Traditional Values in a Century of Flux: The Music of Feliks Łabuński (1892-1979)

by James Wierzbicki


The adjective “romantic” is often applied to the music of the Polish-American composer Feliks Roderyk Łabuński (or Felix Labunski, as he was known in the West). This description, however, seems based on attention paid only to the surface qualities of Łabuński’s work. While his harmonic vocabulary indeed had elements in common with the music of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and other Slavic composers whose careers extended into the early decades of the twentieth century, Łabuński’s aesthetic in fact leaned far more toward the Apollonian than the Dionysian. Hardly a neo-classicist, Łabuński demonstrated his concern for structural clarity and economy of means even in his earliest works, and he maintained his essentially traditional values throughout the twentieth century’s many shifts in musical fashion.

This article surveys Łabuński’s life (1892-1979) and works, with emphasis given to the music created in the United States. Based in part on interviews with the composer conducted during the 1970s, the article contains many biographical details never previously published, and it clarifies erroneous information found in various reference works, including Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM in Poland and entries for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The list of compositions is, to the author’s knowledge, the most complete ever compiled.



I. A Musical Life

The Polish-American composer Feliks Roderyk Łabuński (or Felix Łabuński, as he was known in the West) was born on 27 December 1892, in Ksawerynów, Poland.[1] His father, Stanislaw, was a civil engineer and a respected amateur basso; his mother, Lydia (née Rogowski), was a pianist. Shortly after the composer’s birth, the family moved to St. Petersburg, where Stanislaw Łabuński served as director of the only locomotive factory in imperial Russia. In 1895 another son, Wiktor, was born.[2] Both children showed an early interest in music, and together they spent many hours playing four-hand piano music.[3] Łabuński’s formal music studies began in 1900 with the piano lessons he received from Roch Hill, a Polish pianist of English descent. [4] Although he demonstrated considerable pianistic talent, Łabuński was more inclined to improvise and to compose his own tunes than to practice the exercises assigned to him.[5] These early efforts in musical creativity were made without benefit of guidance from any experienced composer; by the time Łabuński graduated from a private high school in Moscow in 1910, he still had received no formal training in music theory or composition.

Following the advice of his father, in 1911 Łabuński entered the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute as an architecture student. He remained at the school for five years, producing songs, piano pieces, and chamber works when not occupied with mathematical problems and architectural designs. World War I broke out in 1914, and Łabuński’s studies were interrupted the following year when he was drafted into the Engineering Corps of the Russian army. Łabuński was discharged from military service when Russia ended its hostilities with Germany in March 1918; he planned to resume his architectural training at this point, but the ongoing turmoil generated by the 1917 Bolshevik coup made this impossible. In 1920, Łabuński met Alexander Glazunov in Petrograd.[6] The younger man played a few of his piano pieces for the 55-year-old composer; Glazunov was favorably impressed, and he encouraged Łabuński to seek professional training in composition. Upon returning to his native Poland in 1921, Łabuński decided to abandon the idea of a career in architecture; in 1922 he began theoretical studies with Lucjan Marczewski (1879-1935) in Zakopane .[7] and shortly thereafter took a course in harmony with Witold Maliszewski (1873-1939) at the Warsaw Conservatory.[8] Łabuński remained in Warsaw until 1924. He travelled to Paris in that year, hoping to study composition with Maurice Ravel. [9] Ravel did not take students on a regular basis, and so Łabuński worked with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas at L’École Normale de Musique.[10] In 1927 Łabuński, along with Piotr Perkowski (1901-1990), Stanisław Wiechowicz (1893-1963), and Stanisław Czapski, founded the Association of Young Polish Composers in Paris, and from 1930 to 1934 he served as the organization’s chairman.[11] In 1928 Łabuński met the Polish pianist-composer-statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski; Paderewski became Łabuński’s patron, providing him not only with encouragement and advice but also the financial support that enabled him to finish his formal studies by 1930.

Łabuński’s Triptych Champétre, a three-movement suite for orchestra, won the second prize in a competition in Warsaw in 1931; its Paris premiere took place on 12 March 1932, with Albert Wolff conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra. Although this was not the first of Łabuński’s works to gain critical acclaim, the Triptych Champétre was the first work to bring widespread attention to the not-so-young Polish composer. Florent Schmitt, one of the most influential critics in Paris at the time, concluded that it was the “work of an intelligent although occasionally somewhat timid musician, but well constructed and orchestrated with taste.”[12]Maurice Imbert called it a “brilliant peroration that brings honor to Łabuński.”[13] The most glowing praise came from Robert Brussel, who described the Triptych as an “evocation of Polish landscape and rhythm in which one also discovers—in its nuances, contours, motifs, and in its mix and succession of timbres—a very delicate poetic sentiment.”[14]

In 1934 Łabuński returned to Warsaw to serve as head of the classical music department of the Polskie Radio [Polish Radio].[15] Two years later he visited New York and subsequently took up permanent residence in the United States. From 1937 to 1941 Łabuński lectured at a number of American and Canadian schools, including New York University, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Vassar College, Laval University, the University of Kansas, the University of California, and the Curtis Institute of Music. During this period he also lectured over the CBS and NBC radio networks, gave piano recitals featuring his own works, and wrote articles and reviews for Musical America, Modern Music, the Musical Courier, and various French and Polish periodicals. In 1940-41 he taught composition, counterpoint, and musical analysis at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York. He became an American citizen in 1941.

