Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

orchestration: cello and orchestra
  vc solo 3(1picc)33(1clb)3(1cfg), 4331, timp, batt(3), cel, ar, pf, archi
dedicated to: Mścisław Rostropowicz
year composed: 1969-1970
about premiere
location: Londyn
date: 14 X 1970
orchestra: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Edward Downes
soloists: Mścisław Rostropowicz
edition: PWM, Chester Music

The Cello Concerto was composed in the years 1969-1970 on commission by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, it received its world premiere on October 14, 1970, at London's Royal Festival Hall, in a performance by the dedicatee and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Edward Downes.

It is odd that extra-musical, and even somewhat anecdotal associations have tied themselves in with the Cello Concerto more strongly than with any other composition by Lutosławski, despite it being furnished with a generic title devoid of any extra-musical allusions. At a certain moment Witold Lutosławski, strongly and decisively holding the stance that music, the most autonomous of the arts, expresses only itself, felt extremely perplexed and puzzled when he noticed just to what extent his Cello Concert is subject to programmatic commentary and perception. He could reproach the commentators, and even himself, for having suggested to them this type of understanding by revealing the content of his letter to Mstislav Rostropovich, who inspired him to compose the work.

The letter, which in a remarkably vivid, plastic, and picturesque manner tells the adventurous story of this work's musical form, was written by the composer at the request of the great violoncellist, who wished to obtain from him appropriate interpretive indications. In the letter, Lutosławski's metaphorically formulated content immediately opened the way to further assumptions, creating through Rostropovich and the events of his life the temptation of facile over-interpretations. So who is represented by this lonely cello, numbly resting on the indifferent note d? Whom does it symbolize, if not the individual in a totalitarian system? Doesn't it refer to the drama of the individual refusing to accept its tyranny? Isn't its subject the fate of the dissident in the Soviet State? The lot of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to whom Rostropovich gave shelter in his home in the suburbs of Moscow? And the fate of Rostropovich himself, as well as his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, the great singer, who both chose to flee the country of the communist utopia?

Lutosławski defended himself from this poster-like political interpretation. It is worth remembering that it was a time in which nearly every masterwork of drama and literature on the world arena could be read on in the communist block as a type of allusion: in reality, each of Shakespeare's dramas, not to mention the Polish Romantic literature, included content which the regime considered to be inappropriate. However, Lutosławski was not a dissident, even though his father Józef and his paternal uncle Marian were executed in Moscow by the Bolsheviks on September 5, 1918, while his brother Henryk died in a Soviet Gulag in the Kolyma region on October 7, 1940.

In his description of the musical adventures of the Cello Concerto one may point to a kind of theatricalization of musical narrative, a theatricalization that is nonetheless abstract and immensely suited to music treated as an autonomous art employing means proper only to itself. The time of the work's world premiere was not without influence on the unusually strong temptation to ‘fictionalize' this composition (for which, in any case, the latter is suited for reasons of musical timbre alone). Only two weeks earlier, on October 14 to be exact, the discussed artist, recognized in the USSR as an authority similar to that of Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrakh, defended Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a public statement, a writer condemned to banishment and deported from the country against his wishes, subjected to slander by the Soviet propaganda, which became furious when several weeks earlier he was honoured by the Nobel Prize for The Gulag Archipelago. It is in those days, the time of the Cello Concerto's world premiere, when Rostropovich came into open conflict with Soviet authorities, which ended with the emigration of the violoncellist from the country. Less than six weeks later, there occurred the drama of the bloody suppression of labour strikes in Lutosławski's home, Poland.

What is worth adding is that at the occasion of the world premiere of the Concerto, Mstislav Rostropovitch was decorated with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, commemorating the London-based Society's commission of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony no. 9. This fact - as well as that of the Nobel Prize for Solzhenitsyn - was also judged by the Soviet authorities to be an "invasion into internal matters" of the communist superpower, which among other outcomes resulted in the censorship's prohibition of transmitting the Concerto in its performance by Rostropowich, a prohibition aimed at the radio broadcasters of the communist camp, including the Polish Radio, making it impossible for the Poles to invite him to perform the work at the Warsaw Autumn festival.

If the discussed Concerto indeed realizes the genre's tradition, then it is in the sense that its main lyric-dramatic-epic subject is embodied in the solo instrument: it is a concerto for cello and orchestra, not for orchestra and cello. The partners do not hold equal rights, as the cello is the obvious hero of the work - a cello that is virtuosic and lyrical, indifferent and brilliant, rhapsodic and impressional, aggressive and compliant, melodic and percussive, playing pizzicatos and glissandos, energetic and faint, grotesque and molto espressivo, vicious and ethereal, timbrally thick and airy in its nebulae of harmonics, simper with its grazioso and jeering in poco buffo, charming with its con eleganza and strict in marciale. During introductory discussions about the conception of the piece, Rostropovich suggested to Lutosławski that he not mind any problems of technical nature whatsoever, leaving them to the performer, and that he concentrate his invention exclusively on purely musical problems. The composer made considerable use of this allowance, though he did not neglect to propose his own fingering for the quarter-tone cello passages. No technical consultations with the violoncellist were made in the composition of the work, and only with its publishing were Mstislav Rostropovich's editorial fingerings for the solo part added.

