Witold Lutosławski’s Funeral Music
Notes by TŌN violinist Adam Jeffreys
A Turning Point
Witold Lutosławski’s Funeral Music was commissioned to honor the late Bela Bartók, a monumental 20th-century composer and the father of modern ethnomusicology. The work is regarded as a turning point in Lutosławski’s style, which moved toward the avant-garde after several decades of music with its underpinnings in folk music. The piece can be conceptualized in four distinct sections. The first and final sections present a slow-moving, monolithic theme constructed out of tri-tones and half steps. The second section develops by interweaving contradicting styles that culminate in a climatic third section: a series of cacophonous chords which gradually decay into singular pitches.
The composition took an unexpected four years to compose, and its prophetic tone has sparked debates about the true meaning of what the piece mourns. While it was commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Bartók’s death, one historian, Nicholas Reyald, argued that Lutosławski intended to honor Bartók by creating a work which mourned the sorrows of the 20th-century Polish experience, and which drew from his own personal tragedies and experiences. Given the context of the tragedies which he faced, I am inclined to agree. Early in his life, Lutosławski’s father was executed by the Bolsheviks when the family sought refuge from WWI Poland in a Tsarist Russia on the brink of the 1917 revolution. And in 1939, following Germany’s invasion of Poland, Lutosławski escaped from Nazi forces before he was deported to a POW camp. His brother was not so lucky. He died in a Soviet labor camp after his capture. Lutosławski walked nearly 250 miles to the city of Warsaw.
Polish Music Suppressed
>Before the invasion, the 26-year-old had graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory with piano and composition degrees. His career had just begun with the premiere of his Symphonic Variations, and despite being mobilized as a military radio operator, he hoped to study in Paris. The occupation ended these ambitions, and transformed the musical life of Warsaw and Poland. The occupiers endeavored to suppress or eliminate Poland’s cultural identity. The invasion of Warsaw destroyed cherished cornerstones of Polish musical life. Cultural institutions which survived the invasion were seized and used to exclude Polish musicians. And the occupiers banned performances of composers who were a part of Poland’s cultural heritage, like Chopin. Because of this, Lutosławski performed at a series of cafes, which served as a semi-underground venue to arrange and compose music with select musical partners. His most recognizable piece from this period was his Variations on a Theme by Paganini for piano duo.
After WWII, Poland was incorporated into the Warsaw Pact, and its musical life was dictated by Stalinist ideology. Another author, Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek, described the unique pressures that Stalinist ideology placed on Lutosławski due to his family in that he could never publicly mourn his brother or father because they were killed by the Soviet state. Funeral Music was composed following the death of Stalin, during “the Thaw” that brought positive liberal change to the Soviet Union and its satellite states. I think that in addition to mourning the tragedy of a war-torn 20th-century Poland, Lutosławski was in some way publicly mourning the death of his brother and father.