Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Chester Music is the publisher of this work in all territories except Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, China, countries of the former Czechoslovakia, 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 work is performed without a break and its four main divisions may not be immediately recognisable without the aid of further description. Before the first performance, the composer wrote to the RPS, enclosing a letter which he had already sent to the soloist about the interpretation of the work. In his covering note he was at pains to point out that his use of literary metaphor in the letter did not imply any extra-musical significance in the piece: it was merely a vivid way of characterising its contrasts for the sake of the performer. Nevertheless, there is undeniably an element of abstract theatre about this piece: indeed there is in all concertos, but here it takes a distinctively late-20th century form. So Lutoslawski’s ‘little picturesque way’ of describing it will be found legitimate and genuinely useful for listeners too. The inverted commas in what follows are his own.
The cello starts with a long cadenza in which a series of unconnected Ds – marked indifferente – establish basic state of ‘absentmindedness’ from which passages of variously but fleetingly different character are taken up, but do not come to anything: they always return to the Ds. These notes are eventually interrupted by trumpets, first with single notes, then fanfares characterised as ‘angry’. Their intervention will punctuate each of the four episodes that follow, which are also separated from each other by progressively shorter pauses. In all these episodes the interval of a third is important and usually predominant. The first episode moves in character from soave to scherzoso, to the light accompaniment of clarinets, harp, various drums and, briefly pizzicato strings. The second is more fully accompanied and more regularly metric, almost giving the impression of being in 6/16 or 9/16 time. The third episode returns to the slimmer instrumentation of the first: the cello part, marked precipitando, includes a lot of tremolando playing. The fourth has more ostinati in the accompaniment and the solo part consists largely of double-stopping passages.
The return of the repeated Ds precedes the beginning of the Cantilena, which brings, as one might expect molto espressivo, dolente and more sustained playing from the solo cello, accompanied first by double basses on their lowest note (E), later by intricately divided solo strings. Heinrich Schiff
(played without a break)
The composer wrote for the world premiere in 1970:
The letter to Mr Rostropovitch, in which I have briefly described the form of my concerto, has been written in literary rather than in musical terms. I have done it purposely in order to make certain musical situations in the score clearer and more suggestive. But it does not imply any literary or extra-musical meaning of my work. There is no such meaning in it, even if I speak of a “gay” cello or “angry” trumpets. It is simply a little picturesque way of pointing out contrasting sections so that the interpreters could more easily find the right approach to them.
Here are some excerpts from the letter:
………It consists of four movements played “attacca”: Introduction, Four Episodes, Cantilena and Finale. Introduction: |I understand the note D repeated at one second intervals in an expressionless manner “indifferente” as a moment of complete relaxation, or even absentmindedness. The performer abandons this state immediately when something else begins to happen in his part and will return to it several times in the course of the Introduction. The passing on from the state of absentmindedness to that of concentration and the other way round is always abrupt. Several threads begin in the Introduction, but they never develop. You can see their character in the restrained dynamics and in such indications as “grazioso” and “un poco buffo ma con eleganza” etc. Naturally “marziale” is to be understood figuratively. It is indeed a very unreal march. The last moment of absentmindedness is slightly different from the previous ones. Dynamic differences, grace-notes etc occur. It is as if the cello, forced to perform monotonous, boring repetitions, tried to diversify them and did it in a naïve, silly way. In this moment trumpets intervene to stop the cello and to shout out their “angry” phrase”. After a five-second rest the cello begins the first Episode “inviting” a few instruments to a dialogue, which subsequently develops into a more animated music. Brasses put an end to it, as it was at the conclusion of the introduction. Other Episodes unfold in a similar manner. Their character is always “grazioso”, “scherzando”or the like. Only the interventions of the brasses are “serious” too and such it will remain nearly until the end of the piece.
The Cantilena begins and develops into a broad melodic line. To put an end to it a few brasses are not enough. This time the “angry” interventions appears in the form of a large orchestral tutti and thus begins the Finale. Comes a sort of challenge between the cello and the orchestra, after which the cello playing three very rapid sections is “attacked” by different small groups of instruments. Finally the orchestra “prevails”, attaining its climax after which the cello utters a “moaning” phrase. Here there could have been the end of the work. But instead of a gloomy disappearing conclusion one might have expected, comes a short and fast Coda, whose “triumphant” ending is as it were beyond the event which has just been accomplished. On the other hand it recalls the beginning of the work or rather its bright atmosphere, which in the Coda regains finally its predominance.……………
……….The score is divided into conducted sections and ones to be played “ad libitum”. The latter are not to be conducted except one beat to start playing or to pass to the next section………..
…….The quarter-tone passages in the solo part are so conceived and written that the separate notes could be heard and would not merge into “glissandi”…….
© Witold Lutoslawski