Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994) is one of the most significant Polish composers and among the major figures of 20th-century classical music.
He was born on January 25, 1913 in Warsaw, During his youth, Lutosławski studied piano and composition in Warsaw. His early works were influenced by Polish folk music and demonstrated a wide range of rich atmospheric textures. His folk-inspired music reached its peak with the Concerto for Orchestra (1954)—which first brought him international renown—and Dance Preludes (1955), which he described as a “farewell to folklore”. From the late 1950s, he began developing his own characteristic composition techniques, which incorporated his own methods of building harmonies from small groups of musical intervals. He readily engaged in twelve-tone and aleatoric music, all while preserving traditional melodic and harmonic techniques.
During World War II, after escaping German capture, Lutosławski made a living by playing the piano in Warsaw bars. After the war, Stalinist authorities banned his First Symphony for being “formalist”—allegedly accessible only to elite. Lutosławski believed such anti-formalism was an unjustified retrograde step, and he resolutely strove to maintain his artistic integrity. In the 1980s, Lutosławski gave artistic support to the Solidarity movement. The recipient of numerous awards and honours, near the end of his life, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour.
His compositions—of which he was a notable conductor—include representatives of most traditional genres, aside from opera: symphonies, various orchestral works, chamber works, concertos, and song cycles, some of which he orchestrated. Of these, his best known works are his four symphonies, the Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941), the Concerto for Orchestra (1954), and a cello concerto (1970).