Lutosławski: Symphony No. 4

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Lutosławski’s four symphonies reflect the course of his development rather neatly. The First Symphony, composed from 1941 to 1947, closes his first style period; it became a cause célèbre when Lutosławski was criticised by the Soviet-dominated Polish government for ‘formalism’ (i.e. music that is modern, or that dares to think for itself, or that dullard bureaucrats can’t understand at first hearing). The work was banned in 1949 and was not heard again for ten years. Lutosławski waited 20 years to write another symphony, and then he used his Second (1966-67) to consolidate the discoveries of his third period on a large orchestral scale. The Third Symphony (1972-83) was the first major work in the late style period to capture public attention. The Fourth, arriving after more than a decade of refining this late manner, reflects the lessons of the intervening works, especially such gems as the Partita for violin and piano (1984), Chain 2 for violin and orchestra (1984-85) and the Piano Concerto (1987-88).

The Third Symphony enjoyed an almost unheard-of level of public success for a modern work, with several recordings and hundreds of live performances all over the world. Undoubtedly listeners’ enthusiasm was bolstered by its spectacular orchestration, its big, memorable tune and its moments of high drama. The Fourth Symphony is quite different; it is much shorter, and its rhetoric is less extrovert, its colours darker, its drama more sombre. The Fourth Symphony is equally as compelling, however, through its sheer eloquence and its almost elegiac gravity.

Lutosławski was asked in a 1992 interview for the German monthly NZ how his symphonies relate to the symphonic tradition. He replied, ‘It is a question of form. I have thought a lot about large-scale closed forms. I was not always happy with the… Brahmsian tradition. In Brahms there are two main movements, the first and the fourth. In my experience as a listener, that is too much. Too much substance within [a short span of] time. I believe that the ideal relationship is achieved in Haydn’s symphonies. And I thought that perhaps I could find some other way to achieve this balance. My solution is to view the first movement as preparation for the main movement. The first movement must engage, interest, it must – ‘intrigue’, as they say in English. But it must not give complete satisfaction. It must make us hungry and, finally, even impatient. That is the right moment to introduce the main movement. That is my solution, and I think it works rather well.’

In one way or another, this two-part format – preparation, main event – lies at the heart of many of Lutosławski’s works over the last 30 years of his career, including the Second Symphony (whose two movements bear the explicit titles ‘Hesitant’ and ‘Direct’) and the Third (introduction, preparatory first movement, large main movement, third movement comprising lyrical aftermath, brief coda). The Fourth Symphony presents an example that is both clear-cut in its two-movement layout and unprecedentedly subtle in the way in which the two movements relate to one another to create a single, overarching musical experience. Its first movement adopts a favourite ploy for engaging our attention while at the same time frustrating our desire for continuity: alternating two contrasting kinds of music. The first of these, a lyrical melody against a gentle, chordal background, is first exposed by solo clarinet, later by flute and clarinet together. Interposed between statements of this unfolding melody are mercurial interludes of faster, less predictable music. On its last appearance the lyrical music is taken up and extended by the strings until it culminates in an abortive attempt at a grand climax.

As promised, just at the moment when we grow impatient with the preparatory first movement, the main second movement arrives. Nicholas Reyland has written tellingly in his essay Essences and Essentials about the build-up to this moment, and about the quasi-consonant harmony that creates such a powerful effect as when the second movement begins. This music unfolds in three stages. The first section, dominated by running semiquaver figures, introduces a grave, cantabile theme that will return for later development. The middle section has a sparkling orchestral texture that begins at the top of the orchestra and swells down through the ranks until, heralded by solo trumpet and a trio of trombones, it yields to the third section. Now the cantabile idea heard earlier returns full force, gaining in urgency until it culminates in a powerful unison statement by the massed strings and brasses, reaching a shuddering, tragic climax. As if there were no way forward from this catastrophe, the music dissolves in dreamlike recollections. But it is not Lutosławski’s way to end in such an exposed state. Instead, a brief, brilliant coda brings the symphony to a close: a formal gesture like drawing a curtain over what threatened to become too personal a dreamscape.

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