Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Brief Glance at Witold Lutosławski

Alex Ross has a note about the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski up on the New Yorker site in which he wonders why his Symphony No. 3 isn't more of a "warhorse". That's apparently not a left-handed compliment as he goes on to say
it is a masterpiece of organic architecture, in which gleaming towers of brass emerge from gaseous clouds of instrumental activity. In a kind of reverse teleology of music history, the avant-garde engenders a new Romanticism.
I'm not sure exactly what he means by the first bit as a lot is going on. What I hear above all is a loud, brief exclamation from the brass at the beginning and at intervals after that sounds oddly like the opening motif of the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven speeded up and inverted. I guess a lot of what we hear in between could be called "gaseous clouds". That second sentence? I have absolutely no idea of what that could mean. Teleology is a philosophical term referring to the direction of things towards an end or goal. A 'reverse teleology' would seem to be an incoherent notion. I suspect what Alex Ross is trying to say in "New-Yorker speak" is that he finds a kind of new Romanticism in Lutosławski, a withdrawing from the wilder edges of modernism, perhaps?

I don't hear that myself. Lutosławski seems to me to be a characteristically modernist composer with the fractured rhythms and tortured dissonances of his brethren. I like that recurring Beethovenesque snippet because it seems almost the only element that has some easily graspable significance. I'm sure there are all kinds of underlying complexities here, but if I don't hear something that makes me want to listen further, then I probably won't listen further.

The problem I have with modernism is that the only thing they seemed interested in was the syntax of music: how to put it together in the most intricate fashion. They seemed terrified of the semantic of music, what you might call the 'content'. Now I know that I often say that music is not a language and has no semantic content as such, but it can have a sort of 'feeling' content. When Ross, later on in the note refers to "Beethovenian fury" he is referring to the feeling content of Beethoven's music which many hear as having a kind of driving impetus. Similarly the music of Shostakovich often has a quality of gripping the listener, projecting a strong feeling content.

Lutosławski? Well, I don't hear a lot of that. But I do find that recurring snippet interesting. Here is the first part of his Symphony No. 3. What do you hear?


5 comments:

Joel Lo Observador said...

dada da dan! that's what I heard. hehehe.

Actually, from Lutoslawski this is my favorite work. Don't ask me why. First time I aproach to him, I was schocked an skeptic, but then I started to feel somenthing unexplainable "charming". But definitely I don't like a lot of stuff from him. The 4th and 2th symphony naah... But the cello concerto and the piano concerto are interesting!

I don't know if "he is telling me something", i don't care at all about semantics.With this kind of modernists I try to enjoy the sounds per se, and what textures, ideas and ambients they can create.

Greetings!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Joel! There is certainly lots to hear in Lutoslawski. He hasn't grabbed me yet, but I appreciate your vote.

There is a lot of music that we like or don't like for reasons hard to put into words. I just haven't heard the piece by Lutoslawski yet that has opened the door for me.

Nathan Shirley said...

Some of his earlier work is really great, but it won't open any doors for you as his later music tends to be quite bland overall. Like so many of the better modern composers, the music isn't bad, but it just tends to lack substance.

Try his "Little Suite" if you don't already know it.

Nathan Shirley said...

Oh, and also the Concerto for Orchestra.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for mentioning the Little Suite. It is rather nice. I did listen to the Concerto for Orchestra a while back, but it didn't grab me.

I'm just starting to write an overture for chamber orchestra so exploring Lutoslawski further will have to wait a bit.