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Witold Lutosławski

Publisher: Chester Music

Symphony No. 4 [4.Symfonia] (1992)
Commissioned by Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Work Notes
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).
Chester Music Ltd (Polish Works)
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
22 Minutes
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Programme Note
Witold Lutosławski Symphony No. 4 [4.Symfonia] (1992)

One current view of Lutoslawski’s stylistic development suggests four style periods. Of the early works to about 1948, often summarized under the inadequate label “neoclassical” of which the Paganini Variations for two pianos is best known. During a middle period from 1949 to 1960, he pursued two independent styles, one for functional music, often folk-inspired (Concerto for Orchestra), the other experimental and driven by an insatiable urge to perfect his own personal, modernist musical language (Musique Funèbre). Beginning in 1960, the experimental track bore full fruit in a mature third period, producing works which combine limited use of chance techniques with a rich harmony based chiefly on twelve-note chords, and in which texture and colour often assume leading roles. Both Mi-parti and the Cello Concerto are outstanding examples of the music of the third period. Since about 1979, Lutoslawski has adopted still another approach, now stressing thinner, simpler textures and harmonies and lucid, even neoclassic melodic and rhythmic lines – elements that create obvious connections with his early works.

Lutoslawski’s four symphonies reflect the course of his development rather neatly. The First Symphony, composed from 1941 to 1947, closes his first style period; it became a causecélèbre when Lutoslawski was criticized by the Soviet-dominated Polish government for “formalism” (i.e. music that is modern, or that dares to think for itself, or that dullard politicians can’t understand at first hearing). The work was banned in 1949 and was not heard again for ten years. Lutoslawski waited twenty years to write another symphony, and then he used the Second Symphony (1966-67) to consolidate the discoveries of his third period on a large orchestral scale. The Third Symphony (1981-83) was the first major work in the late style period to capture public attention. The new Fourth Symphony, arriving after more than decade of refining this late manner, reflects the lessons of the intervening works, especially such gems as the Partita for violin and piano (1984), Chain 2 for violin and orchestra (1984-85), and the Piano Concerto (1988). All these works have been heard on Los Angeles Philharmonic programmes, most recently the Piano Concerto, performed by Krystian Zimerman in January 1991).

In its first decade of existence, the Third Symphony has enjoyed an almost unheard-of level of public success for a modern work: three recordings (by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; by the Berlin Philharmonic with the composer conducting: and by the Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim) and literally hundreds of live performances all over the world. Undoubtedly public acceptance has been sped along by the Third Symphony’s spectacular orchestration, its big, memorable tune, and its moments of high drama. The Fourth Symphony is quite different; it is much shorter, and its rhetoric is less extrovert, its colours darker, its drama more somber. The Fourth Symphony is equally as compelling, however, through its sheer eloquence and its almost elegiac gravity.

Lutoslawski was asked in a 1992 interview for the German monthly NZ, how his symphonies relate to the symphonic tradition. He replied “ It is a question of form. I have thought al to about large-scale closed forms. I was not always happy with the…Brahmsian tradition. In Brahms there are two main movements, the first and the fourth. In my experience as a listener, that is too much . Too much substance within [a short span of] time. I believe that the ideal relationship is achieved in Haydn’s symphonies. And I thought that perhaps I could find some other way to achieve this balance. My solution is to view the first movement as preparation for the main movement. The first movement must engage, interest, it must – ‘intrigue’, as they say in English. But it must not give complete satisfaction. It must make us hungry and, finally, even impatient. That is the right moment to introduce the main movement. That is my solution, and I think it works rather well.”

In one way or another, this two-part format - preparation, main event – lies at the heart of many of Lutoslawski’s works over the past thirty years, including the Second Symphony (whose two movements bear the explicit titles ‘Hesitant’ and ‘Direct’) and the Third Symphony (introduction, preparatory first movement, large main movement, third movement comprising lyrical aftermath, brief coda). The Fourth Symphony presents an example that is both clear-cut in its two-movement layout and unprecedentedly subtle in the way in which the two movements relate to each other to create a single, overarching musical experience. Its first movement adopts a favourite ploy for engaging our attention while at the same time frustrating our desire for continuity: alternating two contrasting kinds of music. The first of these, a lyrical melody against a gentle, chordal background, is first exposed by the clarinet, later by flute and clarinet together. Interposed between statements of this unfolding melody are mercurial interludes of faster, less predictable music. On its last appearance the lyrical music is taken up and extended by the strings until it culminates in an abortive attempt at a grand climax.

