.
A: I neither believe nor disbelieve. All I can
say is that I know from experience that some of
my pieces, written decades ago, are still being
played. That is, performers and audiences find
some value in them. But this is not one of my
overwhelming concerns. What I am interested
in is using all the creativeideas and concepts that
I still have in me, and producting new works.
That is what I care about - not the question of
the Futureof my compositions.
Q: What does music mean to you?
A: That's a puzzling question... A simple

10 WitoldLutoslawskiin Interview
question - so simple that it's difficultto answer...
For me music is something of immeasurable
importance; it is a need as basic as water and air.
I cannot imagine life without music or, for the
last half-century, without composing... No, I
can't give you a full answer. It seems I am not
yet ready to have the last word.

(I wouldlike to expressmy heartfeltgratitude
busylife in orderto conversewith me andauthorize
this interview.I wouldalsolike to thankMs. Sherill
for her help in preparingthe
Englishversionof theinterview.- B.G.)

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