Program Notes


BORN: February 5, 1909. Łódź, Poland

DIED: January 17, 1969. Warsaw, Poland


WORLD PREMIERE: September 1, 1945. Mieczysław Mierzejewski conducted the Kraków Philharmonic at the Kraków Festival of Contemporary Music


INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, chimes, and strings

DURATION: About 6 mins

THE BACKSTORY The simmering tensions of European politics escalated to a full boil in September 1939, when Hitler’s troops overtook Poland in what the Germans called the Polish Campaign, the Poles called the Defensive War, and everybody recognized in retrospective was the outbreak of World War II. The Nazis began their attack from the west on September 1, France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany two days later (but provided little practical help), Stalin ordered Russian forces to counter from the east on September 17, and by the beginning of October, Poland—its own military forces decimated—was an occupied nation, partitioned between Germany and Russia.

Grażyna Bacewicz was stuck in the middle of it, and the war years brought her career to a public standstill. Until that time, it had been impressive. She studied violin as a child in Łódź (smack in the center of Poland), began composing at the age of thirteen, and headed to the Warsaw Conservatory to study violin, piano, and composition, for a while also pursuing university studies in philosophy. She graduated summa cum laude in 1932 with a double major in violin and composition. She wrote a sinfonietta for orchestra, a choral cantata, a violin sonata, and a string quartet for her graduation examinations, and all four were presented at a Conservatory concert. A scholarship from the pianist and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski enabled her to travel to Paris in 1932-33 to work with Nadia Boulanger (for composition) and André Touret (for violin); her Wind Quintet, produced at that time, won first place in a competition for works by young composers. A year later, she went again to Paris for further violin study with Carl Flesch.

Returning to Warsaw, she began the rollout of the first phase of her mature compositions, including her Partita for Violin and Piano (1935); Trio for Oboe, Violin, and Cello (1935); Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1937); and String Quartet No. 1 (1938, her first “officially numbered” quartet). These are a few highlights among the remarkable output of forty pieces she composed from 1932 through 1944—a sequence of works that reached an apex in her Overture (played here). “I think to compose, one has to work very intensely,” she said in a 1965 interview. “One has to pause between composing different works, but interruptions shouldn’t be made when you are in the middle of writing a piece. I’m capable of working on one composition for many hours daily. Usually I take a break in the middle of the day, but even during my break my brain keeps on working. I like to get very, very tired. It’s sometimes then that I suddenly get my best ideas.” Her pace during those years is all the more remarkable given that, from 1936 through 1938, she served as concertmaster for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg.

Those works of Bacewicz’s first period hew to a neoclassical style that was much in favor in 1930s France—not so much the angular, sometimes ironic neoclassicism of Stravinsky or Hindemith as the more elegant approach of Honegger, Martinů, or Milhaud. (Her biographer Judith Rosen notes: “Though she personally objected to the categorizing of her music as ‘neoclassic,’ it is difficult to avoid the use of the term in describing her music.”) Paris exerted an enduring magnetism. In the spring of 1939 she traveled there to oversee a concert devoted to her compositions at the École Normale de Musique. Two months after she returned to Warsaw, the world was at war.

During the war, Poland’s musical life ground to a near halt, although some music making continued in private settings. Bacewicz’s sister was wounded, and her family was moved first to a displaced-persons’ camp in Pruszków (on the outskirts of Warsaw) and then to Lublin (a hundred miles distant). Drawing on her capacity to focus, our composer managed to continue composing through it all. Although her pace fell far short of her frenetic pre-War years, she nonetheless completed a handful of major pieces—her String Quartet No. 2, Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin, and Symphony No. 1, in addition to the Overture for orchestra.

She resumed her career as soon as the War ended. She had a backlog of compositions that needed to be unveiled, and her Overture was premiered only four months after Germany’s surrender. She continued composing busily, she picked up her performing career, and she renewed her French connection. In 1946 she was back in Paris, appearing as the soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux and introducing her Suite for Two Violins at the Salle des Concerts du Conservatoire.

She joined the Polish Composers’ Union. As Poland fell under the cultural policies of the Soviet Bloc, composers there were urged to incorporate folk music into their works. She did so, at least enough to keep in good graces. In 1949 she was awarded the Warsaw Prize, which cited her achievements as a composer as well as her service to the arts during the war, when she hosted small-scale musical performances. Her music gained honors abroad, as well; her String Quartet No. 4, for example, received first prize from the 1951 International Composers’ Competition in Belgium, and accolades would continue to the end of her career. She had already begun to withdraw from performing a year before she sustained perilous injuries in a 1954 automobile accident. In 1956 the “Warsaw Autumn” festival gave Poles their first exposure to where modern music had traveled in recent decades, including works by Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, and Messiaen. “A progressive composer should not repeat herself,” Bacewicz said. Her works began to draw on these new influences, displaying greater freedom of tonality, deepened intricacy of rhythm, an expanded approach to tone-color, and, eventually, experimentation with serialism.

THE MUSIC All of that lay ahead when she wrote her Overture during the dark days of the War. Its vigorous optimism stands in defiance to its time. Being a violinist, Bacewicz reliably wrote demanding string parts with absolute confidence. Here, the strings spend the first minute bustling briskly, with winds gradually entering the fray. Brasses signal a shift by introducing stentorian, long-held tones. The Allegro cedes to an Andante in which woodwinds weave in elegiac counterpoint; Adrian Thomas, who has published analyses of many Bacewicz scores, compares this passage to “the bucolic vein of woodwind writing that is the hallmark of [Carl] Nielsen’s symphonic scores”— which does ring true although that may be just a coincidence. In any case, this interlude proves short-lived and self-contained, not giving rise to development as the Overture proceeds. Instead, the Andante soon veers into a fast tempo again, this time an Allegro energico that reigns over the remainder of this buoyant, six-minute piece. Probably not “just a coincidence” is the extent to which Bacewicz works the da-da-da-daaa rhythm into the fast sections of the score. The famous “Beethoven’s Fifth” rhythm was pressed into wartime service because, by happen-stance, it corresponded to the rhythm for the letter “V” in Morse code—as in “V for Victory.” It seems possible that in 1943 its significance may have penetrated even to war-torn central Poland.—James M. Keller


James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

LISTEN AGAIN: Łukasz Borowicz conducting the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)

(May 2019)

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