Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

Cello Concerto no. 1

Cello Concerto No. 1 was written 1951, following a commission from Miloš Sádlo, an eminent Czech cellist of international renown. The piece reflects a stylistic tendency most vividly manifested in Sonata No. 1 – Sonata da camera for violin and piano composed in 1945.

While in the Sonata stylisation is obvious thanks to such devices as a reference to the old classical sonata form, incorporation into the piece of two dances of Baroque origin (Minuet and Gigue) as well as a marked similarity to the language and means of expression associated with the period serving as a model here, the turn to tradition in Cello Concerto No. 1 is not so unequivocal. A point of reference can be found in the early stage of classicism, in which there emerged a canonical model of the sonata cycle with the sonata allegro. Grażyna Bacewicz respects all the principles of the model – from the contrast between the three movements, the first of which has the form of a sonata allegro and the third of a sonata rondo – to transparency and classical, “Haydnesque”, it could be said, simplicity of themes, especially in the outer movements. Yet despite many fragments marked by traditional tonality the composer speaks with her own language, creating a work that does not imitate the classical style or narrative. What she borrows from the period is only a formal model, which she fills with content formed in a chromatic space free from tonal determinants. Classifying the Cello Concerto as a neoclassical piece, we can only asked whether at this stage of development the concerto was not a manifestation of regression, as it were, or perhaps a conscious gesture of a return to some outdated forms of dialogue with the past.

The first movement (Allegro non troppo) is a classic sonata allegro with two themes. The first, syncopated and lively, is presented in the strings (vn I, vl, vc) accompanied by the horns, trumpets and timpani, in the form of a regular eight-voice period internally divided into two sentences A A1 in a pure key of D major. The first sentence is then repeated in the cellos and double basses, but in the first violins and violas there appears, in the role of a counterpoint, an idea based on short progressions, which, after another repetition of the first lively sentence, will complement the picture of the first theme. The presentation of the theme by the orchestra is followed by the cello, which enters with a developed first theme, tackling both the “lively” and the calmer threads. In the transition the orchestra is in a dialogue with the solo instrument, using largely the thematic material. While the first theme is lively (energico), the second theme, presented by the cello and appearing in bar 4 after number 9, is melodious (dolce), although it is quickly transformed into a string of figurative ornaments and short dialogues with the various instruments of the orchestra. Moreover, the main motif of the theme is an iconic thread in the composer’s oeuvre – it appears in many of her works, from the Wind Quintet to the ballet Desire. The development is dominated by elements of the first theme, although the second theme appears in the wind instruments (number 16). The development leads to a virtuosic cadenza of the solo instrument, followed by a recapitulation ending with a coda.

The second movement (Andante tranquillo) is a song with clearly romantic origins. Against a chordal, monorhythmic ostinato of the strings the main motif of this movement is introduced by the flute, clarinet, then the oboe, second flute and horn, giving way after eight bars to the cello, which immediately proceeds to develop the flute-oboe motif in a unique fashion. Expression is enhanced after numerous dialogues between the cello and instruments from the orchestra, reaching a climax after another ascending phrase of the cello (third bar after no. 7), only to return, after an allargando section, to the initial tempo (no. 8) and end the movement with a reminder of the first cello solo with a monorhythmic accompaniment provided by the strings.

The third movement (Finale – Allegro giocoso), has the composer’s favourite “lively” formula, emphasised by a staccato, rhythmically compact theme (in 6/8), which appears first in the orchestra and then (in no. 6) in the cello. The theme, resembling in its nature the final Allegro giocoso from String Quartet No. 4, with a similar rhythm and poetics, is the basis of a sonata rondo. The development of the second theme (cantabile), like that of the first, is kept in check by regular periodicity.

Despite the simplicity and clarity of the structure in all three movements, the cello part is rich in various nuances making it possible to highlight not just the dazzling virtuosity, but also the sound qualities and expressive capabilities of the instrument.

Cello Concerto No. 1 was performed for the first time on 21 September 1951 in Warsaw. The soloist was Miloš Sádlo, to whom the composer dedicated her piece, and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Witold Krzemieński. After the premiere Stefan Kisielewski wrote in issue 40 of Tygodnik Powszechny of 1951:

A piece written in a rather routine fashion, useful, pleasant to play and listen to, but stylistically not ambitious enough, not marking any important stage in the creative development of an outstanding composer.

Despite this scepticism Cello Concerto No. 1 has recently been returning to concert halls, included by many musicians in their repertoire.