Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

Ouverture for Orchestra

The premise of Bacewicz’s Overture is rhythm and motoric nature,

wrote Artur Malawski in an article published in issue 17 of Ruch Muzyczny in 1947. True, lively movement is the essence of the piece, but the sound image ofOverture is much richer, multifaceted. Based on the Italian overture model (Allegro — Andante — Allegro), the composition begins with a rhythmic timpani motif, discreetly running through the entire piece also in other instruments. The main part of the structure consists of four notes shaped rhythmically like the “fate motif” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. It is hard to say whether this was intended by the composer, who even in such extreme situations as the German occupation avoided any programmatic approach or allusion in her music. However, as Adrian Thomas reminds us in his commentary [Bacewicz. Chamber and Orchestral Music, Los Angeles 1985], in Morse code three long signals and one long signal denote the letter V, which is commonly understood to mean “Victory”. That is why, as the signal was associated with Beethoven’s symphony, during the war the BBC Radio began its with the initial bars of the Bonn master’s piece. A similar sound cell is the basis of Andrzej Panufnik’s Tragic Overture from 1942. We do not know, however, as Beata Bolesławska-Lewandowska notes [“Muzyka czasów terroru? Okupacyjne uwertury orkiestrowe Grażyny Bacewicz i Andrzeja Panufnika”, in Grażyna Bacewicz. Konteksty życia i twórczości, Łódź 2016], whether the two artists listened to these broadcasts and whether they may have been inspired by this signal.

Coming back to Grażyna Bacewicz’s Overture, the development of the composition, with its uniform rhythm of 2/4 (changed briefly to 5/4 towards the end), is driven by a semiquaver figuration based on a repeated but slightly changed “pendular” formula of four semiquavers, first presented by the first violins and then by the entire string section. From this figure there emerge successive threads, some of which are signal-like, highlighted especially in the wind instruments, above an almost uninterrupted string of semiquavers. But it, too, disappears at one point, giving way to a cantilena in the flute, which – together with the other instruments – creates an Arcadian, sonically transparent and peaceful picture, acquiring more intense colours with a Wagnerian-sounding cantabile of the first horn and espressivo of the violas. The Allegro returns, this time played energico, as is suggested by a note in the score. Groups of wind instruments come in even more impetuously; there emerge bugle call-like threads, repeated at one point by the strings, the texture becomes increasingly dense, until a full tutti, ending the whole on a sustained D.

Of course, the score can be read as a transparent form “sparkling with life, rushing as if carried by the wings of rhythmic temperament” (Stefan Kisielewski). It is also possible, as some authors suggest, to find a “hidden layer” in the piece. In this interpretation the Arcadian Andante would be a reminder of peaceful and happy moments, while its sudden interruption and the return of the Allegro – an urge to fight, not to break down under the pressure of disasters, and a belief in victory.

The Overture was premiered on 1 September 1945 at the Contemporary Polish Music Festival organised in Kraków shortly after the end of the war. The Orchestra of the Kraków Philharmonic was conducted by Mieczysław Mierzejewski.