Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

Symphony no. 3

…Music has transformed itself so much over the last 20 years, not to mention 40 years, that I, for example, not only worry when my symphonies are played (fortunately very rarely these days), but I would never agree to their second edition. Not to mention the fact that I have thrown out a whole lot of pieces and would never let them be published or performed.

This is what Grażyna Bacewicz wrote to her brother Vytautas in 1966. This was a time of the avant-garde in Poland, a time of “making up” for the seemingly lost years of socialist realist oppression. But is it really true that the oeuvres of Polish composers of the first half of the 1950s should be viewed only from the perspective of the socio-political conditions of the day, of a prescriptive cultural policy promoting works in which the “heroism” of the times of building a new world would be conveyed in a simple fashion, understandable to the masses at large, but in a highly artistic form? History has revised many radical theses, including the one that everything which was not part of the avant-garde mainstream of the 1950s should be consigned to the dustbin of history. The Promethean power of the avant-garde waned a long time ago; in its shadow there emerged music which, once considered imitative, today reveals its true values. This happens irrespective of whether a given artist was active in a world held captive by ideology, or in a world offering freedom of choice of artistic paths. The names of Shostakovich or Britten are sufficient examples here. How does the problem of Grażyna Bacewicz’s symphonies present itself in the light of this complicated situation?

She wrote six of them. The first, from 1938, was withdrawn by her from the catalogue of her works. She gave number one to the symphony written in 1945. Her 1946 Symphony for string orchestra has no number. Symphony No. 3, composed in 1952, is regarded by some as the composer’s most outstanding work in the genre. The monumentalism of this four-movement work might serve as an example of the implementation of socialist realist ideas. And yet after a concert in Poznań in 1953, the Symphony was classified as a formalist work characterised by “nervously jagged shreds of motifs, artificial dirt patches, stubbornly dissonant harmonies”, which would “sound foreign in a workers’ hall” [Kazimierz Nowowiejski, “W muzykalnym Poznaniu. 32 koncert symfoniczny”, Głos Wielkopolski 1953 no. 41, p. 4, quoted after Tomasz Tarnawczyk, Symfonie Grażyny Bacewicz na tle sytuacji społeczno-politycznej w powojennej Polsce, Łódź 2016].

Grażyna Bacewicz’s Symphony No. 3 is characterised by extraordinary motivic integration, an ability of transforming some threads in such a way that the Symphony appears almost as a monothematic work. The first movement begins with a grandiose introduction, Drammatico, elements of which play a major role throughout, while the second theme, intoned by the horns and trumpets, is clearly derived from the material of this introduction. We can speak of analogies with the beginning of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor and there is also a lot of Brahmsian climate in the orchestration, but the harmony of many fragments reveals of its twentieth-century origins. The first theme (molto allegro energico) is interesting, built as it is of several characteristic semiquaver motifs transformed in a variety of ways in the development. In addition to the orchestral mass, which in a way “launches” the piece, there are many places with more transparent textures, as a result of which apart from the rules of the sonata allegro we also have a number of dynamic-agogic “waves” – from moments when movement seems to stop, to very dramatic, intensely colourful and lively culminations of the Brahmsian type.

The second movement (Andante) is a hybrid combining features of the sonata allegro and a three-part ABA1 form. It begins with an ostinato theme in the strings played pizzicato with a characteristic tritone which is also an important element of the oboe theme appearing after a while. The following part is based on elements of both themes present in groups of various instruments, which sometimes engage in a dialogue with each other, and sometimes double each other’s voices. Giving a lot of autonomy to the wind instruments, the composer retains the traditional, hierarchical arrangement of the score, with the string group as the basis of her narrative. Another oboe theme contains the characteristic tritone as well, and the whole ends with a reprise (A1), in which both main themes are presented in a similar texture but in a different key aura.

The third movement (Scherzo. Vivace) is delicious orchestral fireworks display which could exist as a stand-alone ballet score. The semiquaver main theme, built as a perpetuum mobile (in 6/8) resembles in its nature the lively finale of String Quartet No. 4. The clarinet theme of the Trio (4/4) is based on a variation-based repetition of one phrase and after some time is taken over by the bassoon. The motif will also be heard in the da capo part.

The finale is a recapitulation of the main musical ideas of the Symphony. It begins with a serious introduction (Moderato). From the introduction theme there emerges the first theme proper (Allegro con passione) played by the strings. The second theme, intoned by the woodwinds (espressivo), draws on the introduction theme as well, and the whole movement, despite the presence of expressively different phases, appears as an almost monothematic piece, clearly dominated by the main motif of the first theme.

What is remarkable is the expressive aura of the symphony, irresistibly bringing to mind Shostakovich’s works, a move from drama to grotesque, from lyricism to pathos. The very first gloomy sounding chord of the brass and a “plaintive” reply of the woodwinds and then the strings, terms like con passione or espressivo suggest a mood which may have accompanied the composer as she was writing the work, a mood of pessimism, so common in those difficult days. Symphony No. 3 was premiered on 11 September 1952 in Kraków. The Orchestra of the Kraków Philharmonic was conducted by Bohdan Wodiczko.