During World War II, Łabuński worked as a “philatelic censor,” examining postage stamps on mail that went in and out of the United States.[16] Simultaneously, from 1941 to 1944 he served as one of the directors of the board of the American section of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM). His Suite for String Orchestra—a three-movement composition that, like the Triptych Champétre, makes frequent use of the krakowiak dance rhythm—was presented at the ISCM meeting held in San Francisco in August of 1942. Successful at its premiere, the Suite for String Orchestra was later performed by the New York Philharmonic under Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879-1953), by the Cincinnati Symphony under Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), by the Chicago Symphony under Désiré Defauw (1885-1960), by the St. Louis Symphony under Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972), and by other American orchestras.[17] The work served to establish further Łabuński’s reputation in the United States.

In 1945 Łabuński joined the faculty of the College of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio, where, until his retirement in 1964, he taught classes in composition, form analysis, and orchestration.[18] Łabuński won a Huntington Hartford Fellowship in 1951, and in the same year he received an honorary doctorate from the Chicago Musical College. Among Łabuński’s other honors were an Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award in 1969, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1973, and—in October of 1975—the Ohioana Citation of the Ohioana Library Association for his distinguished service to music in the state of Ohio. Łabuński died, in Cincinnati, on 28 April 1979.[19] Since 1933 he had been married to Dorothea Boit-Giersach, an American artist who later exhibited paintings and sculptures under the name “Labunska.” The couple had one child, Edward, who outlived his father by only a year. The son was born on 14 May 1937 and died in an automobile crash in October of 1980.[20] Edward Łabuński was also a composer, but his style bore little resemblance to that of his father. He was primarily a jingle writer, and among his better-known creations are the still-popular “This Bud’s For You” and “Nobody Can Do It Like McDonald’s.”

Feliks Łabuński. Photo by Ken Rarich, 1951. Archives of The Cincinnati Post.


II. Łabuński’s Compositions and Style

If the Triptych Champétre were to get a hearing today, it is not likely that the composer’s reputation would suffer.[21] Łabuński’s first major work contains many admirable qualities: the formal structure of each of the three movements is compact and neatly organized; the orchestration is transparent yet colorful; the use of the krakowiak, oberek, and mazurka dance rhythms in the finale lends a national flavor to the music of this Polish composer working in Paris. The Triptych‘s melodic material is essentially diatonic, with occasional sections based on whole-tone or pentatonic scales. As do many of Łabuński’s later works, the Triptych features extended sections based on a single tonality; typically this tonality is established by means of pedal notes or reiterated chords, and it serves both as a structural landmark for the listener and as one of the overall unifying elements of the composition. As one might expect, the harmonic content reflects Łabuński’s French training; chords built on chromatically altered fourths and fifths are common (see Figure 1),[22] and progressions of parallel triads frequently appear at cadence points (e.g., the final measures of the opening “Cortége” movement feature quarter-note iterations of the root-position triads C, D minor, E minor, F, A-flat, G, and C).

Written in 1931 when the composer was 39 years old, the Triptych Champétre represents the culmination of Łabuński’s recently acquired academic training. Łabuński’s next major work, a concert piece for soprano and orchestra titled Ptaki (The Birds), dates from 1934. The original Polish text is by Kazimierz Wierzyński (1894-1969); after emigrating to the United States, Łabuński fitted the music with his own English translation, but in one section—where he felt that English words would distort the musical accents of the melodic line—he opted for a textless vocalise. In general, the melodic material of The Birds tends to be more chromatic than that of the Triptych, but extended sections based on whole-tone or pentatonic scales are not uncommon. Like the earlier work, The Birds reflects the influence of Dukas and features a predominance of chords built on fourths and fifths;,[23] whereas in the Triptych a quartal-quintal chord of more than four pitches is heard only rarely, however, such expanded chords are regularly found in The Birds. The final sonority, rooted on E and including four projected fifths, is typical of the work’s harmonic vocabulary (see Figure 2)

Quartal-quintal pitch relationships were used primarily in vertical structures in the Triptych Champétre, The Birds, the 1935 Divertimento for Flute and Piano, and other of Łabuński’s works from this period; they were applied in a horizontal fashion in the 1941 Suite for String Orchestra, the first major composition that Łabuński wrote in the United States. The Suite’s opening theme, which is treated canonically by the entire orchestra, has as its basic intervals the perfect fourth and fifth (see Figure 3a).

As this material is developed, the quartal-quintal sonority, projected from the bass note E, is heard simultaneously in horizontal and vertical formations (see Figure 3b). Łabuński placed less importance on quartal-quintal harmony in the second movement of the Suite; here he used harmonies that are in essence triadic, but in arrangements that disguise what in more traditional music would be the functional roles of those chords. The third and final movement of the Suite is a tempo giusto based on the krakowiak rhythm; in it, Łabuński—perhaps influenced by his studies with Marsczewski[24]—employed the Lydian mode over a harmonic background derived from superimposed fifths.

