Grażyna Bacewicz

Life - Studies in Warsaw and Paris

In 1928 Grażyna Bacewicz began her studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, choosing three main subjects: composition in Kazimierz Sikorski’s class, violin in Józef Jarzębski’s class and piano in Józef Turczyński’s class. She also followed the example of her brother Kiejstut and enrolled in a philosophy course at the University of Warsaw. She was consumed by a passion for knowledge, but the effort proved too great. After a year and a half she gave up her university course and her piano studies with Professor Turczyński, although the skills she had acquired by that time allowed her later to perform her own pieces on many occasions. Thus the siblings complemented their diplomas. Kiejstut did not complete his composition studies with Roman Statkowski and Piotr Rytel, graduating in piano and philosophy, while Grażyna’s artistic activities, limited to two fields – composition and violin – allowed her to focus on perfecting both her violin playing and her skills as a composer.

Like old masters, Grażyna Bacewicz for many years was the first performer of her violin compositions, often in a duet with her brother Kiejstut. At the beginning of her artistic career the musical circles saw her primarily as a violinist, often treating her creative ambitions as a whim. There still persisted the image of the female artist as a singing “diva” or a pianist or violinist, author of drawing room pieces.  The oeuvres of Maria Szymanowska and other famous ladies seemed forgotten. Just as condescending about Grażyna’s work as a composer were some of her colleagues. She recorded her memories of those years in the short story Czy koleżanka nie zabłądziła? (Aren’t you lost?), presenting a slightly ironic distance from the caustic remarks of her fellow students.

The situation at the Warsaw Conservatory at the time was not conducive to creativity. The Conservatory was in deep crisis caused by attempts to reform the curriculum and the structure of the school. The conflict became exacerbated when in 1927 Karol Szymanowski was appointed Director of the Conservatory and, after the reform, rector of the school in 1930. Conservative teachers disliked the innovations introduced into the curriculum of various subjects (e.g. harmony and counterpoint) and the hiring of such musicians as Kazimierz Sikorski or Grzegorz Fitelberg. As a result of bitter clashes and a smear campaign in the press, in 1932 Karol Szymanowski resigned from his position and some of his protégés were forced to retire. A student strike broke out as well. Eventually some of the teachers, including Kazimierz Sikorski, returned, but it proved impossible to restore a good atmosphere at the school for a long time. How was it possible to study in such a situation?

As a student of Kazimierz Sikorski, Grażyna Bacewicz did not have an easy life – like other students in her class – but nevertheless tried to follow the path she had set for herself.  As early as in January 1929 she wrote her Sonatafor violin and piano, and six months later –Symphoniettefor string orchestra. Apart from these two small pieces for piano or violin and piano, worthy of note are also two string quartets, not included later by the composer in the official catalogue of her works, although the second quartet, written in 1931, was among the pieces presented during her composition diploma exam. Subsequent works testify to attempts to find her own style, liberate herself from both the influence of dogmatic neoromanticism advocated by conservative professors, and – despite undisguised admiration – from the charms of Karol Szymanowski’s music, which excited the young so much. The situation in which the only undisputed authority for many was Szymanowski created a paradox. Despite going on strike to defend the master, the students would say: “Szymanowski – yes, his music – no”. Obviously, this “no” applied only to attempts to imitate or copy the music of the composer of King Roger.

Grażyna did not play any active role in the strike; in any case, she had other problems. After the sale of the flat in Łódź, she settled with her mother and sister in Warsaw. Her father was in the distant city of Kaunas. Her parents formally remained married; they wrote letters to each other. In some way the children felt obliged to pay back the debt of national duties to their father. After studying in Warsaw Kiejstut worked for four years, from 1931 until 1935, as a music teacher at the State Lithuanian Gymnasium in Kaunas. He eventually returned to Poland with his wife, the singer Helena Baranowicz. The younger brother, Witold (Vytautas), felt he was Lithuanian and in 1926 joined his father. He began to study philosophy at the Lithuanian University and became very active as a concert artist, composer and journalist.

Grażyna went to Lithuania several times, not only to visit her father. Witold organised concerts for her and they were very well received by the local press. However, her goal was to complete her studies and continue her education. Perhaps in Paris? In 1932 she obtained two diplomas from the Warsaw Conservatory. Her honours diploma in violin was combined with a recital. This is how Stefan Kisielewski remembered the evening:

I remember her performance – she played with gusto and energy, very cleanly and precisely, although not a big volume, with great excitement, which was infectious; her slim figure, focused energy, greediness for music were very suggestive and commanded respect. I personally was hugely impressed by the fact that the girl played the violin and composed to boot. What a veritable demon of musicality, I thought to myself. Stefan Kisielewski,

“Grażyna Bacewicz i jej czasy”, Kraków, 1964, p. 12.

