One of the hottest days of this summer. The air is dead calm and the heat rests like leaden weights on my shoulders. I am walking across a deserted industrial site. I am waiting for the bus. And I make a discovery. A female composer. From a land not exactly predominant in classical music. Grazyna Bacewicz. She was born in 1909 in Lodz (Poland), she died in 1969 in Warsaw of a heart attack. I had been deeply impressed by Krystian Zimerman’s recording of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major and I was looking for other recordings by Zimerman. And I found Grazyna Bacewicz’ Piano Quintet No. 1 performed by Rafal Kwiatkowski, Ryszard Groblewski, Kaja Danczowska, Zimerman and Agata Szymczewska.
The Quintet matched that day. A drawn out introduction by the strings, interspersed by single piano notes, a menacing, oppressive atmosphere. But then, a vibrant melody, like a clown entering the stage to chase away all that bleakness. But as it happens with a clown, he quickly grows melancholic – what a lovely succession of contrasts. Spell-binding! The second movement starts on a joyful theme, the strings building a restless, subdued background for Zimerman’s piano melody. Mmmmmmh!
Meditative moments, reminding me partly of Schubert’s sad quartets and piano songs where the notes become just as important as the pauses, alternate in the third movement with more forceful passages, packed with emotions. The finale takes up that prayer-like mood, a touch of melancholy (the piano), but far away from the main voices, a soft dialogue over times gone by. Masterful!
Grazyna Bacewicz comes from a musicians’ family. Her brother Vytautas was a composer, her father Wincenty gave her the first piano and violin lessons. In 1928 she entered the Warsaw Conservatory and studied violin, piano and composition. She graduated in 1932 as a violinist and composer and deepened her study in Paris in 1932 and 1933. After a brief period spent teaching in Lodz, she returned to Paris to study with Carl Flesch in 1934, as Adrian Thomas writes in an article for Oxford Music Online. She spent the time of World War II in Warsaw, presumably absorbed by work. Details about these years remain notably absent from the biographies I found.
Piano Quartet No. 1 saw the light in 1952. After 1945 Poland became part of the Soviet sphere of influence and all artists had to embrace at least officially the cultural doctrine of “Socialist Realism” – music illustrating the relentless progress (and success!) of worldwide Communism and the hard work of ordinary people to achieve this. Thomas explains that Bacewicz’ music grew more introverted than it was before the war, which may be explained partly by the political environment.
Bacewicz’ early musical language has been called neo-classical and was characterized by a very French extravaganza. She rejected this after World War II, disregarded traditional classical structures and developed an idiom of her own. She used folk themes and occasionally 12-tone-serialism*. Thomas writes that she had “to recognize the emergence of a new generation of younger composers and an influx of avant-garde influences from abroad”. Thomas alludes to Western Europe – György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, to name but a few – and the United States with composer like John Cage, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
The Polish composer wrote many symphonies, quartets, songs, works for solo piano and for piano and violin – so much more compositions to be discovered. Each time I stumble over a composer I did not know yet, a very distinct impatience takes possession of my mind. On my long journey though centuries of classical music, there is nothing like an unexpected detour!
© Charles Thibo