In respect to the development of formal possibilities and the consolidation of musical materials, in the late 1940s and 1950s Łabuński continued to move in the directions hinted at in earlier works. His melodic and harmonic language began to change, however, becoming at the same time more simple and more free. He grew less interested in modal scales and rhythms derived from folk music, elements that had lent an identifying character to most of his efforts up to this time, and more concerned with free chromatic harmony. Instead of developing his quartal-quintal harmonic vocabulary, he returned to more traditional triad-based structures but became less dependent than ever before on the functional roles of those structures.

The major works of this period—the 1949 Variations for Orchestra and the 1950 cantata There Is No Death, a setting of poetry by Joseph Auslander (1897-1970)—are built with chords that can be broken down into tertian arrangements. Primarily these are pure triads or triads with an added sixth or seventh; occasionally they take the form of triads with added ninths or, more rarely, chords of the eleventh and thirteenth. The functions of these triad-based chords, however, are never easily classifiable in terms of traditional tertian-tonal practice. The series of chords that concludes the statement of the theme of the Variations for Orchestra, for example, is clearly based in the tonality of A minor, but the inner relationships of the chords do not fall into any textbook formula (see Figure 4a). Likewise, although dominant-tonic and subdominant-tonic relationships are implied by the movement of the bass voice, the opening choral passage of There Is No Death does not represent a standard tonal progression (see Figure 4b).

The use of free-floating tertian chords, set over bass lines determined by melodic principles rather than by tertian-tonal harmonic function, is an important element in both the Variations for Orchestra and There Is No Death. In Łabuński’s next major composition, the Canto di Aspirazione, it becomes the primary harmonic device.

At least in essence, the Canto di Aspirazione dates from 1953. It originally served as the second movement of a Symphony in B Major that was completed in 1954 but not performed until 1962. With only a few slight revisions, the Canto was offered as an independent composition in 1963 and premiered the following year. It is Łabuński’s best-known work and the only one that is available on a commercial recording.,[25] The orchestration calls for strings, harp, and celeste, four horns and pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. The tempo is slow throughout and the texture, because of infrequent instances of doubling and the wide spacing of instrumental voices, is relatively transparent. For the most part, it is a homophonic composition; the counterpoint that is heard results more often from the melodic alteration of vertical structures than from the simultaneous use of independent melodic lines.

Like most of Łabuński’s music—both early and late—the Canto di Aspirazione has strong tonal underpinnings. Extended use of pedal notes lends a structural solidity to the composition’s larger sections. When the music leaves its established tonality, it seldom modulates directly to another tonal area; rather, it tends to move through a series of harmonies related only by the melodic motion of their bass notes.

The Canto di Aspirazione begins with a statement from the low strings of a theme (see Figure 5a) that at the same time serves to establish the primary tonal area of A and to set out the melodic intervals (seconds and fifths) upon which much of the later material is based. This theme is extended and amplified by the upper strings until the first sustained bass note, a pedal G-sharp, is reached (see Figure 5b). A variant of the original theme follows, and the entire sequence (establishment of the tonal center, pedal on the leading tone, return to the tonal center) acts as a melodic half-cadence and resolution. It is a typical example of the manner in which Łabuński uses the melodic motion of his bass line to lend a sense of harmonic motion to the vertical sonorities.

The nine-and-a-half-minute Canto di Aspirazione is built in an arch form (A-B-C-B-A). The “A” and “B” sections are rooted on the tonal center A and are connected by a fourteen-measure harmonically unstable episode featuring a bass line that descends diatonically for more than an octave. The “C” section is centered on the subdominant tonal area of D; the episode that immediately precedes it is generated by a bass line that moves in half-steps and tritone leaps to create harmonies seemingly even less related to one another than those of the previous section. In spite of the chords’ lack of tertian-tonal function, however, the cadence in the “C” section’s last two measures strongly resembles the standard dominant-tonic progression in the key of D (see Figure 6).

A similar harmonic configuration, in which chords apparently unrelated in terms of tertian-tonal function briefly take on the characteristics of a standard chord progression, occurs near the end of the Canto di Aspirazione, just before the return of the “A” section. At this point, the “B” section, built over the pedal note A, has sounded for twenty-two measures when its bass line begins a descent to the note E. Five measures after the E is reached, the original tonality is re-established by a sustained A in the upper strings. The sequence suggests a I-V-I progression in the key of A.

The chord patterns described above, although they are beyond the limitations of the tertian-tonal system of functional harmony, nevertheless carry strong implications of the familiar “authentic” cadence. The final cadence of the Canto di Aspirazione, similarly built with harmonies foreign to the tertian-tonal system, implies a Phrygian cadence. The “A” section of the piece ends on a sustained A-sharp in the lower strings; the first part of the codetta likewise ends on a sustained A-sharp in the bass, but twenty measures later the music ultimately settles on a simple A minor chord.

Another major work from the mid-1950s is Images of Youth, a ten-movement cantata for children’s chorus, mezzo-soprano, baritone, and full orchestra. The text of this 1956 composition consists of a series of children’s poems by Walter de la Mare (1893-1953) and David McCord (1897-1997); much of the music is written in the style of a typical children’s song, i.e., with four-measure phrases, diatonic melodies and tertian-tonal harmonic patterns. But the style of the eighth movement, “Mermaids,” is similar to that of the Canto di Aspirazione in that its harmonic motion is derived from the melodic impulse of the bass line rather than from tertian-tonal functional principles. “Mermaids” begins with a fluctuating line of parallel woodwind lines set over a simple minor triad, and this texture dominates the movement. As in the Canto di Aspirazione, tonal centers in “Mermaids” are established by means of extended pedal notes; in the less harmonically stable sections, the most typical bass pattern is the descending chromatic scale (see Figure 7). For the most part, all of the works discussed up to this point are in essence homophonic in nature, although examples of interesting chromatic counterpoint can be certainly found in many of the pieces. In contrast, the use of free counterpoint, derived from melodic rather than harmonic considerations, becomes a major compositional device in Łabuński’s music of the 1960s.

