Moscow 1953: Stalin dies. The Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact pay tribute to the leader of the Communist world and at least officially people are overwhelmed by sorrow. Many thousands who had suffered under Stalin’s totalitarian regime might secretly have celebrate the day. Others may have chosen to stay silent. Or to express what they felt in a more discrete way. Warsaw 1953: Grazyna Bacewicz writes her Piano Sonata No. 2. An uncomfortable work mirroring an uncomfortable time. Stalin is dead, but you cannot rejoice. Stalin’s ghost lingers on, paralysing society, inspiring fear even from his grave.
Bacewicz sonata is a remarkable work, one of my favourites. It makes me shiver and it inspires a kind of unreal fear. Oppression by an omnipresent party, a suffocated society, distrust, the fear of betrayal, misery, the vulnerability of the individual – Bacewicz expresses it in her own way in her sonata. The piece is definitely modern, inspired by the Western avant-garde, yet very different from anything composed in the free world. It is also very different from Dmitry Shostakovich’s post-war music. Where the Russian composer focused on dissonance, his Polish colleague emphasizes a very personal kind of harmony.
I admire this work. It is a piece that requires a certain mindset to be enjoyed. If you are worried about the state of world, our future, climate warming, right-wing extremism, populist politicians, the risk of war – this is the kind of mindset I have in mind. It is striking how deeply the sonata touches my soul when I reflect about these issues, when I allow myself to feel my distress and my sorrow. And I hear the legacy of Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. Bacewicz had in her earlier works a touch of French extravaganza.
Chopin was of Polish origin, while Liszt came from Hungary. Both settled down in Paris and emphasized brilliance in their piano compositions. If you listen closely, you will identify in Bacewicz’ sonata certain parts that sound like an echo of the two composers. Was Bacewicz prescient? Three years after she had composed this piece, both Poland and Hungary would show that all is not well in the Soviet empire. The thought of rebellion translated into action.
In June 1956 workers in Poznan organize in June 1956 a strike that widens into all-out protest marches. The military suppresses the revolt, 57 people die. In October 1956 Hungarians revolt against Communism, in November a new government declares Hungary will leave the Warsaw Pact and be a neutral country. The Soviet army invades Hungary and suppresses the rebellion after violent clashes with armed civilians. More than 3000 people die.
Worrying about the future challenges is not enough. You and me, we must overcome fear, leave our comfort zone and act. Freedom has a price. Past generations paid it. Nowhere is it written that our generation should get freedom for free. Bacewicz sonata is there to remind us of past sacrifices. They should not have been in vain.
Bacewicz’s Piano Sonata No. 2 has been recorded by Krystian Zimerman.
© Charles Thibo