Stacks Image 311

Lutosławski as I Knew Him
Robert Aitken

There are many things in life which come to be obvious. As the years go by you forget when you learned them and think that you always knew them. They become truisms that you expect everyone to know – a kind of self-evident knowledge. Was there actually a time in my life when I did not understand that Poland was truly a leader in contemporary music? I just knew it and continued to believe so for many years up to the present. So when I was invited to give this reminiscence on Witold Lutosławski, I was pleased to rethink this important part of my past to ascertain just when and what it was that brought my great interest in Polish music and led ultimately to inviting Lutosławski to Toronto.

As best as I can remember it was on my first trip to Iceland in 1966, one of 26 visits there, that I met musicians who had studied in Poland and a number of established Icelandic composers who had worked at the electronic studio in Warsaw. They regaled me with stories of vodka and the antics of Józef Patkowski (1929-2005) and other patriotic artists who had confronted the regime and gone on in their pioneering experiments with music, electronic and otherwise. And it was about this time (in 1960 and 1964 respectively) that Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski composed their astounding, ground-breaking string quartets which opened the door for many composers to a whole new musical world.

Then two years later, again in Iceland at the ISCM Festival, I met a number of Polish musicians including Włodzimierz Kotoński (b. 1925) who as head of the music department of the Polish Radio, invited me to play on Polish television. I was delighted to accept the honour and then began my Polish music story.

Of course a visa was required and was supposedly waiting for me at the Polish embassy in Copenhagen. After three days of waiting I gave up on that visit. Still, I was anxious to see Poland, so one year later, with a visa from Toronto in hand I entered the world of Eastern Europe. To anyone who has never flown to Eastern Europe at that time it was a frightening experience. We were not accustomed to seeing so many heavily armed officials with scowling faces at the immigration. So I was particularly pleased to be picked up by Kotoński at the airport in Warsaw. The one rehearsal with piano went well, but what clothing to wear was a problem. From Toronto I had asked several times, even the year before, what dress they would like for television but no answer was forthcoming. Now it was tails, which no musician likes traveling with, especially the hard fronted shirt. “Never mind,” they said, “we have a costume department.” Well, they had a costume department, but not my size and the suit I was eventually able to squeeze into harboured a few moths. Luckily, the holes were not noticeable.

Once I was suitably attired, we went straight into the studio and started taping. The first piece was recorded before I knew it and I was amazed; even more amazed when they asked if I would like to hear it and if there were any passages I wanted to record again. Never in my life had a television producer asked me if for musical reasons I would like to record something again. And never in my lifetime had I stood in a television studio with the first take being recorded. By the end of the afternoon, in a similar fashion, the entire recital was filmed. In Toronto it would have required an entire day and in Germany perhaps three. Every shot would have been carefully planned and rehearsed and no one would ever ask if I was content with my performance. That was the first time. Of course Polish graphics were famous at that time and their Poster Art was the talk of the world so in a way, I was not surprised at their skill in improvising.

A later film, from Katowice, with Klaus Huber introduced by John Cage, hosted by Rolf Liebermann, filmed by Andrzej Kostenko (the main cameraman for Roman Polański) and produced by the Polish Television and Katherine Adamov Films, under the artistic direction of Zygmunt Krauze, was the same story: fabulous improvisation with outstanding artistic results. Several of my best publicity photos came from that production, which, by the way, was sponsored by the Louis Vuitton Foundation.

Well, on this first trip to Poland I did not meet Lutosławski, but I wrote him a letter in March 1977 inviting him to Canada. He had no time during the 1977-78 season, but he knew I was invited to the Warsaw Autumn Festival, which even I did not know, and that we could discuss the Toronto program at that time. Then, because his Novelette for Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington was not finished, he delayed the concert from the 1978-79 season to the following one, which would also include a conducting engagement in the USA. This is often the way with important composers: the composing is far more significant for them than performances, especially for Lutosławski, as every piece was thoroughly considered and, therefore, took a lot of time to write.

