February 5, 2009, marked the 100th birthday one of the most prominent figures among women in classical music history, Polish composer and violinist Grazyna Bacewicz. She is not well known in the United States, primarily as her career was made behind the Iron Curtain, but in Europe her name carries considerable cachet as a top Polish composer of the generation that also witnessed Witold Lutoslawski, and as a woman whose professional career in music seemed unhindered by consideration of her as belonging to the fairer sex.
Bacewicz was born in Lodz to a family so multi-national that while she is considered Polish, her older brother, composer Vytautas Bacevicius (1905-1970), is considered Lithuanian. From an early age, Bacewicz was proficient on both violin and piano and graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1932, subsequently becoming a valued pupil of Paris-based pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, upon the suggestion of her professor, Karol Szymanowski. As befits a Boulanger student of that period, and in tune with the flavor of Parisian music of the time, Bacewicz' earliest published compositions were neo-classical in style, but after World War II Bacewicz moved to a tarter and more rhythmically involved approach impacted by the influence of Bela BartÃ³k, a figure also consequential in the work of Lutoslawski. It was during these postwar years that Bacewicz came into her unique style, a blend of smart, sassy rhythms, searing lyricism, and complex treatment of comparatively simple folk elements. These proved a daunting test to virtuosi -- besides Bacewicz herself -- but also provided sheer delight to audiences captured in their spell. Although unquestionably modern in style, Bacewicz' music was rooted in the very soul of Poland.
Bacewicz won the Wieniawski Competition in Warsaw in 1935 and toured for nearly 20 years as a concert virtuoso, even during the war, playing concerts in the Warsaw underground; Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 was a work in which she specialized. When injuries in an auto accident brought that career to a definitive end in 1954, Bacewicz had already been thinking for quite some time to leave concert life and to concentrate entirely on composition. She struggled with the same issues that engulfed other artists trapped in the Soviet bloc, yet if Bacewicz suffered, it wasn't apparent either publicly or professionally. She served on numerous juries, even in Moscow (including the one that awarded the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition to Van Cliburn), and was a respected fixture at conferences throughout Eastern bloc nations, regarded as a peer by her male colleagues, even at functions where she was the only woman present. Bacewicz ran into some difficulties with the rise of international serialism, and decided not to adopt such techniques into her own music apart from a highly personal absorption of klangfarbenmelodie. "Contemporary composers," Bacewicz stated in 1964, "explain what system they used, in what way they arrived at something. I do not do that. I think that the matter of the way by which one arrived at something is, for the listeners, unimportant. What matters is the final result, which is the work itself."
Among Grazyna Bacewicz' extensive catalogue one may find four symphonies, ten concertos, seven string quartets, and numerous chamber pieces for violin, piano, and other instruments. Although Bacewicz' music has served as part of the regular classical music diet in Poland since her death in 1969, it has been slow to catch on in the West, though it began to gain ground internationally starting in the 1990s. There are still some gaps in her recognition. Although Bacewicz recorded commercially, not one of her own recordings have circulated outside Poland. However, some of her works have been recorded by other artists numerous times, and pieces such as her Polish Capriccio (1949), Violin Concerto No. 7 (1965), Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958), Violin Sonata No. 4 (1949) and Piano Sonata No. 2 (1953) are either already considered part of the standard repertory or are poised to enter it.
Piotr Plawner, violin; Ewa Kupiec, piano - Bacewicz: Oberek No. 2
Piotr Plawner, violin; Ewa Kupiec, piano - Bacewicz: Violin Sonata No. 4
Ewa Kupiec, piano - Bacewicz: Kleines Tryptichon
Witold Rowicki, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Bacewicz: Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion
Want to learn more about Grazyna Bacewicz? Visit the Polish Music Center.