Łabuński’s 1960 Symphonic Dialogues, for example, is based on interlocking chains of melodic material in which an “a” theme is combined with a “b” theme (see Figure 8a), the “b” theme with a “c” theme (see Figure 8b), and so on. The idea for the work’s structure came from the 1900 play Der Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931).,[26] “The play deals with a chain of dialogues between different couples, one member of each couple becoming one of the partners in the next pair,” Łabuński wrote in his printed program note, “and finally, the last one meeting the first who originated the ’round.'”,[27]

In all, the Symphonic Dialogues features nine combinations of themes framed by a prelude and postlude. The prelude is simply a harmonic transmutation of the initial sonority (a chord consisting of the pitches F, A-flat, C, E-flat, and G-flat) into its dominant; while the thirteen-measure sequence of harmonies does not follow traditional tertian-tonal practice, the passage nevertheless functions as an extended I-V cadence. The postlude, with a bass line that rises from the note C to the note F, is a reverse procedure.

The String Quartet No. 2, begun in 1961 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and completed in Cincinnati the following year, is another of Łabuński’s works that spring essentially from contrapuntal considerations. The initial theme is a series of twelve pitches (F, E, G-flat, B, D, E-flat, A, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat, C, G) distributed among the four instruments (see Figure 9a). Although not conceived as a twelve-tone row in the Schöenbergian sense, this theme is nonetheless treated, with slight modifications, in inversion and retrograde later in the composition, and thus its intervallic content serves as a generating cell for all three movements (see Figures 9b and 9c).

As in most of Łabuński’s other works, tonal centers in the String Quartet No. 2 are established through the emphasis of certain pitches—in this case, the emphasis results primarily from repetition—in the bass voice. Harmonic transmutations similar to those of Bartók, in which the component pitches of a vertical structure are changed in a staggered fashion, are heard frequently, with the most typical sequences built over a descending bass line or pedal tone.

In comparison with Łabuński’s other music from this period—indeed, in comparison with all his other music—the essentially non-tonal writing of the String Quartet No. 2 is quite unusual. The works that come later in the decade are the Polish Renaissance Suite (1967), the ballet suite Salut à Paris (1968), the Music for Piano and Orchestra (1968), and the Intrada Festiva for brass choir (1968). Although their melodic material tends to be freely chromatic and their harmonic structures are not easily definable in terms of the tertian-tonal system, these pieces nevertheless demonstrate an overall style consistent with that of the compositions previously discussed.

Primavera, completed in 1973 on a commission from Thomas Schippers for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, is Łabuński’s last composition. It is written for full orchestra, but the scoring remains thin and the volume level remains low throughout its twelve-minute duration. The composer described Primavera as “a kind of reverie of love and hope.”,[28] Like the Canto di Aspirazione, it is a quiet, reflective piece. The introductory measures have a texture similar to that heard in the opening of the “Mermaids” section of Images of Youth, i.e., fluctuating eighth-notes set over a chord in the strings. The harmonic motion, with triadic chords generated by a descending bass line, is similar to that found in the first episode of the Canto di Aspirazione. After eight measures, the introduction settles on the pedal note A, and this tonality remains central to the entire work.

In his own analysis of the music, Łabuński wrote: “In Primavera, I do not use strictly traditional forms. The basic ingredient of any constructed form—unity and variety—is achieved by repetitions, variations and imitations of the themes.”[29] There are two distinct themes in Primavera. The first is played by the violoncelli over a syncopated string accompaniment (see Figure 10a); the second, more chromatic and more rhythmically fluid, is presented by the woodwinds (see Figure 10b).

The main tonal area of the first theme is E, and the main tonal area of the second theme is D-flat; both of these are closely related—the one by a fifth, the other by a diminished fourth (i.e., a major third)—to the central tonal area of A. Tonal centers touched upon in the extensive development section include E, B-flat, and A-flat; the harmonic motion between these subordinate areas and the central tonality implies—respectively—the dominant-tonic relationship, the Phrygian cadence and the resolution of the leading tone. Primavera ends with a reprise of the opening sequence of descending triads and a sustained pedal note A. Instead of allowing the piece to conclude with a harmony built on this tonal center, however, Łabuński—with an intriguing touch of ambiguity—adds four measures of the E minor seventh chord (see Figure 10c).


