Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

String Quartet no. 4

String Quartet No. 4 is the best known and most often performed among Grażyna Bacewicz’s seven string quartets. It was written in 1951, following a commission from the Polish Composers’ Union, which invited its members to take part in a composers’ competition for a string quartet organised in Liège, Belgium. Bacewicz’s piece, entered as “1951”, won the first prize. The “Brussels victory” – as the event was commented on by Grzegorz Fitelberg in a letter to the composer – was discussed extensively by the Polish and foreign press. In an interview published in Kurier Codzienny on 10 October 1951, the composer said:

The Quartet consists of three movements; its uses all instruments and the melody features elements of folklore.

It could be said that the piece owes its success to that folkloristic note making the work less abstract and more accessible than those quartets which owe its high status only to technical excellence and thoughtful, logical dramaturgy.

The first movement, a free projection of the sonata allegro, contains two themes of clearly folk provenance. But they are not the only elements of the picture in this fragment. Just as important is the introduction (Andante) featuring sound material which is in no way connected with the themes, but appears in various forms in the development and recapitulation. Elements of this introduction, juxtaposed with the first or the second theme, make up various dramatic “clashes” which determine the character of the whole movement. The introduction is a structure built like a mathematical sequence: a short motif (ppp), expanded with each bar, reaches a climax in several repetitions of sharp chords (fff) only to return to a gentle pianissimo for a moment before the appearance of the first theme. That first theme (Allegro moderato) is based on a four-bar melodic phrase in the first violin, characterised by modal harmony and resembling a mazurka or kujawiak in its nature. The following four-bar section, a modified version of that phrase, is a reply to this initial singing. The entire eight-bar sequence is then transposed up a third and, in addition, the theme is imitated, although not exactly, in the second violin. Later on in the piece the situation between the various voices becomes more complicated. The second theme (Moderato) with its characteristic “rocking” melody, appearing in the exposition presented by the cello and in the recapitulation by the viola, suggested to Maria Piotrowska that the idea may have had its source in a Spanish folk lullaby [Maria Piotrowska, Neoklasycyzm w muzyce XX wieku, Warsaw 1982]. Elements of the introduction and both themes are contrasted with each other and the contrast determines the dynamics of the whole movement.

The second movement (Andante) is an effusion of delicate colours surrounding the lullaby-like main theme and several secondary threads. All these motifs are embedded in sophisticated polyphonic arrangements as well as an accompaniment of various figures or chords with changing articulation, featuring frequent use of flageolets. The narrative in this movement, in which lyricism is mixed with sections of heightened expression, testifies to the existence of a romantic element present in many of the composer’s mature works.

In the third movement (Allegro giocoso) the composer returns to her favourite state of “neoclassical jollity”. Full of unabashed sonic humour, the refrain of this sonata rondo is played staccato and is based on a rotational change of components in successive three-note figures making up the theme. Another joke has its source in a change of the three-note figures to figures comprising two notes played pizzicato and a change of metre from 6/8 to 2/4, with the melodic line of the theme remaining unchanged. In addition to fragments based on elaborated elements of the refrain (hence the sonata rondo), there are lyrical elements interwoven in the fabric of the piece: one, which appears twice, though beginning with different notes when repeated, has a very expressive melodic outline (cantabile), and one, the meaning of which is purely colouristic and which features a sequence of flageolets in the first violin and then a tremolo played by all instruments by the bridge. Not for the first time does the composer reveal here her extraordinary colour sensitivity, which, together with a sense of logical form, is a building block of a majority of her works.  The finale of Quartet No. 4 ends with a dynamic accelerando and multiple note G in all four instruments.