Witold Lutosławski’s Overture for Strings

Notes by TŌN cellist Cameron Collins

Witold Lutosławski’s Overture for Strings was written in 1949 and premiered in November of the same year in Czechoslovakia by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. This lesser known work by Lutosławski was written between two of his more famous works for orchestra, his Symphony No. 1, completed in 1947, and his Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1950. It is a rather short work, lasting only five minutes, which may be part of the reason it is not frequently played. Lutosławski said himself, “The work is enormously impractical, because it requires quite a bit of work, but lasts only 5 minutes. For the most part, after listening to it, the audience is completely disoriented, despite the long final chord which crowns the work. Evidently people expect the work to be longer.” Although the Overture for Strings never reached popularity, it is quite an interesting piece. After his first symphony, Lutosławski was reportedly unhappy with his own approach to the way he used pitches to create his melodies and harmonies. This forced him to start searching for a new “sound language,” and the Overture for Strings was his first symphonic work in this process. Lutosławski wrote the work in a traditional sonata form, and heavily relied on familiar compositional influences. The way in which the composer uses four-note cells as stand-alone motives and then also incorporates those cells into longer melodies is very similar to Bart.k’s compositional style. However, his use of chromatic and tetrachord scales to form a melody, as well as the technique of overlapping the introduction of a new musical idea as the previous idea is still happening, later to be known as his “Chain Technique,” is the start of Lutosławski finding his new musical language.