Witold Lutosławski's Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by the Directors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1974. Work on the composition occupied the composer for eight and a half years, during which time he broke off to write other works including ''Les espaces du sommeil'', ''Mi-parti'', and ''Novelette''. Between 1981-83 Lutosławski worked on the Symphony No. 3 with the greatest intensity; at that time he changed the original formal scheme of the work that was to have included ''An Invocation'', ''A Cycle of Studies'', ''A Toccata'' and ''A Hymn''.
The symphony, finally completed on 31 January 1983, constitutes, on the one hand, a synthesis of many methods of pitch organization known from the composer's earlier works, and, on the other, introduces new musical ideas enriching previous applied formal conceptions.
The formal construction familiar from the Symphony No. 2 (1967), consisting of two phases - introductory and principal, was extended in the Symphony No. 3 (1983) by one more phase, described as epilogue by the composer. The principle of the alternation of refrains and episodes in the introductory phases, characteristic of works from the sixties was also employed in Symphony No. 3. The affinity with Symphony No. 2 is striking here, as in both symphonies the refrains are aleatoric structures, scored for chamber forces of woodwind instruments. In Symphony No. 3 a new element was introduced in the form of a recurring motif consisting of the repeated note e. The motif constitutes the idée fixe of the work; it opens and ends the symphony appearing five times in the introductory phase and three times in the main section (in the third appearance, and at Figure 40, it is ''replaced'' by a repeated chord). Its characteristic feature is its instrumentation, which changes in the successive phases of the work, to be sure, though it always possesses the common trait of a prevailing wind instrument timbre. The idea of the multiple repetition of one note is not quite new, indeed, as it appeared as early as the String Quartet (1964), but it fulfilled a different role in that work, namely the role of refrain in the introductory section.
In Symphony No. 3 the composer also applied a principle familiar from many of his works consisting of the alternation of aleatoric structures and structures composed traditionally in respect of metric and rhythmic schemes.
The aleatoric structures, characterized by their static tonal quality, are much less important in Symphony No. 3 than in earlier works. Those parts played ad libitum appear mainly in the introductory section, whereas in the main section and the epilogue precise time organization prevails, with adherence to traditional metric and rhythmic rules.
The traditional regulation of time here is closely related to the fact that the melody plays an all-important role in the main section and the epilogue. The melodiousness of Symphony No. 3 is the feature which distinguishes it decisively from Symphony No. 2 and other works by the composer permeated by aleatoric technique. Indeed the tuneful themes constitute the attractive strength of Symphony No. 3. In the main section the tuneful melody occurs side by side with a group of themes which are toccata-like in nature, whereas in the epilogue, the cantando theme (from Figure 84) provides the predominant musical idea. Its characteristic feature is a structure based mainly on a pair of intervals: a minor third and a fifth. Construction of a melody on the basis of pairs of intervals is one more feature known from Lutosławski's other works (including Funeral Music from 1958) and it is especially characteristic of the present symphony. The melody in Symphony No. 3 is revealed in the group of instruments playing unisono, in structures with harmonic accompaniment as well as in the ingenious contrapuntal entanglements.
The melodic aspect became one of the most important features of the so-called late period of the composers creativity, the most beautiful manifestation of which was the Symphony No. 4, his last great work.
[Jadwiga Paja-Stach, translated by Ewa Cholewka]