Grażyna Bacewicz

Work - General characteristics

Despite transformations and improvements in her compositional technique, Grażyna Bacewicz’s music is a phenomenon that is stylistically uniform and recognisable thanks to the respect shown by the composer to certain rules belonging to a broadly defined classical tradition. Its canon includes the primacy of a clearly planned form and clear dramaturgy of works – two basic attributes of neoclassicism, an aesthetic movement within which the composer’s oeuvre is sometimes placed. The idea of music as an autonomous art drawing on formal models from the past but reinterpreting them in accordance with transformations of the modern musical language was always close to Grażyna Bacewicz. However, describing her entire oeuvre as “neoclassical” is a drastic interpretative simplification. The artist herself protested against such pigeonholing in a 1964 letter to the author of the PWM Guide.  Her music constitutes a “unity in diversity”; constant idiomatic features of her style were enriched by the addition of new elements, creating in her later years a synthesis of old, neoclassical procedures and a well-developed sonoristic technique.

Grażyna Bacewicz’s oeuvre is usually divided into several periods. It should be noted, however, that the development of Bacewicz’s sound language was continuous; there were no radical turns, which can be observed in the case of some other composers. Signs of solutions that would become characteristic of, for example, a period in which pure sound structures became an important component of the narrative could be seen already in the earliest pieces. What changed were just the proportions of the various elements and their role in constructing the form.  How difficult it is to define the boundary between the various periods is evidenced by the fact that different authors give different dates marking the end of one and beginning of another stage. Adrian Thomas (Bacewicz. Chamber and Orchestral Music, Los Angeles 1985) recalls the traditional division into 1932–1944, 1945–1954, 1955–1960 and 1961–1969, challenging such an arbitrary choice. In each of these periods we can find sometimes contradictory tendencies testifying to the “chameleon-like” nature of the composer’s attitude. Thomas proposes a more flexible division – 1932–1944, 1945–1959 and 1960–1969 – admitting that the middle period should be further divided into years of repressive socialist realism (1950–1954) and a time of greater creative freedom (1955–1959).

Ludomira Stawowy — author of the entry on Bacewicz in PWM Edition’s Wielka Encyclopadia Muzyczna [Great Encyclopaedia of Music] — distinguishes the first period as the one in which the composer was influenced initially by Karol Szymanowski’s music and then by “constructivist neoclassicism”; the second period, 1944–1958: “formulation and consolidation of the composer’s own musical language”; and the third period: beginning with Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958), in which “the latest stylistic tendencies of the era come to the fore, filtered through the composer’s own experiences and providing a new aesthetic value”.

Maryla Renat, in her article “Wybrane zagadnienia idiomu kompozytorskiego Grażyny Bacewicz” [Selected elements of Grażyna Bacewicz’s compositional idiom] (Częstochowa  2005), uses the term “early neoclassicism” to describe the period from the Wind Quintet (1932) to Sonata No. 1 for violin solo (1941). The next stage is, in her view, “mature neoclassicism” – from the Suite for two violins (1943) to Symphonic Variations (1957). “Transition to sonorism” stretches from Sonata No. 2 for violin solo (1958) to String Quartet No. 6 (1960), to the period described by the author as “sonorism”,  from Pensieri notturni (1961) to the ballet Desire (1968).

Early works

Despite the blurred differences in the nature of the various stages, we can point to characteristic elements of successive works. Most authors are inclined to view the year in which Bacewicz completed her composition studies (1932) as marking the beginning of her creative journey. Yet Grażyna Bacewicz had composed before that moment and despite the fact that she did not include most of her youthful pieces in her official catalogue, they testify to her struggle with the musical matter and search for her own style. In the early period Bacewicz was greatly influenced, mainly when it came to harmony, by the music of Karol Szymanowski (Theme with Variations for piano, 1924; Sonatafor violin and piano, 1929). The artist also gave in to the charm of Szymanowski’s impressionistic frescos in the famous Stained-Glass Window for violin and piano from 1932. Initially – probably not without some help from her composition professor, Kazimierz Sikorski – Bacewicz tried to absorb the achievements of European music of the day, especially classicising tendencies, which attracted attention at the time. Hence her interest in the polyphonic technique, liberated, however, from the discipline of the major-minor system (Preludes and Fugues for piano from 1927, Two Double Fugues for string quartet from 1928).

