Symphony No. 3

orchestration: orchestra
  3(2picc)3(1ci)3(2picc, 1clb)3(1 cfg), 4441, timp, batt, 2 ar, 2 pf, archi
dedicated to: Solti Georg, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
year composed: 1981-1983
awards: Nagroda Kulturalna Solidarności (1983)
about premiere
location: Chicago
date: 29 IX 1983
orchestra: Chicago Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Georg Solti
edition: PWM, Chester Music

Symphony No. 3 – between division and integration

Symphony No. 3 (1981–1983) holds a very special position in Witold Lutosławski’s oeuvre. It can be seen as both a masterpiece and the climax of his work.

After its first performance (in Chicago on September 29, 1983, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, to whom the work is dedicated) one critic wrote: “this piece is exactly what might be expected from a Polish composer at the moment”. Clearly, this was a reference to martial law in Poland (which lasted from December 1981 to July 1983). Symphony No. 3 earned the composer the 1983 underground award from Solidarity’s Committee for Independent Culture. Lutosławski, who, after December 1981, no longer participated in official life in Poland, commented on this critical remark several months later, at a meeting of musicologists in Warsaw. Standing by his artistic principles, he did not confirm the supposition that he may have tried to render the feelings of the Polish people. He added, however, that “even if we agree that music can signify anything extra-musical, we at least have to consider it to be an art full of ambiguity. Nevertheless, man has a single soul and whatever he goes through must have some influence on him. If man has a single psyche, then the world of sounds, despite its autonomy, is still a function of that psyche. That is why I would only like to suggest something rather vague here: if the last movement of the Symphony makes this kind of impression and keeps the listener in suspense, it is certainly not by chance. I can admit that I would feel honoured if I managed to express something that might be connected not only to my personal experience but also to that of other people” (Witold Lutosławski, 1983).

The Symphony’s four opening E notes – a simple but expressively strong motif, like the four knocks at the door in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – promise a dramatic development of the work. The same four-note chord will close the Symphony (as a conclusion to its Coda), and will form a basis for the development of the second movement and also organise the form of the first. Individual parts are not named in the score and in performance the transition from one to another is smooth, without caesuras, in accordance with the “chain” technique.

The Introduction last a little over a minute and develops from the strings’ E note, and is divided and then closed by a “brass” punching of the four-note main motif. The parts of the woodwind section, the piano and the harp, are somewhat casual in their expressive shape, and reveal forms and textures that will give life to fragments of the first movement (which still maintains its introductory, opening character, while drawing the listener further into the composition).

The first movement consists of three Episodes – longer sections made up of shifting textural events that do not form a narrative straight away. These are rather states of the musical material than its developmental path. Each of the Episodes is slower than the previous one: the first one in quavers, which is flickering and quivering in character; the second in crotchets, where the dreamlike motifs solidify into more concrete shapes; the third one in minims, where the sound material opens up to create a continuous line, a cantilena. This development into cantilena grows more intense in the Adagio, which follows the third Episode. It is an ethereal, formally distinct entity that completes the idea of this section – the idea of music decelerating all the way into adagio.

The Episodes are separated by Refrains – slow dialogues by the clarinets and the bassoon, in small melodic figures of lyrical character. The main motif of the four Es in the trumpets and trombones announces each time the end of the Refrain and the beginning of the next Episode – and the beginning of the second movement after the third Refrain. We may be unaware that this capricious music, with its somewhat insignificant emerging and disappearing shapes, its seemingly anaemic forms which are barely commenced yet left unfinished – through all this Lutosławski is preparing us for the second movement of his Symphony. We do not know – and need not know – that in the first movement the composer has sketched the main idea of the whole symphony, its basic elements – subconsciously directing the listener’s expectations.

The second movement is fundamental to the entire work. It is governed by the sonata allegro, in the sense that here one may talk about the dualism of two basic thematic groups: to repeat them in stretto before the great climax at the end of this movement would be a reprise. The development is present from beginning to end, as a principle and not just a formal section separated from the rest according to classical patterns. The “first thematic group” consists of multiple repetitions of the note E as the main motif and a broadly extended fugato section in the strings with the harps. The “second theme” begins with the polyphony of the strings, mostly playing pizzicato. The second movement of the symphony is already a dramatic narrative, whose numerous shapes and eruptions, chamberesque details and explosions of symphonic tutti would require a much more thorough analysis. This, however, is not necessary. An attentive listener, as if “tuned” by the composer in the first movement, is now already “seized” by the form of the symphony and no longer needs to be guided through it.

In his commentary, Lutosławski wrote that the second movement ends with an extended Epilogue. This part, however, could easily be considered a third movement – slow and given the form and expression of a broad recitative in unison on strings and a rhythmic cantilena. It reintroduces some melodic shapes from the Refrains of the first movement, and the expression of its final Adagio reappears here – no longer ethereal now, but full of passion. In fact, the third movement turns out to be an alternative main movement, a consolidation and completion of the whole work. The final Coda, which stems from the second movement, is in form analogous to that of the Introduction, yet expressively different in its solemnity, despite its having the character of a “pure” cadence. The last bar is a tutti of four forte fortissimo E quavers. All is fulfilled.

ach / trans. mk