Grażyna Bacewicz

Works in detail

Symphonic Variations

The idiomatic features of Grażyna Bacewicz’s compositional style are easy to find in any of her pieces, regardless of the period in which a given work was written. At the same time alongside permanent features – among which a logically constructed form comes to the fore – we can observe a continuous evolution of the composer’s sound language, enriched again and again by new means of expression. The phenomenon intensified in the mid-1950s, when the composer shaped the narrative of her pieces – more evidently than before – by means of the sonoristic technique. As Maryla Renat (“Wybrane zagadnienia idiomu kompozytorskiego Grażyny Bacewicz”, Częstochowa 2005) puts it,

In her orchestral compositions from the 1950s the changeability and variability of textural arrangements increase – they become more varied both horizontally and vertically. In “Variations for Orchestra” from 1957 motivic correspondence is transformed into correspondence of textural states, still quite uniform. The work constitutes a bridge between the neoclassical style and the sonoristic style in Bacewicz’s symphonic oeuvre.

Symphonic Variations comprise a theme and eight variations. The theme is not an integrated melodic structure, but is a collection of motifs among which three stand out, constituting its fabric. They are: a short flute figure repeated in variants (a), heard in bar seven in a rhythmically changed form in thirds played by two clarinets; a figurative motif of the first violins and violas descending pizzicato in parallel fourths (b) in the second bar; and a “twittering” motif of two oboes presented in a second-based, arrhythmically repeated duet (c) in the fifth bar. Out of these elements the composer builds a nineteen-bar theme the various elements of which are variations of these three basic figures, while the second part of the theme, from bars ten to sixteen, is a developed and transformed form of part one. These two sections of the theme are followed by a three-bar coda, the basic element of which is a transformed motif (a) presented twice in the flute and clarinet. The succinct nature of these quickly changing motifs makes the whole piece slightly “roguish”, like many other of the composer’s works.

This is the spirit of Variation I (con grazia) with a transformation of the main motifs into new qualities the nature of which is figurative or purely colouristic. What has remained from the initial motif (a) is just an “envelope” in the form of a major interval leap upwards in the flutes, while a modified and reversed form of the motif also appears in the bassoon, doubled by a cello glissando. Articulation polyphony is a characteristic component of Grażyna Bacewicz’s compositional technique. The motivic passage (b) is heard in various parallel runs of the strings, while the oboe motif (c), in a slightly modified version, is transferred to the violins, where it appears in the form of a high fourth flageolet with added colour provided by celesta chords.

Variation II (Presto) is dominated by a dense string texture. It is made up of short sequences of figures repeated without variants, in parallel voices or in various contrapuntal sets. A long crescendo is followed by a fading tympani and harp sequence, only to introduce – by means of a descending tympani second repeated increasingly rapidly and transformed into a tremolo – a horn motif in Variation III (Andante). A slowly developing phrase with a slightly Oriental hue is initially accompanied by celesta and harp chords, then by a clarinet duet and finally by the remaining instruments. This brief variation seems to herald Pensieri notturni with its unreal sound aura, poetics of “trembling” tremolandos and delicate texture.

Variation IV (Vivace) brings back structural elements of the theme dominated by motif (c), with a texturally enriched form.

Variation V (with not tempo marking) is the most “kaleidoscopic” image among all variations. The situations, figures and even individual chords change constantly, moving between instruments. The most constant element is figure (a) appearing in the xylophone and string glissandos. This is a picture painted with instrumental colours, demonstrating the value of an individual sound or a collection of colours.

Variation VI (with no tempo marking) is dominated by two clarinets, which play a modified figure (a) in unison, holding the last note sounding like a spell that is to bring the voice of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Variation VII (Andante) is a kind of lyrical interlude. The instrument the role of which is raised to that of a concertante instrument is the bassoon beginning the variation and returning later on, in a clearly highlighted fragment. An important role is also played by the strings in changed motifs (a) and (b), played legato and cantabile, taken over by the flute and the oboe, always with muted dynamics.

Variation VIII (Molto allegro) is a culmination and intensification of all previous ways of transforming thematic threads. The rhythmic outline of motifs (a) and (c) becomes sharper in a dense texture. The passage is enriched by a string figuration built of constantly permuted elements of four-note semiquaver mobiles. Motif (b) is articulated staccato. The whole ends with a powerful tremolo of the wind instruments, tympani and cymbal, but the high point comes in the last two bars – a short pizzicato in the strings and quick sound figure played piano by the piccolo and built of motifs (a) and (c).

Symphonic Variations is an example of the composer’s new way of treating the orchestral texture – approaching it as a polygenic construct, with the various orchestral groups having an equal status, and at the same time an attempt to bring new qualities out of the orchestra by greater register differentiation, quicker changes, autonomous treatment of the various instruments and clear distance from old types of narrative. However, with all the novelty there is a return of a type of voice which in the strictly neoclassical period may have been described as “roguish” – full of humour spiced up with sonic comedy.

The premiere of Variations took place on 30 September 1958 at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music. The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice was conducted by Jan Krenz. The performances is undoubtedly artistically excellent, but it has not stood the test of time as a product of the recording technology. While we wait for a new recording of Grażyna Bacewicz’s Symphonic Variations, we offer you this only existing, poor-quality recording of the piece.