Musique Funébre

Witold Lutosławski

Witold Roman Lutosławski (1913–1994) was part of the amazing set of Polish composers who emerged on the world stage in the twentieth century. He was intrigued by avant-garde music of the twentieth century, and in Musique funébre we find his expertise in twelve-tone (dodecaphonic) logic as the controlling force in music composition.

Developed by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, twelve-tone technique presents the twelve pitches of the scale in a specific row or pattern created by the composer.  This sequence (sometimes called a row or a series) carefully omits the gravitational force of tonality by stressing the equality of each tone and by purposely choosing intervals between the tones, which cancel tonal implications. (This row is sometimes called the prime series.)

Between 1954 and 1958, Lutosławski was commissioned by Jan Krenz to write a work celebrating the tenth anniversary of Béla Bartók’s death. Regarding this testimonial, the composer stated, “When writing my work, I did not try to base it on Bartók’s music, and any similarities in Funeral Music are unintentional. If they do exist, they reaffirm the unquestionable fact that studying Bartók’s  music was one of the fundamental lessons for most of the composers of my generation….What I have achieved in this work is rather a set of ways which enable me to move with some sense within the twelve-tones, naturally apart from the tonal system and dodecaphony. It is a beginning of a new period… and I tried to create a range of means that would become my own…And it is the first word— though obviously not the last one—spoken in what is a new language for me.” Musique funébre premiered on March 26, 1958, in Katowice, at the second Warsaw Autumn Contemporary Music Festival.

Musique funébre has a single movement, in four parts:

Prologue­: this introduces the row, via cello, which is subject to metrical changes and is structured with two intervals between the tones: a tritone and half step. Herein, Lutosławski writes in canonic (imitative) texture.

Metamorphoses: this section displays twelve changes to the original row, combining excised segments of the row in polyphonic texture.

Apogeum: this word refers to the farthest distance point of a satellite from the earth. At this time, Lutosławski stacks the row into a succession of 32 chords.

Epilogue:  this summation recalls the canonic ideas of the prologue, but in mirror form (i.e. in reverse).

How did this relate to Bartók?  Lutosławski connected by seeing Bartók as a pioneer—not only in ethnomusicology but by his experimentation in tonality and form (palindromes, arches, etc.) Musique funébre has often been linked to an arch form. Bartók’s use of canonic and polyphonic writing was plentiful. (For example, see the extraordinary fugue in Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion—hence the canonic reference in the Prologue.) Bartók’s use of polytonality loosened the effect of tonality and hastened the breakdown of the diatonic system, and in this experimentation with harmony (such as the alpha chord), redirected traditional harmonic functions.

Bartók used a twelve-tone scale in the second movement of his Second Violin Concerto, jokingly noting that  he “wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all twelve tones and still remain tonal.” (Bartók Remembered by Malcolm Gilles) Bartók’s use of octatonic scales in the Mikrokosmos and other works involved the use of a tritone in the construction of two symmetrical cells and variations within their combinations. Notice Lutosławski’s use of the tritone in the formation of his main row in Musique funébre. Thus, Bartók was moving away from traditional western scale patterns via pentatonic scales and new intervallic movement. (See The Music of Bela Bartók: A Study of Tonality and Progression in Twentieth-Century Music by Elliott Antokoletz.) Bartók also had an interest in unique rhythmic combinations and metric changes (referenced in the Prologue).

In this tribute, Lutosławski selected elements from Bartók’s forward thinking to use in his tribute and to commemorate Bartók’s memory. “This work is a revelation, an illumination, a shock.  It already merits a place among the few summits of all contemporary music…” (1958 review by Bohdan Pociej) In 1959, Musique funébre received the annual Polish Composers’ Union Award. Also in 1959, it received first place at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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