Overture for Strings

orchestration: string orchestra
dedicated to: Mirko Očadlik
year composed: 1949
about premiere
location: Praga
date: 9 XI 1949
orchestra: Orkiestra Symfoniczna Praskiego Radia
conductor: Grzegorz Fitelberg
edition: PWM, Chester Music

Music for chamber orchestra in Witold Lutosławski's oeuvre is an extraordinarily interesting domain; in it as an area somewhere between the extended chamber music writing and prolegomenon to symphonic style an especially intriguing aesthetic play is being carried on, and one whose significance is fundamental to the musical poetry of Lutosławski. This significance results from the fact that Lutosławski's chamber output is rather modest (though it is difficult to consider the entirety of his achievements while omitting the String Quartet and Epitaph for oboe and piano), yet the spirit of chamber performance is present in an intensive form in the composer's symphonic scores, which constitute the crux of his compositional legacy. Viewing the compositions for string orchestra in this perspective is a valuable exercise.

The Overture for Strings was created in 1949. Dedicated to Mirko Očadlik (the director of Prague's radio orchestra), the piece received its premiere in the Czechoslovakian capital on November 9, 1949, with the Symphony Orchestra of the Prague Radio conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. This composition grows out of the tradition created by Paul Sacher and his series of commissions for the Basel Chamber Orchestra, with Bela Bartók's Divertimento and Igor Stravinsky's Concert in Re at the forefront. Beginning with the 1930s, the chamber string orchestra became one of the twentieth century's most popular formations, and one that was not exclusively, but mainly Neoclassical or in some way referring to Neoclassicism. While the Overture remained in the shadow of the Symphony no. 1 and the Concerto for Orchestra, it variously foreshadowed the changes in Lutosławski's music after the composition of his Funeral Music, or even the Venetian Games, i.e. in the music of ‘Lutosławski proper'. One may come to the conclusion that in the Overture the composer uses for the first time his ‘chain' technique, which relies on the dovetailing of various musical elements and their gradual replacement, an effect particularly characteristic of his later music.

This short, five-minute piece is in clear sonata allegro form (featuring a reversed recapitulation), but its clarity does not contradict the richness of elaborate detail in the employed compositional technique; it is as if the composer desired to create a super-complete symphonic aphorism, while not altogether eschewing the Neoclassical tradition (Grzegorz Fitelberg compared this composition to a "miniature human conserved in formalin"). We have used the term ‘super-complete' because the number of elements employed is greater than necessary for the completion of this form; and ‘aphorism', because of the extraordinary economy in the use of those elements. However, in respect to the latter, the piece does not create the impression of asceticism.

As a whole the composition rests upon three thematic ideas marked by clear motivic structures; moreover, the recapitulation adds one more theme. The impression of an integral unity of this construction is amplified by the reverse order of the themes in the recapitulation, and their partially contrapuntal presentation in the development. Although the themes create a sense of unity, they differ amongst each other in a decisive manner. The first relies on the filling out of a 12-tone spectrum with four-note motives derived from two eight-note scales. In their melodic outline these motives recall Bartók, and in their manner of presentation, Webern, while their shape foreshadows Lutosławski's motivic design of the 60s. The second theme, which also presents an eight-note scale (testifying in turn to modal thinking), can be regarded as an attempt to create the type of harmony that will be fully voiced in the composer's Funeral Music. Only in the third theme do we find characteristics that boast a Neoclassical typicality, owing much to its industrious vigour. What also deserves close attention is the aforementioned ‘side idea' near the end of the recapitulation - a trace after the absent slow movement, surprisingly sounding the adagio note of Lutosławski's episodes from his music of the 80s.

When listening today to the Overture for Strings one may come to the conclusion that artistically it directly precedes Funeral Music and Venetian Games, works of principal importance in the creative output of Witold Lutosławski. Written after the completion of the Symphony no. 1 (1947) and before the commencement of work on the Concerto for Orchestra (1950), in the official year of Poland's proclamation of social realism (1949), it does not have the character of functional music - as do Lutosławski's subsequent pieces, with the Little Suite (1950) and Silesian Triptych (1951) at the forefront.

ach / trans. mk