As promised, just at the moment when we grow impatient with the preparatory first movement, the main second movement arrives. This movement unfolds in three stages. The first section, dominated by running sixteenth-note figures, introduces a grave cantibile theme that will return for later development. The middle section is a sparkling orchestral texture that begins at the top of the orchestra and swells down through the ranks until, heralded by solo trumpet and a trio of trombones, it yields to the third section. Now the cantibile idea heard earlier returns in full force, gaining in urgency until it culminates in a powerful unison statement by the massed strings and brasses. As if there were no way forward from this frankly emotional climax, the music dissolves in dreamlike recollections, dwindling to a single note in the violas. A brief, brilliant coda brings the symphony to a close.

Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The score bears the completion date 22 August 1992.

© Steven Stucky

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Witold Lutosławski's Symphony No. 4 (1988-1992), which was commissioned by Salonen and the Los Angeles Phil. It was premiered in 1993 by the composer and the LA Phil.

  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
    J. Shirley-Quirk
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Sony Classical:
  • Ensemble
    Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
    K. Bakowski, violin
    Antoni Wit
  • Ensemble
    Rundfunksinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
    R. Kofman
  • Ensemble
    Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
    Roman Lasocki, violin
    Miroslaw Jacek Blaszczyk
  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Louis Lortie (piano)
    Edward Gardner
  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Sony Classical:
  • Ensemble
    NDR Sinfonieorchester
    Krzysztof Urbanski
    Alpha Classics:
  • 01 MAR 2020
    Queen Elizabeth Hall / London / UK
    The Purcell School Symphony Orchestra
    Paul Hoskins, conductor

The wonders kept coming in this ripe grapefruit of a score, bursting with juice,
Geoff Brown, The Times,26/03/2013
The Fourth Symphony captures its essence. By the time he came to write it, Lutoslawski had worked out an ingenious way of creating a gripping narrative without using “normal” harmony. To put it crudely, first he teases, then he delivers. We get a series of abrupt gestures, some massive, others fleeting and silvery. A huge tension gathers, as various ways of connecting these things are tried and rejected. Eventually the music finds a solution to its own puzzle. A real, connected narrative builds to an immense climax, a huge unison melody for almost the entire orchestra.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph,25/03/2013
A heartbeat of string basses gives it life. A series of intriguing sound-bites begin to give it shape. A long, winding clarinet solo sets the lyric tone (is that Bartok remembered in the Hungarian catch of the melody?); busier elements – brilliant tucketings for brass and percussion, explosions of controlled indeterminacy – lend momentum. Resolution comes in expensive string-led elaborations… … In the closing minutes, all hearts and minds are concentrated on a meeting between three solo violins over tremulous vibraphone and marimba. Somewhere in there was a secret being shared.
Edward Seckerson, The Independent,02/09/1994
There is not a single false or ugly note, not the slightest gesture that is out of place. Yet beneath the exquisite, smartly tailored surface it has an instantly appealing lyrical warmth, decorous, imaginative brilliance and expressive generosity of spirit.
Robert Henderson, The Telegraph,01/09/1994
Aptly, as a tribute to him, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra began the first of their two Proms with this work, which they had commissioned, giving it a world première last year. It remains a stunning piece, bearing all the composer’s fingerprints but also breaking new ground… …Its basic bipartite format – preparatory first part leading to a second in which all the musical elements were decisively, powerfully galvanized – was even more lucid and effective that when adopted previously in his symphonies two and three, and certainly telling in its conciseness (it lasts just 20 minutes). Moreover, the fresh emphasis on melody offset its abstract interplay of ideas.
Meirion Brown, The Guardian,01/09/1994
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