III. Aesthetics and Reception

Feliks Łabuński produced music for most of his 86 years. Although his career spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century, he never composed a serial work, rarely asked a string player to use his instrument in any but the customary arco and pizzicato manners, and never channeled a performer’s sound through electronic equipment. He maintained a short but fruitful relationship with polytonality (in the works from the 1930s), and he flirted only briefly with atonality (most notably in the 1962 String Quartet No. 2). Rarely tonal in the conventional sense, most of his music was nevertheless based on tonal-oriented harmonies, i.e., harmonies in which a single pitch, usually the bass note, dominates. “I believe in well-defined melody, symmetrical, well-balanced form, and economy of means in achieving ultimate results,” he told one biographer.[30] Among his goals he also included self-expression, ear-pleasing sonic combinations, and—perhaps most importantly—a desire to communicate with listeners.[31]

The press notices that followed Łabuński’s various premieres attest to the positive reception of his music. Of the 1951 Variations for Orchestra, Cincinnati Post reviewer Eleanor Bell wrote: “The audience proved to be receptive . . . , a fact which caused a certain glow to be felt by the composer’s many local admirers. The Variations turned out to be an exceedingly interesting piece of work, impressively built around a strong eight-bar theme, and abounding in color and good rich sound.”[32] Louis John Johnen wrote in the Cincinnati Times-Star about the same composition: “Under any conditions, it is difficult to make the variation form of more than academic interest, and it is to Mr. Łabuński’s credit that the audience liked his work, judging from the applause that greeted it.”[33] Arthur Darack, writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer, observed of the 1956 Images of Youth that “. . . Łabuński’s work was written to a set of endearing children’s verses and he could hardly lose. But the fact is that his music has a charm and innocence of air about it that perfectly suits the performers and their poetry.”[34]

Henry Humphreys, in the Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph-Register, described the 1961 Symphonic Variations: “The beauties inherent in the strings and winds of the orchestra are used like variegated threads to weave a tapestry of beguiling design. This thematically-rich work is an important contribution to present-day orchestral literature.”[35] Of the Music for Piano and Orchestra (composed in 1968 but not premiered until four years later), Boris Nelson wrote in the Toledo Blade: “The work has a degree of atonality but in the main is of romantic nature. . . . It is knowledgably written, to the point and quickly grows comfortable to the ear . . . .”[36]

Łabuński at the piano. Photo by Julieanne Warren, 1974. Archives of The Cincinnati Post.

The unsigned article in the Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM states that Łabuński’s music is praiseworthy for its “original forms, colorful instrumentation, abundant expressivity, and graceful melody.”[37] In his brief article on Łabuński in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Boguslaw Schäffer notes simply that Łabuński’s music is “fundamentally Romantic, with traits assimilated from the Paris school.”,[38] David Ewen, in his four-column entry on Łabuński in American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary, suggests that Łabuński’s music owes more to Russian and Polish tradition than to Parisian influences, but he uses the same adjective—”romantic”—to describe Łabuński’s music in general.[39]

Although ŁabuńskiŁabuński’s harmonic vocabulary indeed has something in common with that of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and other Slavic composers whose careers extended into the first decades of the early twentieth century and who might be labeled by the rubric “romantic,” the impulse behind Łabuński’s music seems more classical than romantic. One finds much expressivity in his music, but rarely does one encounter unbridled emotionalism. There is often a richness to the sound of Łabuński’s music; it results, however, not from expansions of tonal harmonies or an abundance of notes but from the careful placement of relatively small numbers of pitches. While they are often inventive in subtle ways, the typically symmetrical structural plans of the music never feature complexity for its own sake.

The aesthetic of Łabuński’s music clearly leans more toward the Apollonian than the Dionysian, yet it would be incorrect to characterize Łabuński as a neo-classicist. Indeed, he shunned the term “neo-classical” as much as he did “neo-romantic,” and he harbored a resentment toward composers who—merely for the sake of fashion, he said—abandoned various avant-garde techniques and embraced a more accessible style.[40]Shortly before he died, Łabuński wrote a brief third-person document that he titled “Motivation.” It was offered to a young music journalist as a guideline for a critical article, but it reads like an apologia. A quarter-century later, its unedited text is here made public for the first time:

“In the last few years the composers of serious music one after another abandon the serial organizations of their music, like twelve-tone system, total serialism (harmony, rhythm, dynamics), aleatorism, chance music, number games, and return to a kind of neoclassicism, or romanticism, probably for two reasons: the novelty and shock impact of these innovations could not last forever, and their music failed to communicate with the listener. It is interesting to note that while this change takes place there are a few composers who, in spite of the unpopularity of their creative effort, never deviated from tradition and whose major aim was and is to communicate with the public, without cheapening of their music. Among those few composers one should name Felix Łabuński . . . .”[41]

Łabuński, in other words, was adamantly proud of the fact that his music stayed the course. Over the years the technical details of his music changed and grew more or less complex, but his basic attitude toward music remained the same: each composition represented a fresh approach to a single goal. Even with his last works he continued to invent new musical problems to solve, but even his most adventurous pieces did not stray from what he perceived as the path of tradition. Łabuński valued balance, economy of means, well-defined materials, and—above all—communicativeness. These are traditional values, and they served as constants in Łabuński’s work even in the most musically turbulent years of the twentieth century.



