Lutoslawski's Symphonies: Abstract Experience or Lugubrious Listening?

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As I listen to a recent recording covering the symphonies of Polish composer Witold Ludoslawski (1913-1994), I am filled with foreboding.  The music is lugubrious and gloomy, dissonant and disturbing, perhaps a reflection of modern European history and the horrible politics of the last century.  Or maybe Polish history during WWII and the aftermath.  Lutoslawski’s writing has traces of Bartok’s eeriness in it, but–to me at least– is more despondent.  I ask myself: how can regular people listen to this, not to mention pay money to go hear it at concert halls?  I’d need some prozac, or at least a stiff drink, to get through it or maybe just to recover afterwards.

Heaven knows, maybe I’m being unfair.  Maybe I need to listen to his other works, but after hearing the first symphony last night I’m not exactly thrilled to do that.  Lutoslawski and his family certainly went through a lot, between the Nazis, the Russians, the Bolsheviks, his father and uncle being murdered by the latter, and his well-to-do aristocratic family losing their estates and most everything they had during the war.  When Stalin died in 1953, things eased up for both classical and jazz musicians in the former Soviet Union, but the ghosts remained.

I’m reminded of something Miles Davis once said, to the effect that he made music to please himself and his band; to hell with what the audience thought.  Maybe that’s what orchestral music directors feel too when they record or perform this music for the public.  I remember back when Esa-Pekka Salonen did concerts of new music at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Tuesday nights: the large 3,000+ seat hall was never full.  Not a big surprise.

Lutoslawski’s fellow Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s luminous 3rd Symphony, with that ravishing, moving middle movement, although inspired by 20th century historical events, is very different.  It also ends on a note of optimism, on a big and glorious A-major triad.  No wonder it was #1 on the classical charts for so long.

In this new century, although the world is still messed up, I hope somehow that humanity will improve.  We need hope and love.  A little money won’t  hurt either.

Now I’m going to put on some jazz, perhaps a Stephane Grappelli record, to shake the doldrums off.

Here’s the 1st movement of symphony #1, which I listened to last night and which helped occasion this post.  Judge for yourself and let me know what you think.

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