After this dazzling success, the young artist, regarded as an extraordinarily talented student, sat her composition exam. She presented her Violin Sonata, String Quartet No. 2, Symphoniettefor string orchestra and the psalm De profundis clamavi.The judging panel was chaired by Eugeniusz Morawski, who was against Szymanowski and the professors hired by the former rector. Grażyna was graded good. As Kazimierz Sikorski later recalled, she laughed at her grade. The best evidence of her resilience to adversity was her next piece,  Three Caricatures, with its dedication “To Dear Professor K. Sikorski – G. Bacewicz”. In it the composer painted portraits of three professors: Józef Jarzębski, Grzegorz Fitelberg and Kazimierz Sikorski. Hoping for a performance in Lithuania, she wrote to Witold,

Were the “Caricatures” to get to Kačinskas at last, write to him, that the instruments in this piece are deliberately used for humorous purposes. The programme should also say a few words about these 3 caricatures, that no. 1 is a comic representation of a violin lesson with Prof J.J., that no. 2 is conductor F.G., who enters with pomp, flirts a bit and leaves again with pomp, and that no. 3 is the dry Prof K.S. So it’s a dry fugue etc.

Baczewicz’s Caricatures was eventually performed for the first time in 1933 under Grzegorz Fitelberg. This marked the beginning of friendship between the conductor and the composer. Fitelberg followed her progress attentively, often commented on her work and on many occasions conducted her new pieces.

After completing her studies, Grażyna went on her second “Batlic” journey, visiting not only Kaunas but also the capital of Latvia, Riga. And here begins the most mysterious moment of her life. With her brother Witold she gave a number of concerts, performing her own works as well as works from the international repertoire. The reviews were enthusiastic.

As is evidenced by documents revealed by the musicologist Janina Gudavičiuté [Janina Gudaviiuté, Grażyna Bacewicz in Kaunas , Vilnius, 1994 (manuscript)], the young artist looked for a job for herself in Kaunas – in an orchestra or a school. However, all her applications were rejected. She also applied for a scholarship to continue her studies in Paris, which would have obliged her to return to Lithuania – here concerns about her loyalty turned out to be even greater. Therefore, Grażyna decided to go to Paris without any institutional support, helped financially only by her family. The information circulating in the media that she received a scholarship from Ignacy Jan Paderewski is not true. Although the great musician did support some Polish artists, the composer’s family denied the rumour concerning his alleged scholarship granted to Grażyna.

The inter-war Paris was considered to be the world’s capital of art. Karol Szymanowski encouraged young Polish composers to go there, perhaps not realising that the spirit that reigned in the French capital at the time was completely different from the one which, in his view, enlivened new music, freeing it from the fetters of post-Wagnerian neoromanticism. As Zygmunt Mycielski recalled,

Dukas, Roussel, Schmitt, Nadia Boulanger — they all believed it was very important to master the old disciplines, including the fugue and study of scores. No one claimed that composition could be taught. The process can only be facilitated and developed, but it has to be innate.

Zygmunt Mycielski, “50 lat temu”, Ruch Muzyczny, 1977 no. 5, p. 8.

This is exactly what Grażyna was looking for, when she arrived in Paris in 1932. She stayed in Rue Lamandé, in a Polish musicians’ house run by Mr and Mrs Jurgielewicz. She enrolled in post-graduate course in André Tourret’s violin class and Nadia Boulanger’s composition class at École Normale de Musique. She also became a member of the Association of Young Polish Musicians in Paris. Although she left no account of her collaboration with the great lady of French music, Nadia Boulanger, we know that their relations were harmonious and lasted for years, as is evidenced by postcards sent on various holidays, name days or other occasions. There is also Nadia’s courtesy contribution about Grażyna requested by the Polish Television and recorded by Henryk Szeryng for the first film about the composer and used also in the second biographical film devoted to her. This is what Nadia said:

I don’t think I have to tell you how moved I am when I think about Grażyna. When she arrived in Paris, still as a young girl, she already displayed great talent, which over the years would develop constantly.

When Szeryng said that her talent still needed to be polished, Nadia Boulanger was outraged:

I don’t think that as professors we can give our pupils more than they already have. Bacewicz talent was formed in Warsaw by [Kazimierz] Sikorski, a man whom I had the pleasure of meeting and whom I admire. Grażyna, like almost all my Polish students, came from a solid school: classical and modern at the same time.

A fragment from the film Grażyna Bacewicz  directed by Ludwik Perski in collaboration with Zdzisław Sierpiński (1974). The fragment was also included in the film Dla ludzi mam zawsze twarz pogodną  (I Always Show a Cheerful Face to People), written by Małgorzata Gąsiorowska and Dariusz Pawelec, and directed by Dariusz Pawelec (1999).

During her stay in Paris, which lasted less than a year, Grażyna Bacewicz wrote no fewer than six pieces, the most important of which are the Wind Quintetof 1932 and Children’s Suite for piano of 1933. She submitted the Quintetfor a competition for female composers organised in May 1933 by the Society “Aide aux femmes de professions libre” and was a joint winner of the first prize, thus taking the French musical circles by storm. The effort of her hard work was sweetened by the 1000 francs accompanying the diploma. Worthy of note among her other compositions is the charming Stained-Glass Windowfor violin and piano, and the orchestral Convoi de joie, noticed by Grzegorz Fitelberg, who conducted its premiere in Warsaw in 1934. Her first visit to the French capital, to which Grażyna would return two more times before the war, was crowned with appearances in concerts of the Association of Young Polish Musicians, a concert co-organised in Nice by the Society “Amis de Musique de Chambre” (on 17 February 1933, with Ewa Bandrowska-Turska and Jerzy Sulikowski) as well as opening concert of the Chopin Festival in Majorca (20 May 1933). This was also an opportunity to visit southern France and northern Italy. The young composer and violinist returned to Poland full of new impressions.