Chester Music is the publisher of this work in all territories except Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, China, countries of the former Czechoslovakia, countries of the former Yugoslavia, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Hungary and the whole territory of the former USSR, where the copyright is held by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM).
The melodic material for the '20 Carols' comes from three 19th century colections of traditional Polish carols: the Spiewnik Koscielny (Church Songbook) and Pastoralki i koledy z melodiami (Christmas songs and carols with melodies), both by Father Michael Martin Mioduszewski (1787 - 1868) and Ludzie (The People), by Oscar Kolberg (1814 - 90). Almost all the carols chosen from these collections by Lutoslawski are well-known, popular ones in Poland, although some are regional variations of the standard, traditional carols. One of the carols, Lulajze, Jezuniu (Lullaby, Jesus), is that from which Chopin used fragments in his 'Scherzo in B minor'; and like Chopin, who wove the carol melody into a much larger form, Lutoslawski succeeds in producing a highly original work, by combining the simple folk melodies with his own, unmistakeably 20th century, technique and style of harmonisation. The '20 Carols', in fact, come from a period in Lutoslawski's career when he was making frequent use of folk melodies in his music; prior to the '20 Carols' in 1945, he had composed a set of easy piano pieces based on Polish folk songs and dances, and the culmination of his work in this idiom during that period was the Concerto for Orchestra (1950 - 54).
In 1986, wishing to write a new work for the London Sinfonietta, Lutoslawski decided to return to the '20 Carols' and chose 17 of them to arrange and orchestrate. He omitted numbers 4, 9 and 19 from the original collection and changed the order of the remaining carols, from some of which he selected only one or two verses. The resulting work, scored for solo soprano, female chorus and chamber orchestra, provided a colourful and fascinating view of traditional Polish culture, seen through the eyes of Poland's greatest composer. The first performance was given by the London Sinfonietta and Sinfonietta Chorus conducted by the composer at the QEH, London on 5th December 1985.