[1]. The essential biographical information in this paper is drawn from the entries on Feliks Łabuński in: Słownik muzyków polskich (1964) [Dictionary of Polish Composers], The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980), David Ewen’s American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary (1982), The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986), and the Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM (1998). Biographical information not previously published comes largely from the composer’s personal archives, which were made available to me between 1975 and 1977, and from interviews I conducted with the composer in February and March 1976. In a few instances, the source of biographical information is a telephone conversation or e-mail correspondence with Stephen Łabuński, the composer’s nephew, and Victoria Fann, the composer’s granddaughter, in September 2000. I first met łabuński in 1974, shortly after I became music critic for the Cincinnati Post. He called me and asked: “Are you Polish?” I said, “Well, my grandfather was.” We struck up a friendship immediately over the phone, and then he invited me to come and visit him and his wife. I stayed in close touch with him, seeing him at his apartment every few months, for the next four years (i.e., until I left Cincinnati in 1978 to move to St. Louis). He found out I was also composing and asked to see my manuscripts; that led to a series of tutorials—I still consider him my only real composition teacher. We also spent a lot of time discussing his music, and this led to his sharing his scores with me. Those discussions, so long ago, were really the seeds of this article.[Back]

[2]. Ewen incorrectly gives the younger brother’s name as Witold. [Back]

[3]. Wiktor Łabuński went on to become an accomplished pianist. After studying with Vassily Safanov and Felix Blumenfeld at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, in 1919 he became head of the piano department of the Kraków Conservatory. In 1928 he made his American début at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Later he taught at the Nashville Conservatory, served as director of the Memphis College of Music and, in 1941, became head of the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He died on 26 January 1974, in Kansas City. [Back]

[4]. According to the article on Łabuński in the Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM, Łabuński’s studies with Hill lasted from 1902 to 1909. According to Ewen, Łabuński’s study with Hill began after Łabuński entered the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute in 1911. [Back]

[5]. Interview with Feliks Łabuński, 18 February 1976. [Back]

[6]. From its founding in 1703 until 1914 the city was known as St. Petersburg. In 1924 the name was changed to Leningrad. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the name was changed back to St. Petersburg. [Back]

[7]. According to the article in the Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM [PWM Music Encyclopedia], Łabuński’s studies with Marczewski began in 1921. [Back]

[8]. Czesław R. Halski writes that Marczewski’s music “. . . attempted to combine the achievements of the modern French school with characteristics of the ancient Greek scales” (“Marczewski, Lucian,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., vol. 5, p. 573) and that Maliszewski’s music “. . . may be said to belong to the late-romantic style of the present day. It is imbued with Slavonic lyricism and melancholy and scored with masterly craftsmanship and skill” (“Maliszewski, Witold,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., vol. 5, 537). [Back]

[9]. Ravel did, however, give advice freely and frequently to younger composers. Among those who benefited from his tutelage were Lennox Berkeley, Maurice Delage, Louis Durey, Maurice Fouret, Nicolas Obouhow, Alexis Roland-Manuel, Manuel Rosenthal, Germaine Tailleferre, Alexandre Tansman, and Ralph Vaughan Williams (Alexis Roland-Manuel, Maurice Ravel, trans. Cynthia Jolly. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.)[Back]

[10]. At the École Normale, Łabuński also studied musicology with Georges Migot (1891-1976), a prolific musician who today is better known for his compositions, philosophical writings and poetry than for his historical-theoretical studies. [Back]

[11]. This information comes from the author’s interviews with Łabuński in 1976, and it is supported by the article in the 1964 edition of the Słownik muzyków polskich. According to Ewen and the Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM, however, from 1927 to 1929 Łabuński was the organization’s secretary, from 1929 to 1930 its vice-president, and from 1930 to 1933 its president. [Back]

[12]. “. . . ouevre du musicien intelligent encore un peu timide de-ici, de-là, mais bien construite et orchestré avec goût.” Temps, 26 March 1932. [Back]

[13]. “Péroraison brillante, ce Triptych fait honneur a Łabuński.” Journal des Debats, 18 March 1932. [Back]

[14]. “. . . évocation de paysages et de rhythmes polonais, où l’on découvre aussi dans les nuances, dans le contour de ses motifs, dans le mélange où la succession des timbres, un sentiment potique très délicat.” Figaro, 15 March 1932. [Back]

[15]. Beginning in 1935, Łabuński served as an administrator for the Towarzystwo Wydawnicze Muzyki Polskiej (the Polish Music Publishing Society). [Back]

[16]. Telephone conversation with Stephen Łabuński, 23 September 2000. [Back]

[17]. Composer’s personal archives. [Back]

[18]. The school merged with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1955. In 1962 the College-Conservatory of Music became one of the component colleges of the University of Cincinnati. [Back]

[19]. In 1972 Łabuński made arrangements to have his papers posthumously donated to Poland’s national library. After his death some of his materials were deposited in the Archives and Rare Books Collection of the University of Cincinnati library but they were later withdrawn. In 1986, the Łabuński family transferred a collection of letters and manuscripts to the Archive of Twentieth-Century Polish Music (Archiwum Kompozytorów Polskich XX Wieku) maintained by the Department of Musical Collections of the library of the University of Warsaw. In addition, more than four dozen audio recordings—most of them featuring performances of Łabuński’s music, and donated by the composer between 1959 and 1972—make up the Felix Łabuński Collection in the New York Public Library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound. [Back]

[20]. This information comes from Victoria Fann, one of Edward Łabuński’s two daughters. Ewen incorrectly states that Feliks Łabuński’s only child was born one year after the composer and Dorothea Boit-Gersach were married. [Back]

[21]. Łabuński’s publisher in Europe is Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM based in Kraków; its American representative is Theodore Presser); his American publishers are World Library and Carl Fischer. [Back]

