Funeral Music

  1. Prologue
  2. Metamorphoses
  3. Apogeum
  4. Epilogue
orchestration: string orchestra
  vn I (6-8), vn II(6-8), vn III(6-8), vn IV(6-8), vl I(4-6), vl II(4-6), vc I(4-6), vc II(4-6), cb I(3-5), cb II(3-5)
dedicated to: "à la memoire de Béla Bartók"
year composed: 1954-1958
awards: Nagroda Związku Kompozytorów Polskich (1959),
I Nagroda na Międzynarodowej Trybunie Kompozytorów UNESCO (1959)
about premiere
location: Katowice
date: 26 III 1958
orchestra: Narodowa Orkiestra Symfoniczna Polskiego Radia
conductor: Jan Krenz
edition: PWM, Chester Music

The first performance of this piece (dedicated “à la memoire de Béla Bartók) took place on March 26th, 1958, in Katowice. Jan Krenz, who commissioned the composition, conducted the Great Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio and Television. The composition was awarded first place in 1959 at the International Rostrum of Composers organized in Paris by UNESCO’s International Music Council.

Funeral Music may be considered a key work in Witold Lutosławski’s oeuvre, as it is in this piece that the composer starts to form his own special, highly individual musical language and the various technical procedures that would constitute the poetics of his later work as a whole. The commission to compose a piece for the tenth anniversary of Béla Bartók’s death came from Jan Krenz in 1954 – Lutosławski needed four years to complete the work. The four years that passed from finishing the Concerto for Orchestra to finalising Funeral Music (which coincided with Five Songs to the poems of Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna, completed in 1957 for soprano and piano and, in 1958, for orchestra) can be compared to the seven-year break in Arnold Schönberg’s creativity (with the exception of the unfinished Jacob’s Ladder oratory, the composer’s key score), which preceded the first pieces written in the dodecaphonic technique. Witold Lutosławski often said that it was after these two pieces (Five Songs and Funeral Music) that he stopped composing only what he knew how to and began composing as he wanted.

“What I have achieved in this work is rather a set of ways which enable me to move with some sense within the twelve tones, naturally apart from the tonal system and dodecaphony. It is a beginning of a new period and a result of my long experience. I tried to create a range of means that would become my own. And it is the first word – though obviously not the last one – spoken in what is a new language for me" (Witold Lutosławski, 1958).

The fundamental problem of Funeral Music is the twelve-tone harmony, which is already fully established in the first two sections – the beautiful dodecaphonic canon of the Prologue (reappearing later in the Epilogue) and the expressively denser Metamorphoses – to reach a climax in the short Apogee, which is under a minute in length. The technique involves gradually building a twelve-note spectrum on the basis of a very expressive use of intervals, which for Lutosławski are a living sound quality and not – as dodecaphonic composers believed – just a structural entity. The work was the belated result of Lutosławski’s intention to create a piece for the tenth anniversary of Béla Bartók’s death, and this is the sole reason for its title, as it is in no other way related to the “funeral” category.

“In dedicating Funeral Music to the memory of Béla Bartók, I wanted to celebrate – as far as possible – the tenth anniversary (in 1955) of the great composer’s death. When writing my work, I did not try to base it on Bartók's music, and any similarities in Funeral Music are unintentional. If they do exist, they reaffirm the unquestionable fact that studying Bartók's music was one of the fundamental lessons for most of the composers of my generation” (Witold Lutosławski, 1964).

The Prologue is based on a twelve-note series built from only two intervals – a tritone and a minor second – and takes the form of canons which use an increasing number of voices (from two to eight). In the second section, Metamorphoses, the series which was treated melodically in the Prologue undergoes transformations: there are twelve of these, as the series is consistently transposed to successive degrees of the scale by an interval of a fifth, down the circle of fifths. The sonority of the piece grows denser due to a more and more intense use of “foreign” sounds entwining the notes of the series, which takes the form of a cantus firmus, with an ever-expanding range of sounds. The climax, which uses the full twelve-note chromatic scale, comes in the short Apogee, a sequence of thirty-two chords. The wide ambitus of chords is then gradually diminished and the number of components is pared down before entering the final stage: the canons of the Epilogue, which follow the principle established in the Prologue, but in reverse order. The work, which has reached its climax more or less according to the “golden ratio”, i.e. after two-thirds of its length, returns to its point of departure. The four sections do not form separate movements but rather constitute phases of a single expressive curve.

ach / trans. aw