Lutoslawski Musique funèbre

The Polish composer Witold Lutosławski began his Musique funèbre one year after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953, although the piece was of course never intended as funeral music for the hated dictator. Jan Krenz, the chief conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra commissioned the work as a musical homage to Béla Bartók, who died in New York in 1945.

Bartók had seen and been horrified by how the German National Socialists categorised music by many eminent colleagues as entartet or degenerate and then forbade its performance. He was so enraged by this that he demanded in a letter that his own name should be added to the list; his demand was not, however, met. Hungary’s rapprochement with Nazi Germany was the straw that broke the camel’s back and precipitated his emigration to the USA. He never returned to Hungary: friends who had remained there begged him to return and become a member of the new parliament after the liberation of Hungary by the Russians, but within a short space of time he was already too ill to be able to travel.

If he had returned, he would have been disappointed; the Soviet authorities who governed post-war Hungary had already stated that much of his music was formalist in character and was therefore forbidden. Whilst Bartók could basically have taken this as a compliment, such a ban would have placed too many limitations on his life as a composer. Many of Stalin’s more senseless rulings were withdrawn after his death, not only in the Soviet Union but also in the satellite states of Hungary and Poland. Bartók became Hungary’s national hero and Lutosławski was allowed openly to pay honour to his colleague Bartók in a work of his own. The death of Stalin has played an important role in the development of Musique funèbre after all.

Translation: Peter Lockwood