Well, Mr. and Mrs. Lutosławski attended his performance with the Montreal Symphony and came to Toronto in time for a reception at the Polish Consulate on 12 April 1980. They stayed in town until the New Music Concert on 19 April. Lutosławski gave his attention to interested composition students and, on 18 April, had a major lecture in Walter Hall – plus, of course, rehearsals for the concert. What little time was left, he spent composing in the hotel room and proofreading the manuscript which his wife Danuta copied each day. Witold was very proud to talk about his wife, the fabulous life they had together and what a wonderful music copyist she was because of her training as a draftsman. There is no question that his scores are immaculate because of her talent and of course her devoted love and appreciation for her husband.

Naturally, we rehearsed in advance of his arrival, which may not have been necessary because after reading through the Preludes and Fugue at the first rehearsal, Lutosławski said “Bob, what do you expect me to do? Everything is perfect.” Needless to say, he did find more to do, especially with Paroles tissées for tenor and ensemble. But then he went on to say that in North America the orchestras were always well prepared and far less rehearsal time was required than for his concerts in Europe. In Germany, for example he said most players see the music for the first time when they find it on their music stand at the first rehearsal. Whereas he had recently conducted in Cleveland and several players came to him with questions about their parts even before the rehearsal began, so he knew they had looked at the music in advance.

It is impossible to tell stories of this nature without hearing in your mind’s ear his wonderful, inimitable upper class English accent, extremely polite and correct with one subjunctive clause after another. He rarely told you what he wanted but usually asked in a very polite manner. Such as, “Would it be too much trouble?...” or “Do you suppose we could?...” When visiting, he always brought presents for my family, including the tie I am wearing today. It became my lucky concert tie until the colour disappeared from over-wearing. I wore it at almost every performance for many years as a good luck charm.

During the ensuing years, I was frequently in Poland, three times for the Warsaw Autumn Festival, a recital for the Warsaw Philharmonic, twice teaching and performing in Kazimierz Dolny including the period of Solidarity when airplanes flew overhead and tanks went through the streets. I came for various other concerts and the aforementioned film in Katowice. We met from time to time, but mostly in passing, except for a week together in Kazimierz Dolny in September 1986 and an invitation to their home which I was pleased to see was very modest, much like our own.

As I was frequently in Norway during the seventies and early eighties, probably every year in fact, I did have the occasion to visit the Lutosławskis in their Oslo home. It was more like a cottage just outside the city not far from the family home of Marcin Bogusławski, Danuta’s son. It turned out to be an evening which anyone who knew Lutosławski finds hard to believe. I do have a feeling it was some kind of noted holiday somewhere in the world as the afternoon began very relaxed with an aperitif or two or three. I think it was something harmless like Cinzano or Campari, not vodka, but then came the question in that unforgettable slightly whiney aristocratic accent, “How would you feel about some wine?” and following my affirmative response, “Do you suppose white would be appropriate?” Of course some excellent food from Danuta came next and when we, the two of us that is, had finished the bottle of Puligny-Montrachet there was another question: “What do you think about some red wine? Do you suppose this bottle of Château Lafite-Rothschild would do?” But you know, one bottle of red was not enough. We followed it with another superior wine. At this point Danuta was beginning to get nervous but her concerns were gently pushed aside by Witold as he asked me, if I had perhaps some interest in a Cognac? Well it would be unfair of you to ask what we discussed that evening, but I do know that at one point I asked Lutosławski how he felt about all the parody pieces which composers were writing at that time, such as George Crumb and George Rochberg. He said “Oh, I don’t mind composers using borrowed material, providing they can improve on it. Debussy, for example.” Well, as you all know, Debussy was a special topic for Lutosławski and personally I feel one of the greatest influences in his music. Although Lutosławski writes numerous settings of controlled aleatoric passages, each has its own special sonority and these contrasted colours are certainly akin to the great impressionists although it seems to be called new romanticism today.

I believe our next meeting was in 1986 at the Banff Centre where I was in charge of contemporary music and the woodwind teaching for nine years and served, at that time, as the director of the winter program. The Lutosławskis were very pleased to be there and very generous with their time and energy. But the first thing Danuta did when she saw their lovely apartment with a fabulous view of the mountains was take a bucket of water from the kitchen and throw it all over the living room floor. I was surprised and shocked until I took a moment to recall that she did suffer from a respiratory ailment and this would bring badly needed moisture to the dry mountain air. I’m sure she also noticed that it was industrial carpeting and no harm would be done.

