Lutoslawski was composing in post-WWII Poland, and was therefore tied to rules given him by his government. He made a living playing conventional piano pieces in bars and composing what he felt were uninspired works. His Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, was meant to be a more progressive work of nationalism than anything he had been allowed to compose. It uses folk melodies in highly abnormal ways, incorporating unusual keys throughout.
This piece uses folk tunes obscured with some polytonality, and is thus a little odd to view as nationalistic. Lutoslawski saves his proudest, strongest material for the end of the piece.
“As so often in Lutoslawski's music, the main movement of the Concerto for Orchestra is the last, here a vast finale that summarizes, unifies, and finally resolves the materials and dramatic tensions of the much shorter first two movements. The finale is in two large parts: a Passacaglia ingeniously constructed over a folksong ground bass, followed by a Toccata e Corale - a large-scale sonata-form movement whose main theme is in fact the same as that of the passacaglia we have just heard, while its second theme is made of music first introduced in the Intrada. The chorale that occurs at the heart of this final movement is newly invented, but its countermelody, first given to solo flute, is descended from yet another Polish folk song.” (Stucky)
Like Stravinsky, Lutoslawski drew from folk tunes that had been compiled by another person, in this case, the ethnographer Oskar Kolberg. He was deeply Polish, but not versed in the land’s peasant folk music.
Compared to John Cage, who was composing at the same time, Lutoslawski was far more concerned with conventional musical tools than Cage. Lutoslawski challenged systems in ways that would not get him killed. Cage was not so bound by governmental pressure on his music. So both branched out from conventions, but in totally different ways.
The Concerto’s chordal structure throws some real curve balls into the work, but for the most part in subtle ways that I felt worked very well for the piece. This was Lutoslawski’s first big step into the international spotlight.