[22]. The musical examples are the author’s condensations drawn from Łabuński’s published scores. [Back]

[23]. Quartal-quintal harmonies, pioneered by Scriabin at the turn of the century, were not uncommon in scores from the 1930s. Łabuński’s usage, however, is clearly more influenced by his French teachers—and by the music of Ravel and Debussy—than by the work of Bartók or Schoenberg. [Back]

[24]. See f.n. 8. [Back]

[25]. The Louisville Orchestra; Jorge Mester, conductor. First Edition Recordings LS-721. [Back]

[26]. A French film based on the play, titled La Ronde and directed by Max Ophul, was made in 1950. Subsequent film versions were directed by Roger Vadim (1953) and Otto Schenk (1973). [Back]

[27]. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra program booklet, February 1961, 16. [Back]

[28]. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra program booklet, April 1974, 21. [Back]

[29]. Ibid. [Back]

[30]. Ewen, 403. [Back]

[31]. Interview with Feliks Łabuński, 29 March 1976. [Back]

[32]. Cincinnati Post, 8 January 1951. [Back]

[33]. Cincinnati Times-Star, 8 January 1951. [Back]

[34]. Cincinnati Enquirer, 12 May 12 1956. [Back]

[35]. Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph-Register, 17 February 1961. [Back]

[36]. Toledo Blade, 13 November 1972. [Back]

[37]. “Ceniony był za oryginalność formy, barwną instrumentację, pełen wyrazu i wdzięku nastrój muzyki.” In the entry “Łabuński, Feliks Roderyk,” in Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM, 464. [Back]

[38]. Bogusław Schäffer, “Łabuński, Felix [Łabuński, Feliks Roderyk],” The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, vol. 3, 2. [Back]

[39]. Ewen, 402. [Back]

[40]. Interview with Feliks Łabuński, 29 March 1976. [Back]

[41]. Feliks Łabuński, “Motivation,” 1976 manuscript in possession of the author. [Back]


List of Works and First Performances

Music for Symphony Orchestra

  • Danse fantastique, 1926;
  • Triptych champétre, 1931;
  • Symphony in G Minor, 1937;
    Note: Ewen’s American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary is the only source that makes specific reference to this work; in addition, the brief entry on Łabuński in the Oxford Dictionary of Music (1994) also states that the composer’s output includes not one but two symphonies. However, during his 1976 interviews with the author, Feliks Łabuński never mentioned a Symphony in G Minor, and it should be noted that Łabuński’s brother, Wiktor, completed a Symphony in G Minor in 1936. The presence of this Symphony in the Feliks Łabuński’s output remains doubtful.
  • God’s Man (ballet), 1937;
  • In memoriam, 1941;
    Note: The article on Łabuński in the Słownik muzyków polskich incorrectly gives 1940 as the date of composition of In memoriam. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Paderewski, who died in June of 1941.
  • Suite for String Orchestra, 1941;
    Note: Schaeffer’s articles on Łabuński in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music give 1938 as the date for the Suite. Significantly, the 1940 edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians also gives 1938 as the date. A version of the Suite may have been written in 1938, but the final version was completed in 1941 and premiered in San Francisco the following year.
  • Fanfare, 1946;
  • Variations for Orchestra, 1949;
    Note: Łabuński, in his 1976 interviews with the author, stated that the Variations were written in 1949. Baker’s, Ewen’s, the two New Grove dictionaries and the Słownik muzyków polskich, however, all give 1947 as the date. The article in the Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM dates the piece to 1951, which is the year in which it was premiered in Cincinnati.
  • Elegy, 1954;
    Note: The New Grove articles incorrectly give 1955 as the date of composition of this work.
  • Symphony in B Major, 1954;
    Note: The New Grove articles and Ewen incorrectly state that the piece is in D major.
  • Xavieriana (two pianos and orchestra), 1956;
  • Nocturne, 1957;
  • Overture to Images of Youth, 1958;
  • Symphonic Dialogues, 1960;
    Note: The New Grove articles give the date as 1961. The work was completed in 1960; the autograph score bearing that date is in the Archiwum Kompozytorów Polskich XX Wieku at the University of Warsaw, Poland. It was premiered in Cincinnati on 9 February 1961.
  • Canto di Aspirazione, 1963;
  • Polish Renaissance Suite, 1967;
  • Music for Piano and Orchestra, 1968;
  • Salut à Paris (ballet suite), 1968;
  • Primavera, 1973. Note: The autograph score, dated 1973, is in the Archiwum Kompozytorów Polskich XX Wieku at the Library of the University of Warsaw. In the 1976 interviews, however, Łabuński stated that Primavera was completed in the spring of 1974.

Chamber and Instrumental Music

  • Concert champétre (eight instruments), 1928;
  • Sonata Fantasia (piano), n.d.;
  • Mazurka and Prelude for piano, 1930;
  • String Quartet No. 1, 1934;
    Note: The Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM incorrectly gives 1935 as the date of composition. The work was premiered on Polish Radio in May of 1934.
  • Divertimento (flute and piano), 1936;
  • Threnody (piano), 1941;
  • Piano Sonata No. 1, 1949;
  • Four Miniatures (piano), 1949;
  • Three Bagatelles (brass quartet), 1955;
  • Divertimento (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon), 1956;
  • Piano Sonata No. 2, 1957;
  • Diptych (oboe and piano), 1958;
  • String Quartet No. 2, 1962;
  • Five Polish Carols (organ), 1966;
  • Salut ŕ Nadia (brass ensemble), 1967;
  • Intrada festiva (brass and percussion), 1968.

