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Grażyna Bacewicz – the February Composer of the Month


We had no doubts as to who should be the protagonist of our COMPOSER OF THE MONTH project in February. Unequivocally and without hesitation, we pointed to Grażyna Bacewicz.


She was the first of Polish contemporary women-composers. Active at first as a violinist, she took heed of Grzegorz Fitelberg’s insistent persuasion and took her composing work more and more seriously, which soon bore fruit…

…but let Grażyna Bacewicz speak for herself. Here is her ‘composer’s alphabet’:

A – is for Alinka, my beloved daughter.

B – is for Bach. “Like the old god Janus, venerable patron of gates, facing two opposite directions at the same time, Bach stands at the threshold of two musical eras and looks both back into the past and forward into the future, bridging them both with an indestructible bond. (…) Bach’s oeuvre is the peak of expressive and technical-artistic mastery. This is why Johann Sebastian Bach is so dear to us – the composers of to-day.” (This is an excerpt from my statement printed in a Bach Almanach published in 1951 by Zofia Lissa for the bicentenary of the Leipzig cantor’s death. It was a publication badly affected by socialist-realist doctrine, but fortunately in some texts we managed to slip a good dose of truth about Bach; in my own statement as well, I hope.)

C – is for Ciechocinek. I am a hardworking person, but even a work animal must rest from time to time. In June 1962 I wrote to my brother Witold (Vytautas): “Since Sunday noon we’ve stayed in Ciechocinek with Ala. Can you imagine how healthy we’re going to be after this sojourn here? It’s almost scary to think. I take baths and hydrotherapy.”

D – is for dodecaphony. In October 1958 I wrote to Vytautas: As concerns our exchange of views on music, there is one argument that supports the dodecaphonists and proves that you can write beautiful music in that system too. It’s an argument per analogiam: Are Bach’s fugues not beautiful despite their strict and limiting form? I still think that the serial music and system are interesting for me even though they don’t quite suit me personally.

E – is for Edmund Rudnicki, Polish Radio’s music director, who in 1935 persuaded Fitelberg to set up and lead the Radio Orchestra. Fitelberg in turn invited me to play in the 1st violins.

F – is for Ficio. That’s the name of our friend, the excellent conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. He was probably the first to appreciate me as a composer. He was my mentor. When I obtained my diploma in composition in 1932, he said to Stefan Kisielewski: “She’s going to be a very good composer one day, but she needs to write a lot before that time, ‘do her bit of writing’ before she finds her own language and technique.” A year later he persuaded Szymanowski to entrust me with the job of preparing a piano transcript of Harnasie for theatrical rehearsals. During my work in the radio orchestra, I composed, among others, my Violin Concerto No. 1, which I performed under Ficio’s baton in 1938. In 1948, having got acquainted with the score of my Violin Concerto No. 3, he wrote to me: “You’ve made a huge, gigantic progress – all is new in your work. It is music conceived for the orchestra from the start, not merely orchestrated. From the very beginning, opposing the movement of the trombones, trumpets and horns to the string parts is a typically orchestral concept. Bravo, Grażyna – I’m really glad. Do you remember how I once asked you when you’d stop writing those semiquavers? You answered that it was simply your style. You’ve found out that it isn’t – and this is good news. I am also impressed by how prolific your output has become.

G – is for Garwolin. One of my most tragic wartime experiences. The extermination of that town’s inhabitants, when I and my family miraculously escaped death, is the topic of my short story entitled Before Our Very Eyes.

H – is for harmony. In the correspondence debate on music that I held for many years with my brother Vytautas, who resided in the United States, I wrote him in 1963: “I have worked out a ‘little system’ derived from serial music, based on not using in the musical progressions or in the resulting chords any notes that have just appeared in the music. It is a kind of free seriality. Owing to this decision, there is never any doubling in the chords. I am aware that this little system in fact exclusively concerns the harmony – but even this is a reason to rejoice, since thanks to this device I have finally departed from tonality. And the harmonic effect is very interesting.

