Witold Lutosławski completed his Concerto for Orchestra in 1954, after four years' work. Commissioned (unofficially) by Witold Rowicki, who wanted Lutosławski to write a work of music for the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (which was being set up at that time), the piece was inspired by Béla Bartók's eponymous composition in its general outline, yet is highly distinct. Lutosławski reached out for Oskar Kolberg's five-volume Mazowsze collection of Polish folk music from the Mazovian region and these tunes, although considerably modified and transformed, recur throughout the Concerto, underlying all of the key themes and motifs.
The Concerto for Orchestra has three movements titled respectively Intrada, Capriccio notturno e arioso and Passacaglia, toccata e corale. True to its name and to the 17th century tradition, Intrada provides a solemn introduction, featuring transformed tunes of folk songs "A cyje to kuniki" (from the Czersk region) and "A gdziez mnie odjezdzas, Walusieńku, panie?" The second movement - in the form of a scherzo - contrasts it with an episode based on a syncopated folk tune, which is followed by the subtle music from the start of Capriccio. The finale is the longest movement and the culminating point of the Concerto, its building blocks evoking the typical Baroque forms of passacaglia, toccata and corale. The extensive Passacaglia achieves a special dramatic effect through the rise of the sound volume from pianissimo to fortissimo in the subsequent variations. Toccata's theme, borrowed from the folk tune "A cy mi to dziwna zona", is marked by vibrant motorics and dramatic character, whereas the last part, Corale, uses rhythmically homogeneous chords to simplify the texture and interlaces the chorale phrases with fragments of a folk tune. The extensive finale brings transformations of the music material from the earlier movements, thus ensuring extraordinary integrity of the entire work, and this sense of unity is further enhanced by the use of Intrada motifs in the coda.
This is how Lutosławski commented on his Concerto:
"The folk material and all of its consequences ... have found an application in 'Concerto for Orchestra'. The folklore was, however, merely a raw material used for building a large music form of a few movements that originated neither from a folk song or dance. A work which I could not rank among the most important ones in my music, 'Concerto for Orchestra' thus originated in a way which I had not quite expected, as a sort of a result of what was my episodic symbiosis with folk music" ("Witold Lutosławski. Materiały do monografii", ed. Stefan Jarociński, Kraków 1967, p. 44-45).
Although Lutosławski thought his Concerto marginal, it has been recognized as his greatest work from the time preceding Musique funèbre and was seen as one of the top Polish works of Social Realism in Poland in the 1950s. This is how Andrzej Chłopecki looks at that:
"The 'Concerto' is an artistic summit of what could have been done in the Polish music of the early 1950s without undermining the principles which were set for music by the system. The Bartók-Roussel-like eclecticism, practised with responsibility to Szymanowski's spiritual testament, with acceptance of Polish folk bias and without challenging the Social Realist utopia, sits by the doctrine, putting it into brackets. The doctrine does not apply, for this eclecticism escapes it, finding shelter in the history of European music ... There is no answer to the question whether the 'Concerto' could have been written without Social Realism in the Polish music. Social Realism, however, may use the score as an alibi gained at the end of its life" (Andrzej Chłopecki, "Witolda Lutosławskiego pożegnania z modernizmem" in: "Muzyka - słowo - sens", Akademia Muzyczna w Krakowie, Kraków 1994, p. 106).
What may sound as a curiosity or a political joke is the fact that an excerpt from Intrada was used in 1969-87 - without Lutosławski's knowing - as a signature by the West-German "ZDF Magazin", a TV programme with a number of anti-Polish touches.
Concerto for Orchestra was premiered in Warsaw's Roma Hall in 26th November 1954. It was performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra (known at the time as the Grand Symphony Orchestra of the Warsaw Philharmonic) under Witold Rowicki, to whom the work had been dedicated. Enthusiastically received, the work scooped state awards the following year and secured Lutosławski the position of the greatest living Polish composer. Concerto's 1956 performance by the Wiener Symfoniker at the first Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music attracted the attention of the audiences and critics, and prompted the conductors - notably Jan Krenz, Jerzy Semkow, Stanisław Skrowaczewski (who conducted the work's first performance in America) as well as Seiji Ozawa and Georg Solti - to include it in their repertoires. Nowadays Concerto for Orchestra is among Lutosławski's most often performed music.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, February 2004.