From Quintet to Overture

The piece that marks the beginning of her mature period, fully acknowledged by the composer herself, is the four-part Quintet for wind instruments written in Paris (1932). It contains a number of elements characteristic of the composer’s technique at this stage (we can also list here Violin Concerto No. 1, 1937; or String Quartet No. 1, 1938), but also of her later works: Baroque reminiscences in the construction of some themes (movement I), folkloristic inspirations (movements  II and III), substantial role of instrumental colours (movement II), neoclassical approach to polyphony (movement IV), vitalism interspersed with reflection. The following pieces confirm the consistency with which the composer created her own version of neoclassicism, slowly moving away from a form of it the essence of which Adrian Thomas sees in the divertissement convention. Innovative use of Baroque – or to be more precise, Bach – inspirations can be found in Sonata No. 1 for violin solo (1941). The vitalist Overture for orchestra (1943), in turn, heralds an important new chapter, namely symphonic works.

Symphonies and sonatas

Symphony No. 1 (1945) marks the beginning of a new stage in the composer’s oeuvre, encompassing many excellent pieces, which seems to contradict each other stylistically. It is especially in works from that period that Adrian Thomas sees the “chameleon-like” nature of Bacewicz’s artistic personality. Four symphonies (from 1945, 1951, 1952 and 1953), despite their many brilliant textural solutions, seem to respond to a top-down demand for monumental works, close to late Romanticism, that is works that are comprehensible and are to reflect the heroism of the new era. At the same time the stylised Sonata da camera (1945) begins a cycle of sonatas for violin and piano.

Folkloric inspirations

Violin Concerto No. 3 (1948), believed to have been written under the impact of the violinist practice of the composer (whose repertoire included Szymanowski’s Concerto No. 1), begins another stage in which folkloric inspirations become important, in works like Piano Concerto (1948), String Quartet No. 4 (1951), Piano Quintet No. 1 (1952), Piano Sonata No. 2 (1953), two Obereks for violin and piano (1949, 1952), as well as many other pieces, also those that can be called functional music. Despite the fact that folklorism sanctioned the requirement of normative aesthetics, in the oeuvre of Grażyna Bacewicz (like in that of Witold Lutosławski or Andrzej Panufnik) it became part of the natural heritage the patron of which in the twentieth century was Szymanowski. At the same time the composer writes works without this component, like String Quartet No. 3 (1947), Concerto for string orchestra (1948), Cello Concerto No. 1 or Sonata No. 4 for violin and piano (1949–1950), closer to the Romantic tradition.

New beginning

It is difficult to establish the next “threshold” in Grażyna Bacewicz’s creative growth. The work that became a breakthrough for many scholars is Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958), owing to its advanced transformation of elements like melody, rhythm and harmony into pure movement and sound. Some find this “new beginning” also in the partially serial Sixth String Quartet (1960) or in Pensieri notturni (1961), a piece without elements of old formal models. Sound as an autonomous value is an inalienable component of many of the composer’s earlier pieces, like String Quartet No. 5 (1955) as well as Partita for orchestra (1955) or Symphonic Variations (1957). On the other hand, several pieces from Bacewicz’s last decades, in which the sonoristic technique is the superior value, are characterised by a return of old forms (Violin Concerto No. 7, 1965; String Quartet No. 7, 1965). This obviously does not apply to all works from the period, although the need for a logical, internally integrated form accompanied the composer in all her artistic endeavours.

The sketch presented here illustrates the evolutionary nature of Grażyna Bacewicz’s oeuvre, the interpenetration of various elements in works composed over a period of many years. This testifies to the inexhaustible invention of the composer, constantly looking for new means of expression without losing her own identity.