Lutoslawski – Mala Suite (Little Suite)

by Max Derrickson

Witlod Lutoslawski   (Born in Warsaw, Poland, 1913; died in Warsaw, 1994)

Mala Suita (Little Suite)

  1. Fujarka (Fife) – Allegretto
  2. Hurra Polka (Hooray) – Vivace
  3. Piosenka (Song) – Andante molto Sostenuto
  4. Taniec (Dance) – Allegro molto


When Lutoslawski graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1937, a little more than 100 years after Chopin had done the same, Poland could hardly be called a country in any traditional sense.  Having been partitioned out by its three greedy neighbors (Russia, Prussia (Germany) and Austria) since the 1700’s, 20th Century Poland was yet again seeing the hardship of foreign invasion – not the least of which was the Soviet rule beginning just after a savage World War II.  It’s almost incomprehensible how a notion of “country” could survive more than 200 years of foreign domination, but astonishingly a national identity indeed prevailed.  Polish creativity somehow managed to always simmer under the surface, and in large part its source was its folk song and dance.  Its artists’ creativity was especially evidenced when Stalin died in 1953 and the ensuing “cultural easing” fostered all manner of modern art, literature and music.  Because there was so little left of that war-ravaged country, however, many artists turned to what had endured – their folk culture.  This was certainly true for Lutoslawski, who, after his first large orchestral works, the Symphonic Variations and Symphony No. 1, had been censored as being too “formalist” (academic) by the Russian Cultural Bureau, he was forced to eek out his living as a café pianist and by writing “popular” music for film, radio and TV.  When the Soviet cultural ban eased up after 1953, Lutoslawski then went on to create some of the 20th Century’s great pieces, such as his Concerto for Orchestra, Musique Funébré and Symphonies 2, 3 and 4.


But that was still an unimagined freedom in 1950 when the Little Suite was penned in the midst of the Soviet repression.  The piece was commissioned by Polish Radio for the Orchestra of Radio Warsaw, in essence, to allow Lutoslawski to “redeem” himself.  [. . .]


Along with some quietly acerbic touches, the Suite comes from the composer’s genuine delight in the Polish folk music, a still vibrant musical tradition, which could be heard in the streets ofWarsaw, and especially in more rural areas.  Polish folk music can be particularly complex, and as an inspirational seed for composing, Lutoslawski found a wellspring.  For the Little Suite he dipped into the well of the folksong from Machov, near Crakow (also close to where Chopin found inspiration).    [. . .]    In the 1950’s it became one of the most popular works to be performed inPoland.


The first movement, Fujarka (fife), seems, at first, a bit like a child’s march.  The piccolo and drum conjure up a fanciful military cortege.  The strings, muted and with some harmonics, create a background of a kind of imagined drama.  It’s likely that Lutoslawski here was mocking, in sound, the false nature of Soviet rule inPoland– on the face of things all is how it ought to be, and this cynicism is portrayed in the clever orchestration of a Polish folk tune structuring the somewhat silly military march.  The middle section, however, becomes more threatening with a Stravinsky-esque raking of chords.  The trumpet inverts a portion of the piccolo’s tune with almost ridiculously gallant bravura.  The movement twirls through little episodes with remarkable polish and deftness – the theme is compositionally worked around with clever and infectious energy, and it’s just plain fun to hear.  The two chords just at the close, however, arise out of a mist of a flurry – equivalent to a glorious break in the clouds – and strikingly bedazzle the ear with their unexpected beauty.


The second movement, Polka, “Hurra” (“Hurray”)    [. . .]


The last movement begins with a taniec (dance), in this case a Lasowiak, meaning “forest dance,” again from the Crakow region,     [. . .]      The Lasowiak returns to conclude the Suite, and in contrast to the song, the dance’s jovial and somewhat buffoonish quality make for a perfect last statement for this “functional” piece.