Symphony No. 1

  1. Allegro giusto
  2. Poco adagio
  3. Allegretto misterioso
  4. Allegro vivace
orchestration: orchestra
  2(1picc)3(1ci)3(1picc, 2clb)3(1cfg), 4331, timp, batt, cel, ar, pf, archi
dedicated to: Grzegorz Fitelberg
year composed: 1941-1947
about premiere
location: Katowice
date: 6 IV 1948
orchestra: Narodowa Orkiestra Symfoniczna Polskiego Radia
conductor: Grzegorz Fitelberg
edition: PWM, Chester Music
Symphony No. 1 – opening the modernist project

Symphony No. 1 was composed between 1941 and 1947. It comprises four movements: 1. Allegro giusto, 2. Poco adagio, 3. Allegretto misterioso, 4. Finale – Allegro vivace. It was first performed in Katowice on April 6, 1948, by the Polish Radio Grand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Grzegorz Filtelberg. Subsequent performances took place the same year in Cracow and then in Warsaw. It was a very fateful year for the arts in Soviet Bloc countries. At the Congresses of Composers in Moscow and in Prague the principles of socialist realism were announced. A new term entered the political-aesthetic vocabulary – that of “formalist” music, which was supposedly harmful to communist society. Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 1 was one of the first musical works in Poland to be labelled “formalist”.

The piece was written during the Second World War and completed just after the end of the war. The composer said that the character of the work was “cheerful, as that was the original conception from the period of independence, before the war, even though it was developed during the terrible time of war and in the far-from-idyllic post-war period.”

As Lutosławski commented: “Those were the times when, among most orchestral musicians, a sequence of 3/4 and 5/8 time was deemed an unnecessary oddity, and a chord containing more than five different notes (and – God forbid – more than one minor interval) was seen as unbearable torture to the performer’s ear. It is easy to guess the reaction of the orchestra during the first rehearsals of my symphony. I had a vague sense that instead of the long awaited satisfaction, I was going to experience severe and unfamiliar distress. But nevertheless… After countless rehearsals, the orchestra, perhaps yielding to Fitelberg’s unwavering conviction, reached exceptional precision in performing my score.” “I don’t treat Symphony No. 1 with disdain. It was, however, a piece that did not herald anything for the future, there was nothing that I could develop further.”

The first movement takes the form of a sonata allegro, with shifting motifs and sequences of fast-changing chords as the first theme and a canon-like imitation of extensively developed melody lines as the second theme. Aesthetically, the music is close to Symphonic Variations, and some harmonic similarity to Igor Stravinsky’s music can also be observed. In a discussion about the adagio (second) movement, the English monographer of Lutosławski’s work, Charles Bodman Rae, points out that the piece is inspired by the music of three composers. The initial melody evokes the chromatism of Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; the horn part is reminiscent of the slow movement of Albert Roussel’s Symphony No. 3; and the second theme is supposedly an allusion (through the parody of a march in the oboe part) to Sergei Prokofiev. The third movement is a loose scherzo with a trio (with no literal repetitions). The melody line in the bass register of the strings introduces a twelve-tone row pizzicato: its second six-note chord is an inversion of the first six-note chord, transposed upwards by a minor interval. The timbre of this movement is exceptionally interesting – the sophisticated combinations of instrumental timbres seem to herald the style and technique of sonorism. The final Allegro is described by Charles Bodman Rae as an expressive formal sequence of build-up–climax–resolution–abatement–coda and cadence in D major.

Although the symphony ends in D major, as a whole it is atonal or – to put it differently – post(pan)tonal. In no way does it refer to any inspiration coming from folk music and it does not introduce functional or popular elements, which would soon become characteristic features of Lutosławski’s music right up to Concerto for Orchestra. Stylistically, the work can be classified as formal neoclassicism with modernist textural ambitions.

Krzysztof Meyer wrote of the piece: “Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 1, although undoubtedly the most serious since the times of Szymanowski, could not compare with other symphonies composed in the 1940s – those of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Honegger. It lacked both a fully shaped individuality and technical mastery. It was, however, a well-written work, which could have played an important role in Polish music at the beginning of the 1950s. It could not do so for political reasons, and when it was finally allowed to enter the musical stage, its time had already passed.”

ach / trans. mk