In 1954 Jan Krenz asked Witold Lutosławski for a composition to mark the following year's tenth anniversary of Béla Bartók's death. However, it took Lutosławski more time to complete the commission and Musique funèbre, dedicated "à la memoire de Béla Bartók", was finally finished on 10th January 1958. As Lutosławski put it:
"When writing my work, I did not try to pattern it on Bartók's music, and similarities, if any, are not deliberate. If they do exist, they reaffirm the unquestionable fact that studying Bartók's music was one of the fundamental lessons for most of the composers of my generation" (the programme of the 1964 Warsaw Autumn Festival, p. 10).
Indeed, Musique funèbre brings quite a number of references to Bartók, and especially to his Music for string instruments, percussion and celesta.
Musique funèbre is intended for string orchestra divided into ten voices: 1st, 2nd, 3th, 4th violins; 1st, 2nd violas; 1st, 2nd cellos; 1st, 2nd double basses. Although a one-movement work, it has four distinct phases which have been titled Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogee and Epilogue. The first and the last phases are slow in tempo and constructed as canons. The second phase - true to its name - subjects the music material to numerous metamorphoses. The third building block, Apogee, has just twelve bars and is the work's culminating point.
Owing to its style, Musique funèbre was a turning point in Lutosławski's career. This is how he himself put it:
"What I have achieved in this work is rather a set of ways which enable me to move with some sense within the twelve tones, naturally apart from the tonal system and dodecaphony.... It is a beginning of a new period and a result of my long experience. And it is the first word - though obviously not the last one - spoken in what is a new language for me" (the programme of the 1958 Warsaw Autum Festival, p. 57).
Musique funèbre was premiered by the Grand Symphony Orchestra of the Polish Radio under Jan Krenz in Katowice on 26th March 1958. Its performance at the Warsaw Autumn later that year was regarded as one of the festival's highlights, and the work featured in the programmes of three more festivals, in 1964, 1984 and 1994. In 1959 it received the annual Polish Composers' Union Award.
This is how the Polish media commented on Musique funèbre:
"This work is a revelation, an illumination, a shock. It already merits a place among the few summits of all contemporary music..." (Bohdan Pociej, "Ruch Muzyczny" 1958 No. 15, p. 37).
Soon the recognition for Musique funèbre spread worldwide. Leopold Stokowski conducted it at the inaugural concert of the Houston Contemporary Music Festival, and in May 1959 it earned the top listing (alongside Tadeusz Baird's Four Essays) of the Paris International Rostrum of Composers of UNESCO's Music Council.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, June 2004.