I – is for India. I went there in 1956 with a deputation of Polish scholars and representatives of culture. I can still recall images from that trip. I wrote about this in the “Poznaj świat” weekly: “I long – hard as it might be to achieve – to travel to India once again, but not to Bombay, Madras or Calcutta, not even to Ajanta or Eluru, to spend time among the most splendid works of art. Not the beautiful Taj Mahal, either, but to any little town, in the hour of dusk (…) the dream-like, fairy-tale atmosphere; the peace, and at the same time real life going on as usual. Poor and full of cares perhaps, but this is not what I think about in that hour of dusk. Such worries can wait for the day.

J – is for Joasia, my granddaughter. She was one year old when I wrote to Vytautas: “Joasia is so pretty, mostly joyful, only sometimes sulking. More like a lightning than a girl – no wonder Alinka is a bit tired.”

K – is for Kiejstut, my elder brother, pianist and chamber musician, with whom I played for many years in a duet. He once spoke beautifully about our collaboration in a radio interview: “Our joint performances in concert halls, as well as recordings for the radio and record labels, took place between 1933 and 1955. In my career as a pianist, playing with my sister was quite a separate line of activity, and was – to characterise it briefly – a form of creative work.(…) Direct, so to speak – intimate contact with Grażyna’s music, and the chance to absorb her authentic, original vision of the pieces we played together, as well as learning the secrets of her musical thinking – were an intriguing and inspiring experience, which enriched my musical awareness and imagination, introducing new original values.

L – is for leech or physician. My husband, Andrzej Biernacki, was said to be an excellent internist and haematologist. He was also praised for organising a network of research clinics. It is therefore rather strange that the medical students’ satirical show of 1949 should contain the following couplet: “Tis a strange twist of fate, and unequal merits; they don’t say it’s Biernacki’s wife playing, but that my doc is the husband of Bacewicz.”

Ł – is for Łosakiewicz Bogdan, a fellow-musician from the orchestra and the quartet, who once brought to a concert his roommate from rented accommodation, the young physician Andrzej Biernacki…

M – is for music. “Music does not express any ordinary emotions of our life. It only expresses itself and its own emotions.” In 1964 this was my response to Stefan Kisielewski’s question concerning the emotions that music evokes in me. It sounds like, and indeed it is, my aesthetic creed.

N – is for Nadia Boulanger. I owe a lot to her. She did not treat me as a pupil to be led by the hand. She once said: “Like almost all my Polish pupils, she came to my classes already with a solid background – classical and contemporary at the same time.” I took care to visit her whenever I went to Paris. During her stay in Poland in 1964, I even held dinner in her honour, which I described in a letter to my brother Vytautas. I corresponded with her for many years and I dedicated to her a fragment of one of my short stories.

O – is for Ochlewski Tadeusz. We met before the war at one of the ORMUZ (Organisation of Music Life) concerts. As director of PWM Edition after the war, he supervised the editions of my and other composers’ works. Some said he was besotted with me. However it may have been, he confided many of his problems to me in his letters, and his openness persuaded me once to make a confession myself. In 1950 I wrote: “I am a determinist. I don’t believe in free will in humans. Every life has been planned down to the smallest detail. Just as we can recall the past as something real, so, if only we had a third eye, we could see all the course of our future lives.

P – is for Paris, the city of my youth, studies, and early successes. I frequently return there in my memories. In my memorial text about Artur Malawski, written in 1958, I recalled a performance of his Trio at one of PWM Edition’s concerts. I wrote: “I don’t know how, but Malawski’s ‘Trio’ carried me back in time to the Paris of my youth, where I attended chamber music concerts at the École Normale, witnessing the first performances of freshly composed works. I could sense that atmosphere of the years that abounded in creative freedom, hope and enthusiasm. This may have been because the burden of oppression and restrictions was acutely felt at that time.

