Essay:
Lutosławski: Musique funèbre
(1954-58)

Prologue – Metamorphoses – Apogee – Epilogue

The first Lutosławski work to attract broad attention outside Poland was titled, in Polish, Muzyka żałobna (‘music of mourning’ not ‘funeral music’; the best and now standard translation is the French Musique funèbre). The work was heard by an international audience at the second Warsaw Autumn Festival (1958), shared first prize at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1959, and by 1960 had spread round the world, from Boston to Cleveland to Venice to London, Prague, Berlin and elsewhere. Reviewing that 1958 Warsaw performance, one British critic wrote that Musique funèbre gave proof that Polish composers had escaped the Soviet sphere of influence and were ‘setting themselves far different tasks than providing catchy tunes for the proletariat’. (Ironically, under his ‘Derwid’ pseudonym Lutosławski was at that very moment writing foxtrots for a living.) No less striking was the impact of Musique funèbre on composers behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, where it helped set an inspiring example to composers in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere that a third path forward, leading neither through Darmstadt nor through the Cage school, was opening up for modern music.

In 1954 the conductor Jan Krenz first suggested a work commemorating the tenth anniversary of Bartók’s death (1955), but in the event the composition cost Lutosławski almost four years, until early 1958. Its four sections group themselves into a ternary arch: in the centre, a development section (Metamorphoses) with its culmination (Apogee), flanked by a Prologue and Epilogue that constitute the actual mourning music. A widespread misunderstanding has arisen that this is a 12-tone serial work: yes, but only in the narrow, technical sense that the theme on which the mourning music is based is a 12-note melody made up exclusively of tritones and semitones, i.e. a melodic world much nearer to Bartók than to Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern, and one that dates back to Lutosławski’s own early works such as the Two Etudes, Paganini Variations, First Symphony and Overture for Strings. The theme is deployed in a series of ingenious canons whose purpose is to enforce the grim atmosphere and to prevent the euphonious interval of the third from appearing in the resulting harmony: a great, gray mass of shifting tritones and seconds that in its inexorable momentum becomes finally, utterly gripping. (Lutosławski once told me that, having worked out the general principle, he wrote eight different canonic solutions to the Prologue, then chose the best one.) When the whole process is reduced to just two notes, the tritone F and B, the effect is electrifying. The middle section, Metamorphoses, is an early example of what Lutosławski would later call ‘chain form’ (the Passacaglia of the Concerto for Orchestra is another): a braided style of composing with two independent strands of music (here, in fact, three strands). By progressively complicating the texture and speeding the rhythms, the music hurtles itself towards its Apogee, an outcry of grief and protest that shudders in its intensity. The Epilogue then approximately reverses the order of the Prologue in a shortened version, dwindling from the massive stack of canons down, finally, to a single, sorrowing cello.