Lutosławski started to draft the Symphony in 1972, and it took him a long time to resolve the issues of texture and pitch structures which he decided to address. He would also mention the special responsibility he felt charged with when writing music for the best orchestra in the world.
The form of Symphony No. 3 was born out of Lutosławski's long experience as a music listener. While he admitted to fascination by Beethoven symphonies, his gold standard was Haydn's symphony. He also admired large forms by Brahms, yet always felt exhausted by his symphonies, concertos or even sonatas, possibly because - as he used to say - they inevitably had two main movements: the first and the last one.
Symphony No. 3 is a two-movement work utilizing Lutosławski's own structural idea, whereby the first movement is a preparation for the second one and is expected to arouse interest which the second movement shall satisfy. The second movement shall also present the work's main idea. According to Lutosławski, the form of the first movement alludes to a sonata allegro, yet has nothing to do with the sonata form as such. The symphony starts and finishes with a characteristic quadruple repetition of one sound, which quite naturally reminds one of the famous "Fate motif" from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
According to Lutosławski, his Symphony No. 3 had neither a programme nor any out-of-music meaning, yet the circumstances in which it was first performed both in Chicago and in Poland triggered off attribution of unintended ideas. After its 1983 premiere in Chicago, the work was performed in London and it was the London concert recording - by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the composer - that introduced it to the Polish audience gathered at St Michael's Church in Sopot on 26th August 1984 for an officially unauthorized event called "Gdański Sierpień 84". This is a part of Lutosławski's speech made before the recording was played:
"I am deeply moved and deeply indebted to the organizers of this meeting for their willingness to include a presentation of this recording in the Gdańsk Agreements anniversary celebrations. I feel honoured and recognized, proud and happy ... A critic of a Chicago newspaper wrote an extensive review of the first performance of 'Symphony No. 3' and one sentence sticked in my mind and made me very happy. He wrote: 'I understand that such a work could have been written now and in Poland'. I did not ask what he understood by that, even though I knew the man. But it allows me think with some optimism that all the experiences which we - all the Poles - have shared, have influenced what I wrote, even if it was not my direct intention. It also makes me feel somewhat optimistic that someone could have sensed in a work of music that the man who wrote it is not some socially alienated, insular type, but that he is a member of that society and one who feels an ardent and deep solidarity with that society."
Symphony No. 3 earned Lutosławski the underground Independent Culture Committee's 1983 Solidarity Culture Award.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, March 2002.