Symphonic Variations

orchestration: orchestra
  2(1picc)3(1ci)3(1clb)3(1cfg), 4331, timp, batt, cel, ar, pf, archi
year composed: 1936-1938
about premiere
location: Kraków
date: 17 VI 1939
orchestra: Narodowa Orkiestra Symfoniczna Polskiego Radia
conductor: Grzegorz Fitelberg
edition: PWM, Chester Music

The Symphonic Variations, composed in 1938, received their premiere on March 1939 in a broadcast of the Polish Radio in Warsaw, and were again performed on April 17 of the same year at Wawel, the historical Royal residence in Cracow, during the World Music Days Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music that took place in Poland. In both cases, the Symphonic Orchestra of the Polish Radio in Warsaw (formerly the Great Symphony Orchestra of the Polish Radio in Katowice, and presently the National Symphony Orchestra of the Polish Radio) was conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. The Variations were the first piece composed by Witold Lutosławski directly after completion of his studies under Witold Maliszewski in the Warsaw Conservatory.

As basis for the Variations the composer uses a tonal (extended key of B major) theme of 10 measures, after the exposition of which one can formally distinguish a series of unnumbered variations presented in a continuous manner in the score, as well as a final coda - fugato (Allegro ma non troppo), yet the entire composition gives the impression of a structurally unified whole, a reason why its commentators indicate a disparate number of perceived variations (Krzysztof Meyer - 12, Tadeusz A. Zieliński - 8).

The employed variational change does not consist of a marked difference in tempos (fast and slow variations do not contrast with each other, but are grouped: the first is slow, the next four are fast, and the two final ones are slow), relying instead on transformations in the melodic and rhythmic motives, but even more in the phenomena of musical timbre. In such an approach to variational technique one may point out certain (external) analogies with the idea of ‘developing variation' from the school of Arnold Schönberg; furthermore, in the polychordal harmony and industrious ostinatos one hears the echoes of an early Igor Stravinsky and in the musical colour those of Maurice Ravel, while in the contrapuntal technique one finds a foreshadowing of the Symphony no. 1, and even Funeral Music of Lutosławski himself.

ach / trans. mk