Always the gentleman, Lutosławski coached and conducted from morning to night. Like John Cage, he was always prompt. If there was a rehearsal at 9AM and I said he could come late, he always said “No. I’ll be there.” The library at the Banff Centre was excellent at that time and he spent a lot of time there. The New Groves Dictionary had just been issued and was being collected one volume at a time. Witold was particularly pleased to point out to me the fictitious personality Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup who had been invented and was listed in the edition. Evidently even Stanley Sadie, the editor, did not know this invented character had sneaked in there and was not at all amused when he found out.

Two Polish violists both co-incidentally named Dariusz were in residence during this period and the Lutosławskis were very concerned about them as Banff could only pay 85% of their costs. This was actually quite generous and all participants received that amount of assistance in those years. Still, Witold gave me spending money for them, in case they became destitute, but their performances in Music Theatre and a concert for the Polish Cultural Society in Calgary brought them enough spending money and their housing over the Christmas break, so I sent the money back to him. This was the kind of human being he was and I am sure accounts for much of the love Poland bestowed upon him. He told me that the prize money he was awarded from time to time went to needy people in Poland, sometimes composers and performers, but more often those with health problems, in particular a child who needed an eye operation unavailable in Poland.

Our next invitation to Lutosławski was in 1991 and would have been sooner but most of his new repertoire in that period was orchestral, which NMC could obviously not afford to perform. That concert also took two years to come to fruition and again it was thanks to an invitation from Montreal, to receive an honorary doctorate from McGill University on October 30, 1993 which facilitated the Toronto engagement. Our concert was on the 24th the week before. And again, as before, our musicians had so much respect for him that the first rehearsal was, he claimed, almost perfect. Soprano Valdene Anderson and violin soloist Fujiko Imajishi were outstanding. This time the concert was recorded by the CBC with the plan to release it as a live recording. Little did we know that there would be a little old lady coughing in the first row and that this would be Witold Lutosławski’s last conducted concert.
Considerable effort by Clive Allen went into editing out the wheezing and other extraneous noises and New Music Concerts released the recording at its own expense the following year. For this purpose our NMC photographer André Leduc took a large number of photographs and in the sport of the occasion Witold was pleased to pose in a number of amusing ways. The last several hundred copies of this original edition were purchased by the Lutosławski Society and then, in 2010 it was taken on by Naxos, which with the largest distribution network in the world, has given it far greater exposure. It was reissued again in 2013 as the final disc in the Naxos 10 CD Lutosławski Centennial Collection.

Following that concert, Lutosławski came to Montreal at the invitation of McGill University and then went off to Kyoto. He told me he had never been to Japan and was looking forward to the experience, but this time the Kyoto Prize was so large that he was thinking of establishing a foundation to administer the funds. As always, he did not keep prize money for himself. Well, the end of his life is well known to all of you. Cancer is a terrible disease but in this case mercifully short. Morton Feldman and my father also succumbed to pancreatic cancer and passed away within three months of diagnosis.

Lutosławski was a wonderful man whom we all miss. He left us a magnificent legacy of music, many fine performances and memories of a perfect gentleman with a sense of humour, profound thought, a monumental artist full of humility. I am thankful for the valuable music he wrote but wish he had composed one more piece. I and other flutists often asked him to write something for flute. “Well,” he told me “even if you commission it, unlike some other composers, I always write my pieces in the order that they are commissioned. I have accepted more orchestral commissions than I can complete in a lifetime. I write very slowly, only one piece a year. But,” he said, “if I choose to write a piece not commissioned between the other works no one can complain. But first I need an idea.” His last two letters to me said (Jan. 17, 1992): “Of course my dream is to bring a flute piece. But it must be born…” and (Mar. 28, 1992): “Flute piece? I would love to write it and it is now more probable for me to be able to think about it than ever before. But first I must get some good ideas for it.” Then, I spoke to him on the telephone and he said he had an idea for flute and piano and had begun…