Witold Lutosławski’s Symphonic Variations

Notes by TŌN violinist Sarit Dubin

The Composer
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the music of Witold Lutosławski without talking about the upheavals of 20th-century Poland. Born in 1913, one year before World War I began, the many twists and turns in Lutosławski’s life were often dictated by the political conditions surrounding him. As a child, his family fled Warsaw to escape incoming Prussian troops. When he was five years old, his father was held as a political prisoner and executed. Growing up learning piano, violin, and composition, he wanted to study in Paris, a dream that was never realized due to the outbreak of another war. Captured by German soldiers during his World War II military service, Lutosławski managed to escape, walking 250 miles back to Warsaw, where he scraped together a living by playing piano in cafés. In 1944, with German forces approaching, he again fled Warsaw with only a few scores and sketches in hand. Post-war Stalinism restricted Lutosławski’s ability to compose freely. His music was censored for being too formalist, too avant-garde. Later, political repression in the late 1960s and the Gdansk Shipyards strike of 1970 left an impression on his creative imagination. From 1981 to 1989, the composer refused professional engagements in Poland in solidarity with an ongoing artists boycott. In 1983 he received a solidarity award, which he called the most important honor of his lifetime.

The Work
Symphonic Variations, Lutosławski’s first successful work after completing his conservatory training, represents his early style of neoclassicism with folk elements. While tonal, it is also highly chromatic with sharp rhythms and energetic exchanges between instruments. Foreshadowing his stint as a film composer, the piece ends with a cinematic finale featuring a soaring brass reiteration of the theme while upper strings and woodwinds play fast flourishes. As the name suggests, Lutosławski employs a theme and variations form. The main theme is quite simple, but his approach to variations is unusual in that he doesn’t number them or clearly distinguish between them. They flow seamlessly from one to the next, so much so that commentators can’t agree on exactly how many variations there are. Some have said twelve, others have said eight. As you’re listening, try to notice: how many variations do you hear?