Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

Trio for oboe, harp and percussion

Grażyna Bacewicz’s oeuvre contains three trios composed for various instrumental line-ups, although each of them features the oboe. The first Trio for oboe, violin and cello was written in 1935. This three-movement work received the 2nd Prize at the Composers’ Competition organised by the Polish Music Society in 1936 and to this day has been very popular among chamber musicians. The second Trio – for oboe, clarinet and bassoon – was composed in 1948. The only performance of the piece took place on 4 March 1948 in Kraków. Some very warm words were written about it at the time by Stefania Łobaczewska, who described the Trio as being marked by “excellent sound, lovely themes and outstanding sense of melody”. However, the Trio disappeared from the concert halls and the score has not survived. The mystery of this disappearance can be explained by the composer’s 1963 letter to her brother Vytautas, in which she reveals a fragment of a conversation with a musician shortly after the premiere. The musician said that “nothing happens” in the first movement. Perhaps the composer reacted to rashly to these words and destroyed the score?

In comparison with the neoclassical Trio written before the war, the 1965 Trio for Oboe, Harp and Percussion is a completely different work. The only thing the two compositions have in common is a three-part form. The percussion set features two Chinese woodblocks (2 legni), two bongos, snare drum (tamburo), cymbal (piatto) and tam-tam.

The first movement, with its agogic-expressive marking of Moderato generoso, might seem to be a free fantasia – with a languid part of the oboe engaged in a dialogue with the harp with a discreet participation of individual percussion instruments – if it were not for the fact that the form of the movement is ABA1. From no. 11 the composer repeats eleven bars of the initial “exposition”, starting from the third bar (without the anacrusis). The following part also features elements which appear in segment A (for example, a passage of two progressively ascending semiquavers and a quaver in the oboe), but start from different notes. This resembles the old arrangement of the sonata allegro, in which some threads from the exposition were presented in a different key. Obviously, we cannot speak here of any tonal associations, the measure is purely reminiscent.

The climate of the second movement (Andantino melancolico) is similar to that of the first. Here, too, our guide is the oboe, languidly weaving its arabesque melodic line. Like in the first movement, the harp, in short, one-bar figurations, only provides a background for the main line in the oboe. This is true of the outermost fragments, because this movement, too, has the ABA1 form. In the middle fragment the harp part is more varied – from tremolandos with changing components, arpeggios and ostinatos with permutated elements to delicate chords. The role of the percussion is even more discreet than in the first movement: isolated strikes of the tam-tam, bongos and cymbal as well as short tremolos of the drum fill in the background for the main ideas. But what matters the most in this movement is something else: the main oboe theme is a motif found in many of the composer’s pieces. It appeared already in her youthful Wind Quintet, and is the main theme in the Intermezzo from the Partita, in the Andante from the Viola Concerto and in the ballet Desire. Wondering about the role of the theme, Adrian Thomas concluded its nature to be “totemic”, given the lack of any indications from the composer as to its sources and role played in her oeuvre.

Like its title suggests, the third movement, Giocoso, is different in character. Somewhat against its nature of a melodic instrument, the oboe plays above all staccato sequences built of arrhythmically repeated notes in close intervals. Short chords of the harp, glissandos and motifs counterpointing the oboe line create a dialogue of the two instruments, with a limited presence of the percussion. It is only with a strong strike of the tam-tam, making up a long final chord with the harp, that the title of the piece: Trio for Oboe, Harp and Percussion becomes justified.

The piece is a mystery, as it were. As the long-time Director of PWM Edition, Professor Mieczysław Tomaszewski, recalled during a Bacewicz-dedicated session of the Polish Composers’ Union organised in 1989 (proceedings published as O Grażynie Bacewicz (On Grażyna Bacewicz), Poznań 1998), the composer did not submit her Trio for publication. A facsimile of the manuscript was not published until 1973.

Another piece that saw the light of day in 1965, the year of the composition the Trio, was Incrustations for horn and instrumental ensemble. In many places the piece uses the same material as the Trio, but it is divided differently among the instruments. The oboe part from the Trio is taken over in Incrustations by the horn, sometimes supported by the flute (there is no oboe here); the harp part can be heard in the strings and the flute. Presumably the composer treated the Trio as a practice run, as it were, for Incrustations, although it is the Trio that can be found in concert halls and on recordings.

The premiere of the Trio for Oboe, Harp and Percussion took place on 2 June 1974 at Bennington College, USA, during Marta Ptaszyńska’s concert. In addition to her own works, the protagonist of the evening included Grażyna Bacewicz’s piece in the programme as an expression of gratitude for Bacewicz, who had showed her the way as an artist (see: personality – teacher). The performers were: Gunnar Schonbeck — oboe, Urszula Kwaśnicka — harp and Marta Ptaszyńska — percussion.