Vocal-Instrumental and Choral Music

  • Olympic Hymn (chorus and orchestra), 1932;
  • Polish Cantata (vocal quartet, chorus, and orchestra), 1932; Two Songs (“Lato,” “Kozice”), 1934;
  • Ptaki (“The Birds”), (soprano and orchestra), 1934; Song Without Words (soprano and string orchestra), 1946;
  • There Is No Death (soprano, chorus, and orchestra), 1950;
  • Images of Youth, (mezzo-soprano, baritone, children’s chorus, and orchestra), 1956;
  • Ave Maria (a cappella chorus), 1957;
  • Mass (treble voices and organ), 1958;
  • Two Madrigals (a cappella chorus), 1960.

Selected First Performances

  • Triptych Champétre; 30 January 1931; Warsaw.
  • Ptaki (The Birds); 4 March 1935; Reims, France.
  • Divertimento for Flute and Piano; 25 April 1936; Paris.
  • Polish Cantata; 6 June 1936; Polish Radio, Warsaw.
  • Suite for String Orchestra; 2 August 1942; San Francisco, California.
  • There Is No Death; 30 April 1950; Cincinnati Ohio.
  • Variations for Orchestra; 6 January 1951; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Xaveriana; 20 November 1956; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Elegy; 21 February 1957; Dayton, Ohio.
  • Nocturne; 9 April 1959; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Mass; 29 April 1959; Ashland, Kentucky.
  • Symphonic Dialogues; 9 February 1961; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Symphony in B Major; 16 April 1962; Polish Radio, Warsaw.
  • String Quartet No. 2; 8 May 1962; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Canto di Aspirazione; 26 March 1964; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Polish Renaissance Suite; 6 January 1967; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Intrada Festiva; 15 May 1968; Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Salut à Paris; 18 January 1970; Lima, Ohio.
  • Music for Piano and Orchestra; 11 November 1972; Lima, Ohio.
  • Primavera; 19 April 1974; Cincinnati, Ohio.



Selected Writings by Feliks Łabuński

  • “A New Generation in Poland,” Modern Music, November-December, 1936, 24.
  • “Music,” in Poland, ed. B.Schmitt (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1945).
  • “Karol Szymanowski,” in Great Modern Composers, ed. Oscar Thompson (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1941).
  • “Karol Szymanowski,” in International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, (5th edition), ed. Nicolas Slonimsky (New York, 1949).

Selected Writings about Feliks Łabuński

  • Theodore Baker, ed., “Łabuński, Felix Roderick,” Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1940).
  • Chomiński, Józef, ed. “Łabuński, Feliks Roderyk,” entry in Słownik muzyków polskich [Dictionary of Polish Composers], vol. 1. /// (1964).
  • Chylińska, Teresa. “Ze Stanów Zjednoczonych do Polski,” [From the U.S. to Poland]. Ruch Muzyczny, no. 7 (1987).
  • Dziębowska, Elżbieta, ed., “Łabuński, Feliks Roderyk,” entry in Encyklopedia Muzyczna PWM vol. 5 (Krakow: PWM, 1998).
  • Erhardt, Ludwik. “Feliks Roderyk Łabuński w Ameryce,” Ruch Muzyczny, 9 (1961).
  • Ewen, David. “Łabuński, Felix Roderick,” entry in American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982).
  • Kondracki, Michał. “Życie muzyczne poza Nowy Jorkiem,” [Musical life beyond New York]. Ruch Muzyczny, no. 11 (1957).
  • Mrygoń, Adam. Introduction to Zbiory Archiwum Kompozytorów Polskich XX wieku [Collections of the Archive of Polish Composers of the 20th Century], (Warsaw: Uniwersytet Warszawski, n.d.).
  • Schäffer, Bogusław. “Labunski [Łabuński], Feliks Roderyk,” entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: McMillan, 1980).
  • Schäffer, Bogusław. “Labunski, Felix [Łabuński, Feliks Roderyk],” entry in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986).

James Wierzbicki, a member of the music faculty at the University of California-Irvine, is a musicologist who specializes in critical theory, 18th-century opera, and film music. During the past year he has had articles published in Opera Quarterly, Film and Philosophy, and the British on-line journal New Music; next year his article on scores for sci-fi films from the early ’50s will appear in the Journal of Popular Film and Television and his chapter on sound collage will be included in a forthcoming book on the films of Terrence Malick. The musical sociology of Max Weber and intertextual relationships in opera, film, and novels are among his current topics of study. Wierzbicki earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in clarinet performance, and in 1979 he completed the Ph.D. in music at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. In addition to working in academia, he was for more than two decades a full-time music journalist, serving as chief music critic for The Cincinnati Post, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and – from 1984 to 1994 – the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; he has also been a contributing editor for Musical America magazine, an author of liner notes for recordings, and a commentator for National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” program. It was during the mid-1970s, while he was on the staff of The Cincinnati Post, that he first came into contact with Feliks Łabuński.