Grażyna Bacewicz: One of the finest female composers of all time in Poland

Byvu lita

Aug 18, 2023

One of the foremost women composers of all time’ was how Witold Lutosławski remembered Grażyna Bacewicz. As a great moral conscience of modern music, Lutosławski was never given to exaggeration, and this view of his colleague had little to do with the fact that they were fellow Poles.

Yet Lutosławski, who was four years younger and who outlived Bacewicz by a quarter of a century, recalled her with a certain amount of awe, his memories going back to student days when he had page-turned for a pianist accompanying her. ‘From her very first independent steps one could see she was a natural-born, true musician, combining – like the great masters of the Baroque – the talent of a creator and a performer into one harmonious whole.’

Who was Grażyna Bacewicz?

These days, Bacewicz can more straightforwardly be counted as one of the great Polish composers of any period. Though never really forgotten in Poland, she was never fully appreciated internationally. It is only through a spate of recent recordings, mostly of her chamber music, that she is regaining wider attention half a century after her death. But where does she fit in?

When was Grażyna Bacewicz born?

Grażyna Bacewicz was born in the Polish city of Łódź on 5 February 1909. Deriving from the Lithuanian adjective ‘gražus’, which translates as ‘beautiful’, the name Grażyna was an invention of Poland’s national bard, Adam Mickiewicz

Grażyna was the third of four children born to the Lithuanian musical pedagogue Vincas Bacevičius and his Polish wife Maria Modlińska in 1909, and both her older brothers, Vytautas and Kęstutis, had received Lithuanian names too; only the youngest of the siblings, Wanda, was given a Polish name, perhaps in a final compromise with their mother.

Was Grażyna Bacewicz Polish or Lithuanian?

But compromise in the family went only so far. Growing up in Poland – still a partitioned country in these pre-First World War years – the family often spent their summers in Lithuania, a country also longing for its independence. Indeed, Vincas Bacevičius had in all likelihood been sent in 1899 to Łódź by the Tsarist authorities in an attempt to disperse students who were interested in reviving the Lithuanian national movement.

Music may have united this extraordinary family, but national politics divided them. Their father identified so strongly as Lithuanian that the family split in 1925. Vincas Bacevičius felt compelled to return to his homeland and was able to take up a teaching post in the now independent Lithuania’s provisional capital of Kaunas (Vilnius remaining, as Wilno, part of Poland in the inter-war years).

Grażyna stayed behind in Poland with her mother and sister, and would divide most of the rest of her life between Łódź and Warsaw. Her brothers headed to Kaunas, though Vytautus Bacevičius – having established himself as one of the foremost Lithuanian composers – would later settle in New York.

A different duality was found in the competing strands of Bacewicz’s career: she was both a composer and performer. Perhaps one should even speak of a ‘triality’, since on top of her creative work she combined two performing careers – as a violinist and pianist.

She premiered many of her own violin works, but also made notable appearances as a pianist until she was forced to give up performance after a serious car accident in 1954, when a broken pelvis required long hospitalisation. Thereafter she focused on composition. Back in 1947 she’d written to her brother Vytautus in New York, ‘I’m so surprised that you want so much to have a career as a virtuoso. I find it very cumbersome and, to be honest, I would prefer to be just a composer.’

Where did Bacewicz study music?

Bacewicz composed from about the age of 13, going on to study in Warsaw (where her teachers included Kazimierz Sikorski) and in Paris under Nadia Boulanger. Entering Boulanger’s class in 1932, she already clearly had her own voice; as Boulanger was later to say admiringly of Bacewicz, ‘I don’t think that as professors we can give our pupils more than they already have.’

From Paris, where her violin teachers were André Touret and Carl Flesch, Bacewicz returned home in time to compete in the first Wieniawski Competition in 1935. The competition would be won by Ginette Neveu in first place and David Oistrakh in second, and other prize-winners included Ida Haendel and Bronisław Gimpel.

Bacewicz might well have featured on that list had she not spent, as she revealed only many years later, the night before the competition’s second stage at the police station following a burglary of the apartment she was sharing with her mother in Warsaw.

But in 1936 she was invited by Grzegorz Fitelberg to become leader of the Polish Radio Orchestra, and Fitelberg was active in championing her music. He also found her other work, recommending her to Szymanowski for the task of arranging the two-piano score of his ballet Harnasie, a transcription published in Paris in 1935.

What works did Bacewicz compose?

In keeping with the spirit of the times, Bacewicz’s earliest works show a leaning towards neo-classicism. Then for a while, in the 1930s, she moved closer towards the aesthetic of Szymanowski, and perhaps it was as some sort of a tribute that in 1938, the year after Szymanowski’s death, she wrote her Three Arabic Songs.

Her roots in neo-classicism were to prove useful again when, from the late 1940s, she found herself confronted by the strictures of Socialist Realism, sometimes reconciling them with Polish folk traditions. Masterpieces of this period include the Concerto for String Orchestra and Second Piano Sonata, and both show how, in common with Lutosławski, she found a way of speaking with stylistic identity and absolute artistic integrity. In the last decade of her life Bacewicz made an effort to come to terms with serial technique.

Music for strings dominates Bacewicz’s output, and of her 11 solo concertos, seven are for violin. She composed four symphonies, three ballets and a radio opera (The Adventure of King Arthur). Chamber music makes up the largest part of her oeuvre and is an ideal place to start for those new to her music.

Her fresh approach to musical texture is revealed in such unusual pieces as the Quartet for Four Violins, yet her greatest contribution to the literature is to be found in the seven string quartets, which stand tall in the 20th-century repertoire. In the post-war era, it was Bacewicz who almost single-handedly kept the genre alive in Poland. Chamber music was seen by the Soviets to lack potential as a propaganda tool and was positively discouraged.

From the deep humanity of the String Quartet No. 1 (1938), with a haunting set of variations on a Lithuanian folk song at its heart, to the modernist mastery of the String Quartet No. 7 (1965), this is an impressive testimony. With good reason, the String Quartet No. 4 is one of Bacewicz’s most frequently performed works, but you would hardly know that it was written in 1951, which was a tough time for Polish composers.

Communism cut Bacewicz off from the wider musical world, at least to some extent, but life had never been easy for a composer who was just 30 when World War II unleashed destruction on Warsaw. She survived the war there along with her husband Andrzej Biernacki (a medical physician) and their baby daughter Alina (destined to become a painter), evacuating only briefly to the southeastern city of Lublin.

The relative freedoms won after political unrest erupted in Poznań in 1956 were reflected in the formation that year of the Warsaw Autumn Festival, a window on the musical world and also a showcase for Polish composers. From the inaugural edition onwards Bacewicz’s music became a backbone of the event. She began to travel regularly, from India in 1956 to Armenia in 1968. In 1967 she attended the Polish-themed Cheltenham Music Festival, where Pensieri notturni for chamber orchestra, now one of her best-known works, received its British premiere.

‘I do not,’ wrote Bacewicz, ‘believe in inspiration; for me composing is like sculpting in stone rather than putting on paper the sounds of my imagination.’ Always searching for new paths, always prolific, Bacewicz lived with an energy that also allowed her to enjoy family life. She found time to write novels, a play and several short stories too.

When did Bacewicz die?

Yet she died young, on 17 January 1969, of a heart attack just two-and-a-half weeks short of her 60th birthday, leaving her Picasso-inspired ballet Desire unfinished. Histories of modern Polish music have tended to make Lutosławski and Panufnik, along with Górecki and Penderecki in the next generation, the heroes, but after half-a-century Bacewicz is finally taking her rightful place as their equal.

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