Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

Piano Sonata no. 2

The phenomenon of Sonata No. 2, written in 1953, lies in a creative continuation of those achievements in the development of the traditional form which at the height of the avant-garde were considered passé and yet which still attract with their power of artistic expression. A neoromantic type of narrative, derived straight from the tradition of Beethoven and Brahms, combined with sonic radicalism, worthy of the best pieces by Bartók and Prokofiev, but also sensitivity to colour, sensual approach to sound – these are characteristics of the work, which has no precedence in the composer’s entire oeuvre.

The sonata comprises three movements. The first movement, Maestoso. Agitato, structurally resembles the sonata form; the second movement, Largo, has the ABA1 form; the third movement, Vivo, is a toccata with features of a sonata rondo.

The first movement begins with a short, two-bar introduction, Maestoso, followed by the main part, Agitato. The very term indicates the nature of the music – fierce, very expressive, and at the same time full of textural ideas drawing directly on the barbaric sound known from Prokofiev’s last sonatas. Parallel sixth chords in the right hand filled with “transition” notes and presented against a background of sharp ostinato figures in the left hand, changing metre, saturated sound, rhythmic chords or complementing figurations of both hands as if straight from Beethoven, and a perceptible inner order – all this wonderfully complements the classicist-modernist tendencies that appeared in piano music in the first half of the twentieth century. We can notice a classical order in the constant textural-dynamic-agogic undulation; the chordal Agitato sequence is juxtaposed with a gentle and texturally finer fragment marked meno mosso, pp. Fourteen bars of the Agitato are repeated literally in a “reprise”, while the meno msso returns slightly changed to enable figurations, growing in strength towards the end, to resound; the figurations are transformed into a series of chords ending the movement.

The contrasted first movement is followed by calm – Largo. Announced in the Andante fragment in the first section of the Sonata, the movement begins with a quiet, calm chorale (pp), very close in its mood to the slow movement, Grave, of Piano Quintet No. 1, written in 1952. In fact, both works have more in common; for example, they begin in a similar fashion – with two ascending fourths. The fabric of the chorale in the Sonata is a melody in the upper voice, a melody that will become the main motif in the movement. It will appear in the middle fragment, in a sequence of dense chords in the first culmination (ff) and then, as a single melody of the left hand, in the following fragment paving the way for a… short fugato. Individual voices of the fugato are slowly transformed into sequences of chords leading to the second culmination (fff). The whole ends with a return of a slightly changed initial chorale.

The third movement (Vivo), marked as Toccata, is, in fact, a rondo, with a refrain in the form of a slightly demonic oberek motif (3/8). The movement begins with a toccata section, with the various episodes also toccata-like in their nature, but somehow becoming combined with oberek motifs. The apogee comes in a fragment beginning poco sostenuto, which constitutes, together with a sequence of evenly measured, cluster sounding chords, an example of a masterful approach to sonic barbarism.

Sonata No. 2 for piano was premiered on 17 December 1953 at a Polish Composers’ Union concert in Warsaw. The performer was the composer herself. The piece has been enjoying a renaissance for many years. It has been recorded by artists like Ewa Kupiec and Krystian Zimerman. Sonata No. 2 is regarded as one of the most outstanding works in the genre in the twentieth century.