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Stylistic lone ranger

W itold Lutoslawski, Poland's most important 20th-century composer, was by all accounts a quiet man; modest, private, ever the diplomat.

INDIVIDUAL STYLE: Witold Lutoslawski followed no particular schools or traditions and believed music should be an abstract experience.
INDIVIDUAL STYLE: Witold Lutoslawski followed no particular schools or traditions and believed music should be an abstract experience.

From 1968 until his death in 1994 he lived in a vine-covered house in the leafy district of Zoliborz in north-central Warsaw, where his stepson, architect Marcin Boguslawski, shows me around.

He points out paintings chosen by his stepfather – sparse, pale abstracts by Polish artists – and shows me Lutoslawski's study, where the composer worked every day from 9am-10pm until the last months of his life. The most notable features are the double doors, the triple windows and the ceilings specially tiled for soundproofing. Lutoslawski didn't ask for much in terms of material needs – just some space and simple, modernist decor, clean lines and muted colours. What he sought above all was silence.

And well he might, for the first five decades of his life he didn't get much of it. Lutoslawski was born in the north-east of Poland on January 25, 1913 – 100 years ago next week – just as Europe limbered up for war. His father and uncle were murdered by Bolsheviks in Moscow in 1918; in 1919 his mother moved the family to Warsaw, where they would witness the most brutal and systematic atrocities dealt by the Second World War. After the war, with 84% of the Polish capital in ruins, the composer lived in a cramped apartment on a busy thoroughfare in the Saska Kepa district of the city, a loudspeaker next to his window spewing noisy state propaganda. When the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich came to Warsaw to meet Lutoslawski, he perched on the edge of the composer's bed – there was nowhere else to sit – while he played for him.

All the while Lutoslawski was developing a musical voice that was entirely his own. From the outset he was a stylistic lone ranger, following no particular schools or traditions, and was never swayed by the socialist-realist artistic decrees of post-war communism. He believed in music (in all arts, in fact) as abstract experience, free from external meaning but always deeply emotional.

Tomorrow the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov perform works by Lutoslawski alongside those of his compatriot Karol Szymanowski. Thirty years Lutoslawski's senior, Szymanowski invented an exotic, Technicolor soundworld that single-handedly bridged the gap from romanticism to the 20th century in Polish music. There's no doubt this had an influence on the young Lutoslawksi: it was after hearing the kaleidoscopic Third Symphony as a teenager he decided to become a composer.

The question of influence in Lutoslawski's music is a tricky one, as Zbigniew Skowron at Warsaw University's Institute of Musicology explained to me. "Lutoslawski pursued his own voice so tirelessly it's difficult to find passages in his music that show direct influences from anyone in particular. But of course he had points of reference. The main ones were French composers like Debussy and Ravel; he admired their approach to orchestration and sound quality. He was always interested in sound as a source of sensual pleasure. So, despite the fact he felt disappointed by Szymanowski's lack of radicalism in his late period, he admired Szymanowski for his approach to orchestral colours."

Lutoslawski divided his own output into two rough strands. To start there was the music he said he was able to write – music he felt was in some way limited by his technical abilities. He included his pre-1958 work, often vaguely neo-classical and folk-inspired, in this category. The turning point came with Funeral Music of 1958, a beautiful modernist score in memory of Bela Bartok, and from then on he produced what he later described as the music he wanted to write. He honed in on systematic methods of writing and, increasingly, on aleatorism (chance) in performance. But he never lost track of his rich harmonies and textures, nor of the emotional impact his music had on his listeners.

The two works the BBC SSO perform tomorrow date from both sides of the divide. The Concerto for Orchestra was completed in 1954 and is one of Lutoslawski's most accessible orchestral works, full of folksy rhythms and robust energy. The programme closes with the darkly elegiac Fourth Symphony, written in the very last years of Lutoslawski's life and providing a fitting summation of his stylistic evolution. When I mentioned the programme to Grzegorz Michalski, director of Warsaw's Witold Lutoslawski Society, he sighed. "Congratulations. In Glasgow you will hear 20 minutes of pure bliss with the Fourth Symphony."

There's a third strand of Lutoslawski's music, something of an oddity. During the war he and Andrej Panufnik made piano-duet arrangements and played in bars and cafes around Warsaw – the Variations of a Theme by Paganini for two pianos remains, rather perversely, one of Lutoslawski's most popular works.

After the war, until Stalin died in 1953 and the Soviet puppet leader Boleslaw Beirut died in 1956, Polish artists were dogged by the socialist-realist mandate. Rousing folklore and easy patriotic messages were the criteria for success; anything deemed as formalist was punishable by an outright ban.

When his First Symphony was denounced as formalist and banned in 1949, Lutoslawski retreated from serious composition and wrote music to make a living: radio jingles, soundtracks and music for children that is still used in the Polish education system today. He even wrote popular songs under a pseudonym, Dervid, though many of these are now lost. Underneath their simply melodies and utilitarian value, what's left of these make-do compositions is subversively inventive.

He lived through history's most turbulent century in Europe's most turbulent battleground. Would Lutoslawski's musical voice have evolved differently had he been working in a different environment? Zbigniew Skowron again: "After 1956 Poland was relatively free for artists, far more so than other communist states. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a new generation of Polish composers appeared. Penderecki, Gorecki, Serocki, Baird - Although he probably wouldn't have admitted it, these younger composers inspired Lutoslawski to continue pursuing his own new methods. It must have been enormously stimulating for him."

Back at the house in Zoliborz I ask Marcin Boguslawski the same question. "My stepfather's music would not have been any different if he had lived somewhere else. He knew what kind of expression he wanted to communicate – and that came from within, not from the environment around him. But he lost a lot of time along the way because of history."

The BBC SSO and Ilan Volkov perform Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra and Fourth Symphony at City Halls tomorrow. They perform the Cello Concerto with Johannes Moser on February 28.

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