As we have noted, we are dealing here with the dominant part of the cello. However, the genre of the instrumental concert sui generis presupposes such a relation between the concertante solo instrument and the orchestra, as to make the latter also a rightful subject. The fact is that if we put the solo voice of this Concerto on the pulpit, we are faced with a fascinating, and in terms of form and expression, fully satisfying fantasia for solo cello. However, the Concerto is very much a symphonic work. Its formal and expressional principle is that of conflict, and even battle. When the material of the orchestra interferes with the narrative of the soloist, and when it (often brutally) interrupts the ‘rational flow' of the cello, finally when the particular instruments and their groups come with it into dialogue and even an emotionally harmonized agreement, a different quality of its individual narrative is born, resulting in the very concertante quality which we have mentioned.

The composition begins with a nearly four-minute solo introduction, which evolves from the indifferently repeated note of d. One could compare the cello's introductory point to the very characteristic beginning of Lutosławski's String Quartet, i.e. the first violin's monologue as an ‘aside'. The introduction contains almost the entire ‘philosophy' of the solo voice and everything which it will use in the more than twenty-three minute duration of the composition to influence the orchestral instruments (especially the strings and the woodwinds) in the process of ‘winning them over'. Paradoxically, this introduction is not a monologue. Rather, it is a discourse of the cello with itself, a kind of internal monologue in which clash various musical rationales; it is a sort of psychological study that extends from phrases sounding like firm expressions of faith, to figures which seem to engage in imitating these rationales and even mocking them. Expressively speaking, this is not a linear cello; in this respect as well as in the used technique, it is as polyphonic as the solo violin of Bach and Bartók in their multi-voiced, fully contrapuntal Sonatas. The polyphony of voices in those Sonatas is replaced here by a polyphony of textures, atmospheres, and types of expression. And before the fourth minute of this solo fantasia elapses, the conflictual form of the Concerto begins with the first intervention of the brass instruments, in this case the trumpets. From this moment on it is clear that the battle has begun; the main contestants are the solo cello and the brass instruments, while the remaining groups of instruments take one or the other conflicting hero's side.

The described formal and expressional conflict unfolds in four phases. First comes an introduction of the cello interrupted by the aforementioned intervention of brass instruments. The second phase is made up of four episodes, each interrupted again by the brass. Third in sequence is the cello and string orchestra's cantilena broken off with the most intensive of the interventions, after which the fourth phase brings the climax of the entire composition - first in a tutti, and then in the part of the solo instrument, which finally ‘gets its own way' - and ends with the repeated note of a², which in the context of the beginning's repeated d creates a symbolic framework for the whole. In its essayistic and hermeneutically brilliant book, Lutosławski a wartość muzyki (Lutosławski and the Value of Music), Bohdan Pociej referred to the particular phases as: 1. First Clash; 2. Temptations and Attacks; 3. Climax, or the Thickest Amount of Hits; 4. Pursuit and Flight.

The first intervention of the trumpets is somewhat premature, and - in the context of the introductory solo fantasia - amusing and surprising. The ensuing dialogue of the cello with the group of woodwinds brings in an atmosphere that is lyrical to the point where after the entrance of the strings' pizzicato accompaniment, the part of the cello can be perceived almost as an erotic courtship. This ‘flirting' is firmly interrupted by an intervention of the brass. In spite of the existence of segments maintained in fast tempos and phrases of ornamental character, the discussed formal phase can be understood as an attempt at song, the first (and there will be a second, more intensive) adagio section. In the second segment there follows an initiated dialogue between the cello and the strings. Their pizzicato mocking of each other introduces in the next formal episode the musical category of a scherzo.

Another resumption of the phrase by the cello playing pizzicatto initiates a remarkable formal phase within the Concerto: finally (!) a cantilena unison passage in the strings beginning in the low register of the orchestra introduces the main phase of the entire composition, maintained in the adagio, cantabile breadth of typically Romantic provenance. This adagio songfulness constitutes in Lutosławski's manuscripts the first foreshadowing of the beginning phrases of the Symphony no. 4, composed 20 years earlier. The melodic nature of this phase of the composition is tied in with an extraordinary lighting up of this linearly treated passage with a careful choice of harmonic means. However, the Idyll cannot last forever, as this very moment causes the most aggressive intervention of the brass instruments, which leads the piece to its last phase. In the latter, a tutti comes to a moment of harmonic fullness based on a nine-note chord, followed by a virtuosic culmination in the part of the cello. This duel in climaxes becomes a remarkable crowning of the entire composition, a work the adventures of which are tracked by the listener with fascination like a sensational, abstract-action film full of bravado, realized exclusively with sonic means.

ach / trans. mk