R – is for Rabelais. In a 1960 interview conducted by Jerzy Hordyński I answered his question concerning my attitude to fiction in this way: “Concerning literature, I must say I like Rabelais the best, and I would give much to talk to him. I can sense a fiery temperament in him that suits me.” At a party held at the French embassy, “I told the ambassador that when I sometimes think about who from the past I’d like to talk to, it is Rabelais who always comes to my mind – that wonderful person, with great panache, temperament, wit and wisdom.

S – for the speed (of living). In a letter to Vytautas I wrote in 1947: “My pace of life is quite different from that of the people around me. I do everything faster than others, and my environment constantly irritates me with just how slow people are. It has its good sides, though, since, for instance, I can write a large work in two weeks. Sikorski knows this and when we meet, he asks sometimes: ‘So, how many symphonies have you written today?’”

U – is for Ustka. In August 1965 I wrote to my brother Vytautas: “It’s great here, warm, but a heavy wind is blowing on the seafront, so we mostly go sunbathing to the wood or to the meadow. We go to the beach just to watch, but not to bathe. We’ve just had a heavy downpour, so we went to the nearby city of Słupsk for coffee and icecream. We used this opportunity to buy a book by Mark Twain. Recently I read his ‘Pamphlets’. An excellent guy!

V – is for violin, my love. I can’t remember when I took it up for the first time, but as early as 1916 I already played concerts in Łódź. I think I have an in-depth knowledge of the instrument and its character, which musicians who play my works confirm by saying things like: “Yes, this is very much violin writing.” There is clear progress in my music, but I’ve never written anything that would contradict the instrument’s nature. In the 1960s I wrote in a questionnaire: “The music I write at present, with the qualities that it demonstrates, is definitely avant-garde music. I can even boast a few ‘discoveries’ of my own in the field of writing for bowed instruments.

V – stands also for Vincas and Vytautas; respectively, my father and the younger of my brothers. My father always considered himself a Lithuanian. In 1923 he illegally travelled to Kaunas in Lithuania and strove to bring his family there too. But it was only Witek (Vytautas) who followed his father to Lithuania. Kiejstut worked in Kaunas as a teacher for several years, but later he returned to Poland. Witek eventually settled in New York following a concert tour in Argentina. He worked there as a composer, concert pianist and piano teacher, with varying success. In our letters we exchanged comments on musical subjects. Lithuanians are gradually discovering his music, which is very different from mine.

W – is for Wandzia, my younger sister and guardian spirit, who, while working as a journalist and writer (author of more than a dozen poetry volumes), dedicated herself nearly entirely to the promotion of my ‘career’. When I travelled to play concerts, she took care of Alinka, collected my manuscripts and acted as my secretary. In February 1961 I wrote in a letter to Vytautas: “Wanda is again sacrificing her own life for my sake, because I’m writing something for chamber orchestra, and she’s doing the shopping to relieve me of the chores.”

Z – is for Zakopane, where I liked spending time. I travelled there with the whole family, including mum, for as long as she was still in good health. “The aim is to rest,” I wrote to Vytautas in 1967, though the weather sometimes let us down. During an earlier stay, in 1963, I wrote: “We are spending time pleasantly here and we’re surely having a fine rest. It’s great to be able to look at the mountains.”

Ż – is for Żuławski Wawrzyniec, who appeared and then disappeared from my life like a lightning. He left behind several reviews of the performances of my music and memories of our hikes in the mountains with him and my family. There are some kinds of love that can kill, and his love of the mountains did kill him. He perished on 18th August 1957 during a rescue expedition on Mont Blanc.

Grażyna Bacewicz was impersonated in our alphabet by Małgorzata Gąsiorowska, an eminent expert on the composer’s life and work. The quotations have been selected from Bacewicz’s letters and interviews.

This is the first entry in our series COMPOSER OF THE MONTHS. The project will occasion many events and texts related to the figure and oeuvre of Grażyna Bacewicz, and those who know her output know that there is really a lot to talk about. In the first week of February we will focus on the freshly published… detective novel written by this composer. There are many other things you may not have known about her.

We encourage you to follow the events on our website and social network profiles.

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