Symphony No. 4

orchestration: orchestra
  3(1picc)3(1cl)3(2 picc,1clb)3(1cfg), 4331, timp, batt, cel, 2ar, archi
year composed: 1988-1992
awards: Classical Music Award (1994)
about premiere
location: Los Angeles
date: 5 II 1993
orchestra: Los Angeles Philharmonic Orhcestra
conductor: Witold Lutosławski
edition: PWM, Chester Music

Symphony No. 4 – the swansong of modernism

The adagio episode of the Third Symphony can be perceived as the source of the Fourth’s singing character. The singing, the melodics, the cantilena – the broad narrative phrase is another trait of this work which is connected to its harmonic quality. Such wonderful melodic phrases, which seem to be making up for years of asceticism, were unknown in Lutosławski’s previous scores. The gesture that opens the Symphony and reoccurs throughout takes up an idiom by Mahler – despite the large mental distance which existed between Lutosławski and that composer.

The fifteen-bar episode that opens the first movement of the Symphony deserves a place in the history of music as a symbolic theme. It is a melody of the clarinet (towards the end supported by flute), accompanied by a string quintet playing con sordino, coloured by the harp. The phenomenal beauty of these bars, to a large extent projected over the whole symphony, is rooted in the masterful power of simplicity. The rhythmical repetition of the bass E in the harmonic aura of minor thirds that surround it provides the accompaniment – a forgotten phenomenon in new music. The cantilena of the clarinet, where motifs seem to result from one another as if divided into antecedent and consequent, forms the melody – a quality that is most difficult to find in new music. And then the harp, with the sound droplets that add colour to the strings and, together with the violins and violas, form the melodic line. It is the harp – singing and adding opalescent colour to the entire work – that gives the basic E its metaphysical dimension. This symphony may be seen as a continuation of the previous one in that it develops what had only been hinted at before. In the harmonic system the consonance and the combinations of thirds have become fully emancipated, which brings to mind tonal associations much more often than in any other Lutosławski’s work after Funeral Music – especially as it does not avoid tensions reminiscent of dominant-tonic sequences (although it still does not make the symphony even partly tonal).

The work comprises two movements. After the Introduction comes an extended allegro, where the section marked cantando in the score could be ascribed the role of the second theme (in accordance with historical symphonic form). The character of the first movement is a special feature of the composition. Although built according to the principle of conducted sections rounded off with aleatory sections, by no means could it be called preliminary or hesitant. The formal sequence which is characteristic of Lutosławski’s music, for example in his Symphony No. 2 (hésitant–direct) and Symphony No. 3 (hésitant–direct–direct), is absent here. If the terms used by the composer for his Symphony No. 2 were to be applied here, Symphony No. 4 would be a sequence of direct–direct movements. The English musicologist and composer (and Lutosławski’s biographer) Charles Bodman Rae noted in The Music of Lutosławski (London, 1994) that the impression the symphony makes is that the first movement is missing and the work only consists of the second and third movement.

The unrestrained element of linear thinking (in terms of cantilena, recitative, melodics) affects the majority of the orchestra, turning the work into an expanse of instrumental songs. Because of the prominent role of solo instruments (the clarinet, the flute, the harp, the violin, the viola, the cello, the trumpets, the horns, the trombones, the piano, the vibraphone with the marimba, and even the bongo drums) the element of chamber music enters the composition on a much larger scale than in Symphony No. 3. This in no way implies that the collective symphonic element has withdrawn and given way to the surge of individual shapes or that the dominance of clear and distinct melody and expressive and unambiguous (as opposed to aleatory) harmony has marginalized the collective playing ad libitum – even though its role in Lutosławski’s later work would become significantly limited.

In Symphony No. 4 the composer does not abandon anything that had hitherto constituted his symphonic language and which could be described according to the principle of the “chain technique” – including both the exchange of material between different structures, the technique of combining and disassembling chord aggregates, the opposition of conducted and non-conducted music, and finally the idea of the dialectic form as a whole. The world of Lutosławski’s later works (the triptych Partita–Interlude–Chain 2, the Piano Concerto, Chantefleurs et Chantefables and Chain 3, as well as the last two symphonies) more than ever before opens up to the tradition of European music, fully assimilating into it on the one hand, yet on the other hand not losing any of its individual character. These scores redeem the meaning of the word “synthesis”, which has become hackneyed over the last quarter-century.

Symphony No. 4 was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which gave the piece its first performance on February 5, 1993, conducted by the composer.

ach / trans. mk